By Heather Wolbers

This brief is based on the following paper:

Wolbers, H., & Ackerman, J. (2020). The Degree of Specialization among Female Partner Violence Offenders and the Role of Self-Defense in Its Explanation. Victims & Offenders, 15(2), 197-217.   

1. What problem does your research address? Why is this significant?

Some portions of the criminological literature claim that intimate partner violence (IPV) offenders specialize. In other words, many offenders who commit violent offenses against romantic partners often do not commit violent or other offenses (Paternoster et al., 1998). If this claim is accurate, an important theoretical question relates to the causal mechanism that produces the specialization. Of particular theoretical interest in our study is whether self-defense motivations might underlie specialization among female IPV offenders. This interest stems from the suggestion that females in heterosexual relationships resort to IPV as a self-defense or resistance measure (Henning et al., 2006; Miller, 2001), meaning that violence takes place as a reaction to an assault and is intended to protect oneself from injury (Johnson, 2008). If these dynamics about female-perpetrated IPV are accurate, they suggest that female IPV is not reflective of a generally violent or generally criminal nature. Instead, women may tend to use violence only in specific situations and therefore would be considered more specialized in their offending behavior than men (Bouffard et al., 2008). This study investigates the level of specialization within a female population of interest and whether self-defense can explain the observed specialization.

2. How did you conduct your research?

We used a quantitative survey to investigate these matters in a sample of Australian and American female university students. Respondents reported on their engagement with ten non-IPV related offenses and seven IPV offenses. When respondents reported perpetrating IPV we asked whether their IPV was perpetrated in self-defense. These measures allowed us to use a diversity index, offense specialization coefficient and latent class analysis to calculate specialization and determine whether self-defense was predictive of the observed offending patterns.

3. What are your major findings?

It was evident that there are both specialized and generalized IPV offenders, however, we found specialization to best characterize our sample of university-aged women. We did not find self-defense to be a substantial explanation for the specialization.

4. What does your research mean for policy and practice?

Understanding that there are both specialist and generalist IPV offenders is useful in designing programs intended to reduce IPV recidivism. It may be that domestic violence specific programs are more appropriate for those who specialize in IPV and that other programs intending to treat the underlying causes of a broader criminality (e.g., antisocial personality, substance abuse, etc.) may be best suited for versatile offenders. If some offenders are highly specialized while others are not, the implication is that careful consideration should be given to prior offense history when deciding on an ideal IPV intervention strategy.


Bouffard, L. A., Wright, K. A., Muftić, L. R., & Bouffard, J. A. (2008, 2008/09/01). Gender Differences in Specialization in Intimate Partner Violence: Comparing the Gender Symmetry and Violent Resistance Perspectives. Justice Quarterly, 25(3), 570-594.        

Henning, K., Renauer, B., & Holdford, R. (2006). Victim or Offender? Heterogeneity Among Women Arrested for Intimate Partner Violence. Journal of Family Violence, 21(6), 351-368.  

Johnson, M. (2008). A Typology of Domestic Violence: Intimate Terrorism, Violent Resistance, and Situational Couple Violence. Northeastern University Press.        

Miller, S. L. (2001). The Paradox of Women Arrested for Domestic Violence: Criminal Justice Professionals and Service Providers Respond. Violence against women, 7(12), 1339-1376.

Paternoster, R., Brame, R., Piquero, A. R., Mazerolle, P., & Dean, C. W. (1998, 1998//). The Forward Specialization Coefficient: Distributional Properties and Subgroup Differences. Journal of quantitative criminology, 14(2), 133-154.