Domestic abuse: ONS denies it is victim blaming by asking survivors if they were drunk when they were abused

Exclusive: the government statistics body has also been accused of victim blaming after it emerged it publishes data on how many times victims of partner abuse go to nightclubs and pubs.

The Office for National Statistics says asking victims about their alcohol consumption and nightlife habits is necessary to “better understand how different lifestyle factors can relate to a range of crimes and experiences”

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has denied it is victim blaming after it emerged it asks survivors of domestic abuse whether they were drunk at the time they were abused.

Every year the ONS conducts its Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), considered a definitive source for measuring the prevalence of crime in society – particularly those that are likely under-reported to the police such as sexual and domestic abuse.

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But it has emerged that the government statistics body has been quizzing domestic abuse victims on their drug and alcohol consumption, and publishing data on the number of monthly visits they pay to clubs, pubs and bars.

Its actions have been branded as “victim blaming” by one expert, who said it demonstrated a lack of understanding about the crime.

Every three years, the ONS asks a specific set of questions on ‘partner abuse’, during which victims are asked “were you under the influence of drink at the time of the incident?”.

This follows a series of searching questions about the physical, emotional and sexual violence, abuse and threats the victim had endured at the hands of a partner over the past 12 months. The questions were last asked in 2017-18.

When raised by NationalWorld, an ONS spokesperson said the questions were necessary to “better understand how different lifestyle factors can relate to a range of crimes and experiences” – whilst simultaneously denying it was engaging in victim blaming.

But Dr Jessica Taylor, a chartered psychologist and founder of VictimFocus, which promotes “trauma informed” research on abuse and violence, said the questioning did constitute victim blaming, and would likely have a negative impact on those surveyed.

“Why is it even relevant if someone has been drinking?” she said.

“Most obviously it will cause victims to question themselves and why they are being asked that, whether they are to blame.

“If I was in that position I would question why I’m being asked that. They would instantly worry about if they are being questioned about if they were drunk, if they are telling the truth, if they can remember properly.”

Dr Jessica Taylor, a psychologist and founder of VictimFocus, says the ONS’s questions will cause victims to worry they won’t be believed

Dr Taylor called on the ONS to redevelop its questioning with input from trauma experts.

“Some of the things they are asking about are directly related to psychological trauma,” she said.

“They can’t be coming at it from just a statistical approach.”

The ONS told NationalWorld it already “regularly” consults with academics, charities and support services, and is currently reviewing its domestic abuse questions.

Sarah Davidge, research and evaluation manager at domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, said: “Alcohol and drugs do not cause domestic abuse – only perpetrators are responsible for their actions and abuse of any kind is never the victim’s fault.

“We welcome the commitment the ONS has shown in working with us and other key stakeholders to improve how the Crime Survey for England and Wales addresses domestic abuse.”

NationalWorld has also raised the issue of the ONS publishing data on victims’ nightlife habits.

All participants in the crime survey are asked background questions about how often they visit nightclubs, pubs and bars, which are later cross-referenced against their answers on the crimes they have or have not experienced.

The respondents are told the questions “help us to understand how people’s behaviour influences their experience of crime”.

In 2020 the nightlife results were published as one of 14 key victim characteristics against which domestic abuse prevalence is measured, alongside demographic data such as age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability.

The data would seem to suggest women who visit nightclubs are up to twice as likely to experience domestic abuse at the hands of a partner than those who do not.

Male nightclub visitors were 1.8 times more likely than non-visitors to experience abuse.

Prevalence was also higher among victims who spent some evenings in pubs or bars.

“It’s a false correlation,” Dr Taylor said. “We could ask them how often they eat cucumbers and we could find a correlation.

“The reality is if you’re going to include these questions you’ll find correlation, especially in actions that are common across the population.

“Millions of people drink alcohol and go out, it’s a socially acceptable and common activity.

“You will find a correlation, and the correlation will be used to victim blame.”

The ONS previously acknowledged a correlation between womens’ visits to nightclubs and a higher likelihood of having experienced sexual assault may be driven by age alone, with younger women both more likely to visit nightclubs and to have been assaulted in their recent lives.

It told NationalWorld it had recently reviewed the range of victim characteristics data it published, and added nightlife responses to the domestic abuse publication to make it consistent with those on other kinds of crime.

In response, Dr Taylor said: “Most domestic abuse happens at home and by a partner. It’s nothing to do with nightclubs and drinking.

“They can play it off all they want but what this comes down to is old fashioned victimology, that crime is related to the night time economy.

“They say it’s for consistency but I don’t think this is being asked about for burglaries and child abuse.”

An ONS spokesperson said: “Under no circumstances do we ever imply causality or suggest a victim is to blame for a crime, nor do we do anything to identify any individual.

“The Crime Survey for England and Wales is a hugely important means for policymakers to understand the true level of crime.

“The crucial value of the survey is its ability to find out about crimes which do not get reported to, or recorded by, the police.

“It is important to consider characteristics of both victim and offender across all crimes to better understand how different lifestyle factors can relate to a range of crimes and experiences.”

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