Publication - Research and analysis

Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014: Attitudes to violence against women in Scotland

Published: 25 Nov 2015

This report presents findings from the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes survey on the attitudes of the Scottish public to the following forms of violence against women: sexual violence, domestic abuse (physical, verbal, mental and emotional), sexual harassment and commercial sexual exploitation.

Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014: Attitudes to violence against women in Scotland
1. Introduction

1. Introduction


Violence against women is the most pervasive human rights violation in the world. At the same time it poses a persistent global health and social problem with far reaching consequences for individuals, communities and society as a whole. Taking multiple and interrelated forms, violence against women occurs irrespective of ethnicity, class, religion, age, sexuality, culture and geographic region. There is now widespread international recognition that, because of a combination of interpersonal, institutional and structural factors, women experience gender-specific forms of violence that are both a cause and a consequence of gender inequalities (European Commission, 2010a).

Drawing closely on the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), the Scottish Government has adopted a broad definition of violence against women: actions which harm or cause suffering or indignity to women and children, where those carrying out the actions are mainly men and where women and children are predominantly the victims. This includes domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, commercial sexual exploitation, stalking and harassment and harmful traditional practices.

This gendered approach explicitly regards violence against women as both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality and an abuse of male power (Scottish Government, 2009). Framing violence as gender-based – that is, as violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman, or which affects women disproportionately – highlights the need to situate it within the context of women’s status in society, taking into account norms, social structures, and perceived gender roles which influence women’s vulnerability to violence.

Policy context

Understanding violence against women and how best to tackle it is a key priority for the Scottish Government and its partners. The Scottish Government’s approach clearly recognises the gendered nature of issues such as childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence at all ages, commercial sexual exploitation such as prostitution, harmful traditional practices and domestic abuse[2].

As set out in the 2009 publication ‘Safer Lives: Changed Lives’, there is a clear recognition of the cross-cutting nature of violence against women, and the need for an integrated approach which involves criminal justice, health, housing, educational and social care services (Scottish Government, 2009). Due to the way in which it has addressed the issue of domestic abuse in particular, Scotland is acknowledged as being at the international forefront of policy in this area (Coy and Kelly, 2009; Hearn and McKie, 2010).

In June 2014, the Scottish Government launched an ambitious new strategy, ‘Equally Safe’, to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls (Scottish Government, 2014a), creating a strong and flourishing Scotland where all individuals are equally safe and respected, and where women and girls live free from such abuse. The commitments outlined in Equally Safe are underpinned by international treaties and human rights obligations which are shared by other countries. Yet, even bearing in mind these international developments, Scotland’s approach is considered particularly progressive.

A key element of Equally Safe is addressing attitudes towards, and strengthening understanding of violence against women. Problematic attitudes that justify, excuse, minimise or trivialise violence against women, or blame them, or hold them at least partly responsible for violence enacted towards them are regarded as a central cause for concern. Attitudes play a role in both the perpetration of and responses to violence against women and for these reasons understanding public attitudes are a key part of strategies to prevent violence. Strengthening understanding of the prevalence, nature, dynamics and causes of violence against women, and legal responses to it, are important both to ensure appropriate responses to those affected by violence and to facilitate wide community engagement in preventing the problem of violence against women.

The relationship between attitudes held by an individual and their behaviour is not always straightforward. However, attitudes held by many individuals, or by powerful individuals, potentially shape broader social norms, which in turn do influence behaviour. Public attitudes can also provide a culture of support for violence by justifying or excusing it, trivialising or minimising the problem, or shifting responsibility for violent behaviour from perpetrator to victim-survivor. Importantly, attitudes can be seen as a ‘barometer’ of how societies, as well as particular groups, are faring in relation to violence against women.

Research context

Surveys of views and attitudes towards violence against women undertaken in several countries, including Scotland, reveal that such violence is thought to be relatively common. For example, respondents in a recent European survey were asked how common they consider violence against women perpetrated by partners, acquaintances or strangers to be in their country of residence; on average 27% considered it to be very common and 52% considered it to be fairly common (FRA, 2014: p152). These results generally corroborate the findings of the 2010 EU Special Eurobarometer survey on perceptions of domestic violence against women, which showed that 32% of women in the EU consider domestic violence to be very common and 51% consider it fairly common. Moreover, according to the Eurobarometer results, an overwhelming majority (84%) of both men and women thought that violence against women was unacceptable (European Commission, 2010b: p43).

However, surveys of attitudes towards violence against women frequently yield sobering findings. Research undertaken for the Scottish Government found that 26% of respondents believed that a woman is at least partly responsible if she is raped when she is drunk; 21% thought that a woman bore some responsibility if she wore revealing clothing; 19% said that if she was flirting and then raped she held some responsibility; and 13% believed that rape can be partly the responsibility of the woman if she is known to have had many sexual partners (MRUK, 2009). Similarly, research commissioned by Rape Crisis Scotland (2007) revealed that 26% of those questioned agreed that women contribute to being raped if they are drunk.

To date, surveys on violence against women in Scotland have focused primarily on attitudes towards domestic abuse and rape. Consequently, there is limited information on people’s views about other forms of violence against women, such as sexual harassment and commercial sexual exploitation. The research presented in this report is an attempt to address this gap and to provide a baseline measure of views about violence against women in Scotland against which progress towards the objectives outlined in Equally Safe can be assessed. It draws on analysis of a specific module on violence against women in the 2014 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey.

Measuring, understanding and, crucially, strengthening community attitudes, knowledge and responses towards violence against women is important if the objectives of Equally Safe are to be achieved. First, given the link between attitudes and the social norms underpinning violence against women, strengthening knowledge and attitudes is important for securing societal change to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. Meanwhile, because attitudes reflect broader social norms and cultures, they are also an indicator of progress in addressing violence against women.

Report structure

The remainder of this report is structured as follows:

Chapter 2 examines attitudes to sexual violence as revealed by respondents’ reactions to scenarios describing a man raping a stranger and rape within a marriage. It also explores attitudes to myths about rape and whether people believe women are to blame for being raped in certain situations.

Chapter 3 discusses attitudes to domestic abuse, focusing on physical abuse. It explores, in particular, people’s views on whether the victim should forgive their partner for physical abuse and whether it makes any difference if the victim has had an affair.

Chapter 4 is again on domestic abuse but focuses on verbal abuse, coercive and controlling behaviour. It includes scenarios about regularly criticising a partner, controlling where someone can go, what someone wears and financial control.

Chapter 5 discusses a range of different types of sexual harassment: behaviour in the workplace, wolf-whistling, stalking and posting naked photos online of an ex-partner.

Chapter 6 covers attitudes to various forms of commercial sexual exploitation, including pornography, strip clubs and attitudes to prostitution.

Types of question used in the survey

Collecting data on attitudes to violence against women is not straightforward: we wanted to capture people’s views about particular behaviours, rather than their response to the terms commonly used to describe violence against women e.g. domestic abuse, rape, etc. In other words, we wanted to establish whether people felt that particular behaviours were abusive in the first instance. The survey, therefore, made extensive use of ‘vignettes’ – scenarios that describe particular situations. After each description respondents were asked how wrong they thought the behaviour of the perpetrator was and how much harm the behaviour did to the victim. In asking about the behaviour of the perpetrator a 7-point ‘wrong’ scale was used. Specifically, respondents viewed the following scale on the screen


and were asked, ‘Please choose the number which best describes what you think about the man’s/woman’s behaviour’.

The report uses two conventions to describe people’s responses using the above ‘wrong’ scale. First, the report describes the proportion who chose the end points of the scale that are labelled ‘very seriously wrong’ or ‘not wrong at all’. Alternatively, the three points at the top of the scale (5, 6, and 7) were combined and those who chose either 5, 6 or 7 on the scale are described as thinking that the behaviour is ‘seriously wrong’.

The survey also included three questions intended to help us better understand why people hold the views they do. These were (a) a question designed to elicit whether people had personal experience of gender-based violence and (b) a pair of questions designed to elicit whether people held stereotypical views of gender roles. Those with personal experience of abuse might be expected to be more likely to regard a behaviour as abusive and harmful. In contrast, those with more stereotypical views of gender roles might be thought more willing to tolerate situations in which a man exercises control over a woman.

Respondents were asked whether they had ever experienced any of the abusive situations described in Table 1.1 , each of which refers to a behaviour described in one or more of the scenarios in the survey. Overall, 31% said they had experienced at least one of these types of behaviour. The most commonly experienced form of abuse, experienced by 14%, was being in a relationship where they felt their partner, husband or wife was ‘regularly trying to stop them doing what they wanted to do’.

Table 1.1 Experience of gender-based violence

Been in a relationship where you felt your partner/husband/wife was regularly trying to stop you doing what you wanted to do 14%
Been regularly verbally abused, put down or criticised by a partner, husband or wife 12%
Been physically attacked or abused by a partner, husband or wife 11%
Had unwanted sexual contact (e.g. sexual assault, rape) 7%
Been a victim of stalking 5%
Been touched inappropriately by a boss or colleague 5%
No, none of these 69%
Don’t know/ refused 2%
Weighted bases 1433
Unweighted bases 1428

Base: All who completed the self-completion

The survey included two questions designed to measure whether people hold stereotypical views about gender roles. The first asked respondents what they would do if they took a 3 year old boy to a shop to buy a toy and he picked up a princess doll. The second posed the same question if a 3 year old girl chose a toy truck. In both cases, the answer options were:

  • Buy it for him/her without saying anything
  • Buy it, but first try to get him/her to pick a toy that’s more common for boys/girls
  • Make him/her put the doll/truck back and pick a toy more common for boys/girls

Table 1.2 shows that while just over half (52%) said that they would buy the girl a toy truck without saying anything, only two in five (40%) said the same about buying the doll for the boy. Conversely, more people would make the boy put the princess doll back (24%) than would make the girl put the toy truck back (14%). As the question about the boy is the one that appears the more likely to reveal a stereotypical outlook on gender roles, it is that question which we rely on in this report to assess whether there is a relationship between having such an outlook and attitudes towards the various behaviours outlined in the scenarios.

Table 1.2 Attitudes to gender roles

Boy wanting a princess doll Girl wanting a toy truck
Buy it for him/her without saying anything 40% 52%
Buy it, but first try to get him/her to pick a toy that’s more common for boys/girls 35% 33%
Make him/her put it back and pick a toy more common for boys/girls 24% 14%
Don’t know/ refused 1% 1%
Weighted bases 1433 1433
Unweighted bases 1428 1428

Base: All who completed the self-completion

About the data

The Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) was established in 1999 by ScotCen Social Research, an independent research organisation based in Edinburgh and part of NatCen Social Research, the UK’s largest independent social research agency. The survey, which is conducted annually, provides robust data on changing social and political attitudes in Scotland with the aim of informing both public policy and academic study.

Each year around 1,500 face-to-face interviews are conducted (1,501 in 2014) with a representative probability sample of the Scottish population. Interviews are conducted in respondents’ homes, using computer assisted personal interviewing. Most of the interview is conducted face-to-face by a ScotCen interviewer, but some questions are asked in a self-completion section. Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, all of the questions on violence against women were included in the self-completion section[3].

The response rate in 2014 was 54%. The data are weighted to correct for over-sampling, non-response bias and to ensure they reflect the sex-age profile of the Scottish population. All the sample sizes shown below the charts and tables represent the unweighted number of respondents on which those percentages are based. Further technical details about the survey are included in Annex B and full tables for all questions covered in this report are shown in Annex A.

Analysis and reporting conventions

All percentages cited in this report are based on the weighted data (see Annex B for details) and are rounded to the nearest whole number. All differences described in the text (between years, or between different groups of people) are statistically significant at the 95% level or above, unless otherwise specified. This means that the probability of having found a difference of at least this size, if there was no actual difference in the population, is 5% or less. The term ‘significant’ is used in this report to refer to statistical significance, and is not intended to imply substantive importance. Further details of significance testing and multivariate analysis conducted for this report are included in Annex B.


Email: Alison Stout