Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 7/8, October 2005 (
Community-based Norms About Intimate Partner Violence:
Putting Attributions of Fault and Responsibility into Context
Catherine A. Taylor
and Susan B. Sorenson
Fault and responsibility are key concepts in understanding how victims and assailants are,
or are not, held accountable by society. We used a fractional factorial vignette design with
a community-residing sample of 3,679 adults to examine judgments about intimate partner
violence (IPV). Although fault, or causal responsibility, was assigned most often to assailants
(69%), respondents assigned solution responsibility most often to both persons (52%) or to
the victim alone (31%): interpersonal communication for couples (38%) and self-protective
actions for victims (i.e., engaging formal authorities [12%] and/or leaving the assailant [11%])
were the most frequent suggestions. Potential injury to the victim and gender/relationship-
based norms had the greatest impact on judgments. Findings may inform strategies to alter
social norms regarding IPV.
KEY WORDS: social norms; intimate partner violence; fault; responsibility; solution.
Despite the fact that formal, written social
norms (i.e., laws and policies) against intimate part-
ner violence (IPV) have existed in the United States
for more than a century (Pleck, 2004), IPV remains
a common occurrence (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000).
This is not necessarily surprising given that IPV typ-
ically occurs in private and may often escape the
detection of law enforcement authorities. Unfortu-
nately, when formal intervention does not occur,
the perceived costs of IPV may not outweigh the
perceived beneﬁts for the assailant, making it more
likely that the abuse will continue (Gelles, 1983). The
beneﬁts of IPV may seem especially salient for per-
petrators who gain power and control in the relation-
ship, make negative attributions about their partner’s
behavior, justify their use of violence, and are gener-
ally unaware that their behavior is wrong (Brownlee
& Chlebovec, 2004; Moore, Eisler, & Franchina,
Columbia University School of Social Work, New York.
UCLA School of Public Health, Department of Community
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Tulane School
of Public Health & Tropical Medicine, 1440 Canal Street, New
Orleans, LA 70112; e-mail: email@example.com.
2000). Moreover, the perceived costs of arrest are
likely to be lowered when perceptions of privacy, re-
lationship power, and approval of IPV are high for
the assailant (Williams, 1992). Given the limitations
of formal sanctions against IPV (e.g., Jackson et al.,
2003; Maxwell, Garner, & Fagan, 2001), it is impor-
tant to consider alternative prevention strategies.
To this end, informal social norms (i.e., collec-
tive social judgments about what is right, wrong,
and expected behavior) regarding IPV should not
be ignored. Informal norms operate through both
the perceived and real judgments of fellow citizens,
family, and friends, regarding how one ought to act
(Deutsch & Gerard, 1955). According to Smithey
and Straus (2004): “Research on deterrence theory
suggests that primary prevention focused on infor-
mal sanctions, i.e., increasing the extent to which
IPV is scorned and disapproved by peers, may be
more effective than the current focus on increasing
perception of criminal penalties for IPV” (p. 257).
For example, the perceived social costs of arrest,
such as the potential loss of one’s partner and loss
of respect from friends and loved ones, are a sig-
niﬁcant deterrent of IPV (Williams & Hawkins,
2005 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.