Women’s Aid research on intimate relationship abuse and young people aged 18 to 25 in Ireland
In 2020 and 2021 Women’s Aid, in collaboration with RedC, completed two nationally representative studies1 on intimate relationship abuse. Based on the findings of these studies, Women’s Aid published two reports, One in Five Young Women Suffer Intimate Relationship Abuse in Ireland and Yes It’s Abuse: Young people’s understanding of & attitudes to intimate relationship abuse. Highlighted below are some of the key findings from these studies.
Over half (3 in 5) young people have been subjected to, or know someone who has been subjected to, intimate relationship abuse.
1 in 5 young women and 1 in 11 young men in Ireland have suffered intimate relationship abuse.
In all cases where women were subjected to intimate relationship abuse, this abuse was perpetrated by a current or former intimate male partner.
For young women the abuse lasted, on average, 1.4 years.
1 in 6 young women and 1 in 13 young men have been subjected to coercive control by a partner or ex-partner. Coercive control is a persistent pattern of controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour by a current or former partner or spouse.
51% of young women affected first experienced the abuse under the age of 18.
Of the 1 in 5 young women who experienced intimate relationship abuse:
Emotional abuse was the most prominent form. 9 out of 10 young women were subjected to emotional abuse. Sustained emotional abuse can have even more serious and long-term impacts than physical abuse.
3 in 4 were sexually coerced. Over half (51%) were sexually assaulted and 27% were raped. It is harder for women who are being abused by their partner to consent and negotiate a free and equal sexual relationship with that partner.
1 in 2 were threatened with physical violence. 1 in 2 experienced ‘less severe’ physical abuse e.g. slapping, shoving. 1 in 3 had experienced more ‘severe’ forms of physical abuse e.g. punching, choking, burning.
Almost 1 in 3 were subjected to financial abuse. By controlling a woman’s access to economic resources, an abuser can ensure that she is forced to choose between staying in an abusive relationship or facing extreme poverty.
1 in 2 had been targeted with online abuse which was described as ‘draining’ and ‘exhausting’. Over half (55%) were stalked and/or harassed.
Of the young women who were abused 84% said that the abuse had a severe impact including loss of self-esteem, anxiety and depression, withdrawal from family and friends, giving up work or college, suicidal thoughts/attempting suicide, needing treatment for physical injuries, and living in fear.
The impact of abuse can be severe, long lasting and life changing for young women. Abusive partners can prey on vulnerabilities and a controlling or violent partner can cause a huge setback at the beginning of their adult life.
Understanding of Abuse
41% of young people believe that women are most commonly victims of abuse, 29% did not believe this. A ‘gender neutral’ analysis was also articulated in the focus groups, particularly amongst young men. This contradicts established international evidence including our own national findings, which showed that intimate relationship abuse against women is much more common, with 1 in 5 young women compared to 1 in 11 young men having suffered abuse by a current or former partner.
Young people have some misconceptions around the causes of intimate relationship abuse. For example: the majority (81%) of young people believe that drug and alcohol misuse cause someone to act abusively towards their partner. While drugs and alcohol can exacerbate abuse – they are not the cause of abusive behaviours. Studies show that even when using alcohol or drugs abusers can still exercise control by targeting their partner specifically and not others.
Young people also tried to justify abusive behaviours as legitimate to ensure trust in the relationship. Young people believed that insecurity (65%) and jealousy (64%) would cause someone to act abusively towards their intimate partner. Insecurity is not an excuse for acting abusively towards a partner, many people can feel insecure and not behave abusively towards others. Jealousy is a demonstration of ‘possessive’ feelings towards a partner, rather than regarding them as an equal. It is considered a potential ‘red flag’ in a relationship.
Spotting the Warning Signs
While it is very positive that the majority of young people do identify many of the behaviours that are abusive, only 16% felt sure they could easily spot the warning signs of abuse in other people’s relationships and they lack confidence approaching someone they are concerned might be experiencing abuse.
85% agreed that a partner demanding they send intimate images was a warning sign for abuse, while 10% were unsure if this constituted abuse.
Over 4 in 5 (82%) agreed that a partner getting jealous easily and accusing their partner of flirting and cheating was a warning sign of abuse. 13% were unsure if this was a warning sign. This is important because regular expressions of jealousy show possessiveness rather than trust and equality in a relationship, which is a red flag for abuse.
There was some uncertainty in relation to demanding to look through a partner’s phone and knowing someone’s passwords, 57% agreed this was 'definitely a warning sign', 31% said it was 'potentially a warning sign' and 8% were unsure. This indicates misunderstanding around boundaries and privacy which are a vital part of a healthy and trusting relationship.
Awareness of Legal Protection
More young men (62%) than young women (55%) were aware that non-cohabiting partners could seek legal protection under the Domestic Violence Act 2018 and that coercive control is a crime (40% men vs 33% women).
53% of young people were not aware of new and important legislation, the Harassment & Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020 (CoCo’s law).
3 in 4 young people who have experienced abuse, have sought some form of support.
Men are more likely to reach out for support than women (84% vs 68%).
32% of young women never spoke to anyone about the abuse they experienced.
The main sources of support for young people experiencing abuse are friends and family.
Common barriers to seeking support for young women include losing trust in own judgement, fearing for safety, feeling ashamed and being unsure where to turn.
50% of young people are not aware of specialist supports for intimate relationship abuse.
Supporting someone else
4 in 5 young people believe that many of those experiencing abuse do so in silence and don’t seek support.
The majority of young people feel a responsibility to intervene if they are concerned a close friend might be experiencing intimate relationship abuse.
20% of males and 8% of females believed that it is not their business to intervene in any relationship where they suspect abuse.
Young people have concerns which might prevent them from intervening including: fears around making the situation worse (73%), misreading the signs of abuse (48%), saying the wrong thing (42%), and a lack of awareness of how to help (43%).
61% said that if they knew what to say and had confidence in how to start the conversation (56%), it would help them approach someone they were worried about.
Young women are most at risk of violence and abuse in their own intimate relationships with men. The social systems and structures that increase their risk should be acknowledged, to contextualise wider conversations around allyship, prevention, intervention, education and consent.
There is a clear need to work more with young people on intimate relationship abuse, to raise awareness of supports available, to support their awareness and understanding of what abuse looks like, and to empower them to feel more confidence to check in on their peers if they suspect abuse is present in an intimate relationship. This is essential so that the experiences of victim/survivors are centralised and not side-lined by focusing on ‘explaining’ the motivations of abusers or ‘fixing’ them.
Intimate relationship abuse is a highly gendered issue. Young people must be taught about healthy and unhealthy relationships in the context of promoting greater gender equality, respect and mutuality. Relationships and Sexuality Education that supports young people, from young ages, to critically examine gender norms is essential to dismantle belief systems that justify and enable some men’s violence.
Education and public awareness of the serious harms of abuse in intimate relationships amongst young people is needed, including; proactive offers of appropriate supports to combat barriers to help-seeking. Emphasising the fact that abuse is not the fault of the victim, is required to empower victims/survivors to speak out about their experiences and seek support.
We all need to work together to challenge those who abuse others and behaviours that normalise and minimise abuse; and to model the healthy, mutual, positive and respectful relationships that everyone aspires to.
1 Each survey sample had 500 respondents, aged 18-25, 50% female & 50% male. Both survey findings were discussed in detailed focus groups of young women and men.