Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2019: attitudes to violence against women

Findings from the 2019 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.

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Chapter 1 - Introduction

Violence against women and girls is one of the most prevalent human rights violations globally, directly affecting around one in three women and girls around the world (ActionAid, 2020). The Scottish Government adopts a broad definition of violence against women and girls which ties in with the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (OCHCR, 1993). The definition refers to 'a range of actions that harm, or cause suffering and indignity to, women and children' (Scottish Government, 2020), including:

  • physical, sexual and psychological violence in the family, general community or institutions. This includes domestic abuse, rape, incest and child sexual abuse
  • sexual harassment and intimidation at work and in public
  • commercial sexual exploitation including prostitution, pornography and trafficking
  • so called 'honour based' violence, including dowry-related violence, female genital mutilation, forced and child marriages and 'honour' crimes.

Each of the forms of violence incorporated within the Scottish Government definition represent 'forms of control and abuse of power' (COSLA, 2010). They are often perpetrated by the same men, with many women experiencing more than one type of violence (Greenan, 2004).

Violence against women and girls is widely recognised as intrinsically linked with inequalities between women and men (OCHCR, 1993), with such violence viewed as both a cause and a consequence of gender-based inequalities (European Commission, 2010) - a perspective adopted by the Scottish Government (Orr, 2007). Recognising violence against women and girls as gender-based highlights the need to see such violence in the context of social structures and perceived gender roles (COSLA, 2010). It also positions violence against women and girls as an issue which the Scottish Government is legally required to act upon as a result of section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 which imposes a duty on public bodies to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment and promote equality of opportunity between men and women.

Policy initiatives

In 2009 the Scottish Government published 'Safer Lives: Changed Lives' (Scottish Government, 2009), which recommended an integrated approach to tackling violence against women and girls involving collaboration between health, education, social care and criminal justice services. This approach is reflected in the Scottish Government's 'Equally Safe' strategy (Scottish Government, 2016), which aims 'to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls' by providing a framework for change across four overarching priorities:

  • Scottish society embraces equality and mutual respect, and rejects all forms of violence against women and girls
  • Women and girls thrive as equal citizens: socially, culturally, economically and politically
  • Interventions are early and effective, preventing violence and maximising the safety and wellbeing of women, children and young people
  • Men desist from all forms of violence against women and girls and perpetrators of such violence receive a robust and effective response

The Equally Safe Delivery Plan (Scottish Government, 2017) helps to ensure the ambitions of the Equally Safe Strategy are realised and make a tangible difference. There have been a number of initiatives which have been important in fostering attitudinal change. For instance, the Scottish Government, with key partners, have developed a set of key messages on healthy relationships and consent for anyone working with young people. Other initiatives have included piloting a 'whole school' approach to tackling gender-based violence, awareness raising campaigns and expanding the delivery of national sexual violence prevention programmes.

Legislative developments

A number of key legislative developments have also taken place in this area. The Abusive Behaviour and Sexual Harm (Scotland) Act 2016 introduced into legislation for the first time in Scotland the issue of psychological harm as well as physical harm, with any intent to cause either or both recognised as a form of aggravated assault (SCSN, 2016). In addition, the Act created a new offence of disclosing, or threatening to disclose, a photograph or film that appears to show another person in an intimate situation. Following from the publication of the Equally Safe strategy (Scottish Government, 2016) and drawing upon the concept of coercive control (Burman and Brooks-Hay, 2018), the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 includes behaviours which were already criminal and behaviours which were not previously defined as criminal into a single offence. The Act covers a range of behaviours that can comprise a pattern of partner abuse, including physical, psychological and financial abuse. On 5 October 2020, a new Domestic Abuse (Protection) (Scotland) Bill was published (Scottish Parliament, 2020b). If passed by Parliament, this would bring in legal powers to have suspected abusers removed from a victim's home, and give social landlords the ability to transfer a tenancy from a perpetrator to the victim of domestic abuse to prevent them becoming homeless.

Meanwhile, the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Act 2020 provides additional protection for women and girls at risk from FGM. Under the new legislation, anyone will be able to apply for a protection order if they have concerns that someone is at risk (Scottish Parliament, 2020a).

A further legal development is the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill which was introduced in November 2019 and passed stage one of the legislative process in October 2020. The Bill will enable victims of sexual offences to access healthcare and refer themselves for a forensic medical examination without having to go to the police (Scottish Parliament, 2019).

Survey research

Since 2008, the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) has included questions on partner abuse within its self-completion module. The survey asks respondents about their experiences of both physical and psychological partner abuse, both since the age of 16 and in the 12 months prior to interview. SCJS provides robust time series data on partner abuse, enabling an assessment of how trends in abusive behaviour have changed and developed over the last decade in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2019a).

In 2018-19, Police Scotland recorded around 61,000 incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland. More than 4 in 5 incidents (82%) involved a female victim and a male accused (Scottish Government, 2020a). The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) 2016/18 reported 3% of respondents who had a partner, or had contact with an ex-partner, reporting partner abuse (either psychological or physical) in the previous 12 months. Overall, 16% had experienced either psychological or physical abuse at some time since the age of 16 with psychological abuse being more commonly reported than physical abuse; 14% reporting ever having experienced psychological abuse from a partner, 10% ever having experienced physical abuse and 8% having reported experiencing both psychological and physical abuse (Scottish Government, 2019b).

While measuring the prevalence of abusive behaviour represents a vital pillar in the design of policy and practice in this area, understanding public attitudes represents another. This is explicitly recognised within the Equally Safe strategy, which asserts that in order to achieve 'a strong and flourishing Scotland where all individuals are equally safe and respected, and where women and girls live free from all forms of violence and abuse', there is a requirement to understand and change the attitudes that help perpetuate such violence (Scottish Government, 2016).

The Equally Safe Delivery Plan (Scottish Government, 2017) notes that 'there is increased consensus that the roots of violence against women and girls lie in the attitudes and inequalities that continue to permeate society, and that we will only make progress if we tackle outdated gender stereotypes and we tackle women's inequality'. It states that evidence about public attitudes that underpin violence helps to both inform interventions and to understand the current position in Scotland and what progress is being made.

In 2014, the Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) included a module of questions on public attitudes to violence against women in Scotland (Reid et al, 2015). This research was designed to fill a gap in the evidence base on attitudes in Scotland towards various forms of violence against women, and to provide a baseline measure of views about violence against women in Scotland against which progress towards the objectives outlined in Equally Safe could be assessed. The Equally Safe Delivery Plan sets out priority actions being taken in response to the findings from this research.

This report presents findings from the SSA 2019 module on attitudes towards violence against women. Building on the findings of the 2014 survey, the majority of questions in the 2019 module were repeated from 2014, allowing us to track how attitudes in Scotland have (or have not) shifted during the course of the past five years. Findings from the 2019 survey will be included in future updates to the indicators for the Equally Safe Delivery Plan and will inform future work to tackle violence against women and girls in Scotland.

There have been some changes in the context within which issues around violence against women have been discussed since the SSA 2014 survey, including prominent movements such as #MeToo, campaigns led by public and third sector organisations in Scotland, including publicising new offences around the posting of intimate images without consent, and the changing nature of social media. SSA 2019 therefore also carried a range of new questions intended to gauge attitudes towards forms of violence against women that were not asked about in 2014, providing for the first time a measure of attitudes in Scotland towards the nature and effect of various forms of commercial sexual exploitation, coercive control, misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Methodology and analysis

Run annually by the Scottish Centre for Social Research since 1999, SSA is a face-to-face survey with a computer-assisted self-completion (CASI) section, which uses a random sample of all those aged 16 and over living anywhere in Scotland (including the Highlands and islands). Fieldwork for SSA 2019 began on 30 August 2019 and ceased on 18 March 2020, slightly earlier than planned due to the COVID-19 outbreak.[1] A pause in fieldwork took place for five weeks between 6 November 2019 and 12 December 2019 inclusive due to the General Election.

Due to their sensitive nature, the entirety of the module of questions on attitudes towards violence against women was carried on the CASI section of the interview. This also served to minimise social desirability bias by removing the requirement for respondents to share their answers with an interviewer.[2]

The SSA 2019 sample size was 1,022 completed interviews with an overall response rate of 41%, from an issued sample of 2,790 addresses.[3] Of those 1,022 respondents, 959 completed the CASI component. To enable direct comparison with the data collected by SSA in 2014, those aged 16 and 17 have been excluded from this analysis, reducing this number to 952. Data are weighted in order to correct for non-response bias and over-sampling, and to ensure that they reflect the age-sex profile of the Scottish population. Further technical details about the survey are published in a separate SSA 2019 technical report (Scottish Government, 2019c).

All percentages cited in this report are based on the weighted data and are rounded to the nearest whole number. A percentage may be quoted in the text for a single category that aggregates two or more of the percentages shown in a table. The percentage for the single category may, because of rounding, differ by one percentage point from the sum of the percentages in the table. Differences shown in this publication are calculated using unrounded figures and may differ from the rounded figures shown in the text.

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 analysis are included in the separate technical report.

The report explores how attitudes vary by a range of different population characteristics including gender, age, relationship status, and religious identity. However, it is not possible using SSA data to explore differences by ethnicity or sexual orientation, due to the sample size of the survey and the relatively low prevalence of people of minority ethnicities or those not identifying as heterosexual within the Scottish population.

Question design

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 rather than being influenced in their answers by descriptors that are recognised as indicating condoned behaviour. The development of the questionnaire for this survey involved ongoing consultation on topics and question wording with both the Scottish Government and relevant stakeholders, and in addition two rounds of testing: 15 cognitive interviews and 50 face-to-face pilot interviews with members of the public.

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 in addition after some of the scenarios they were asked how much harm they thought 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'.

7-point 'wrong' scale

In 2019, questions used to elicit attitudes to domestic abuse were based on a number of different scenarios covering different types of domestic abuse.[4] While domestic abuse can occur between partners or ex-partners regardless of whether they are married, cohabiting, or neither and regardless of gender, all the scenarios included in the survey asked respondents to consider a single type of relationship: a married, opposite-sex couple. Marriage was chosen as a proxy for people in a relationship since it is widely recognised and is well-understood across the population. And although behaviours such as these can take place in all forms of relationship, an opposite-sex couple was chosen to enable exploration of views on gender-based violence. Asking people to consider one single relationship type across a range of scenarios also ensures that any observed differences in attitudes to domestic abuse are due to views about the differing behaviours, and not attitudes to different types of relationship.

Factors influencing attitudes: whether people hold stereotypical views on gender roles and experience of gender-based violence

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 on 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 on gender roles might be thought more willing to tolerate misogynistic views or 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. This question is not designed to collect data on experience of gender-based violence in the Scottish population, which is already collected in the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (see Survey research section above), but rather is designed to be used in the analysis of the views on the five specific areas of gender-based violence that are explored in this report.

SSA 2019 found that overall, 32% of people said they had experienced at least one of these types of behaviour. The most commonly experienced form of abuse, experienced by 15%, 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'. This was closely followed by being 'regularly verbally abused, put down or criticised by a partner, husband or wife', experienced by 14%. These findings were similar to those recorded in SSA 2014, where overall 31% said they had experienced at least one of these types of behaviour and the two most commonly experienced forms of abuse were the same as in 2019.

Table 1.1: Experiences of gender-based violence (%)
2014 2019
Been in a relationship where you felt your partner/husband/wife was regularly trying to stop you doing what you wanted to do 14 15
Been regularly verbally abused, put down or criticised by a partner, husband or wife 12 14
Been physically attacked or abused by a partner, husband or wife 11 11
Had unwanted sexual contact (e.g. sexual assault, rape) 7 11
Been touched inappropriately by a boss or colleague 5 8
Been a victim of stalking (either in person or online) 5 6
No, none of these 69 68
Don't know/Refused 2 2
Unweighted base 1,428 952

Base: All respondents who completed the self-completion

The survey included two questions designed to measure whether people held stereotypical views on 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 almost 7 in 10 (69%) said that they would buy the girl a toy truck without saying anything, just under 6 in 10 (58%) said the same about buying the doll for the boy.

Attitudes in this area appear to have shifted considerably since 2014, when just over half (52%) indicated that they would buy the girl a toy truck without saying anything and just two-fifths (40%) said the same about buying the doll for the boy. Nevertheless, the question about the boy continues to be the more likely to reveal a stereotypical outlook on gender roles. Thus, 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. Unless otherwise indicated, those described in this report as 'holding stereotypical views on gender roles' are those who have stated that they would 'make him (the boy) put it (a princess doll) back and pick a toy more common for boys' and those described as 'not holding stereotypical views on gender roles' have stated that they would 'buy it (a princess doll) for him without saying anything'.

Table 1.2: Attitudes to gender roles
Boy wanting a princess doll (%) Girl wanting a toy truck (%)
2014 2019 2014 2019
Buy it for him/her without saying anything 40 58 52 69
Buy it, but first try to get him/her to pick a toy that's more common for boys/girls 35 28 33 22
Make him/her put it back and pick a toy more common for boys/girls 24 13 14 7
Don't know/Refused 1 1 1 1
Unweighted base 1,428 952 1,428 952

Base: All respondents who completed the self-completion



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