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Types of Offenders

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the field of IPV went in a different direction than the research by those who study and treat child abuse and neglect. Up until the mid-1990s, the study of offenders assumed that the greater the risk factors and the fewer the protective factors, the more an offender would be violent and abusive. Said another way, the assumption was that offenders would differ only by degree and not in kind. Following from this assumption, if one could decrease risk factors or increase protective factors, the escalation of violence could be deterred or even stopped.

Michael Johnson (1995), however, pointed out that most IPV was relatively minor—pushes and slaps—and the majority of violent men never escalated to more severe or even lethal forms of violence. Johnson labeled the minor violence “Common Couple Violence” and referred to the severe violence (choking, beating, using a weapon) as “Intimate Terrorism.”

At the same time as Johnson published his theoretical argument, Neil Jacobson and John Gottman (Gottman et al., 1995) published the results of their laboratory experiments. Gottman and his colleagues recruited couples in which the male reported engaging in an act of physical violence toward his partner. The couples were subjected to a stressful event in the laboratory, and the researchers monitored the heart rate activity as the experiment moved from an “eyes closed” baseline to a conflictual interaction. The majority of men’s heart rates increased with the increase in conflict. However, a second and smaller group of men’s heart rates decreased. The men whose heart rates decreased were labeled “Type I” and were also called “Vagal Reactors.” The Type I men reported higher levels of severe and emotional violence compared to the “Type II” men, whose heart rates increased during the conflict. Gottman and Jacobson not only differentiated types of violent men, they also linked the type to differences in brain and neurological traits.

Numerous other researchers followed the path of Johnson, Jacobson, and Gottman. Edward Gondolf (1988) had previously developed typologies from interviews with 6,000 women who experienced violence over an 18-month period. Gondolf labeled his types: Type I, the sociopathic batterer, distinguished by high levels of physical and emotional abuse; Type II, the antisocial batter, who is less violent and less likely to be arrested; and Type III, the typical batterer, who uses the least severe physical and emotional abuse. Other scholars who developed typology approaches included Holtzworth-Munroe and Stuart (1994) and Hamberger and his colleagues (1996). Mary Cavanaugh and I (2005) synthesized the research on violent typologies and developed a three-typology model of violent offenders (see Chapter 1, Table 1.1).

The “Low-Risk Batterer” engages in fewer acts of violence and less severe violence, presents with little or no psychopathology, and has no criminal history. “Moderate-Risk Offenders” are, as the name suggests, moderate in frequency and severity. Moderate-r isk offenders have moderate to high psychopathology, with a tendency toward presenting with borderline personality disorders. Finally, the “High-Risk” abuser is high in both severity and frequency of abuse, presents with high levels of psychopathology, and has a criminal history. The high-risk offender does not confine his violence to intimate partners.

The typology approach to IPV has obvious implications for policy and practice. First, if offenders differ by type and not degree, a one-size-fits-all intervention is not likely to be effective across the range of offenders. What might deter a “low-risk” offender might be totally ineffective with the other two types of offenders. Second, interventions designed to create a “firewall” to prevent violent escalation may be the wrong approach. An intervention that first determines what type of offender someone is will be more appropriate than assuming all offenders are likely to escalate to severe or even fatal abuse.

Lastly, the idea that there are different types of offenders may influence how the social problem of intimate violence is framed. The typical framing that every man is capable of being an offender and every man is capable of escalating his violence and abuse directs us to intervening even when the violence is minor and infrequent. As toxic as any form of violence may be to the victim and family, it might be better to reserve our resources for the most dangerous offenders. Evan Stark, who began his career with the “every man can be violent” frame, revised his approach in light of the research on typologies and now argues that our best policy and use of resources is to target the truly dangerous offenders and vulnerable victims (Stark, 2007).

Of course, nearly all of the research and conceptualizations on types of violent offenders are based on data gathered on male-to-female violence in heterosexual relationships. We do not know whether the typologies are applicable to other forms of IPV.

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