Hear No Evil, Do No Harm; Academic Feminists Fight Ethics Creep in Study of Gender-Based Violence:

A commentary by Phoebe Collins on Molly Dragiewicz and Delanie Woodlock’s paper “I’ll be Okay”: Survivors’ Perspectives on Participation in Domestic Violence.

This article appears in our latest newsletter (Spring 2024) which can be downloaded here.

Dragiewicz and Woodlock quickly identify the academic giants on whose shoulders they stand. “Some of the first major studies on violence against women were by feminists”. In Russell and Howell’s 1983 project[i], interviewers received 65 hours of training on rape, incest, and how to discuss sexual abuse sensitively. This commitment to the safety of participants in violence against women research was adapted from the approaches used in direct service work with survivors in rape crisis centres and women’s refuges”. More recently, UK Women’s Aid organizations developed the Research Integrity Framework for Domestic Violence and Abuse [ii] to guide ethical considerations for research in this area.

Dragiewicz and Woodlock argue that despite such significant specialist training of researchers by victim-support nongovernmental organisations( NGOs), academic study of gender-based violence is now stymied by inappropriately restrictive University Research Ethics Committee (REC) guidance. This “ethics creep” includes demands regarding topics, participants, question items, theoretical frameworks, and research team composition. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council demands risk-benefit decisions by ethics boards are evidence-based, yet “research indicates that REC demands are often based on commonly held assumptions about the harmfulness of talking about sensitive issues rather than evidence”.

Overly strict conditions for approval may prevent research with key populations on critical issues – such as domestic violence. And if it’s under-studied, where is the evidence base to guide services? Hear no evil indeed.

RECs most commonly expressed concern that talking about trauma could psychologically harm participants. However Dragiewicz and Woodlock’s review the emerging research that discussing traumatic events is usually experienced as less stressful than everyday life events “such as getting a paper cut or sitting a difficult maths test”. They cite a meta-analysis of research with survivors of trauma, including domestic violence, with 70 studied and 73,959 participants; while some participants did experience distress, this was not extreme [iii].

In their study, Dragiewicz et al used semi-structured interviews with 20 Australian survivors of technology-facilitated domestic violence. Like feminist scholars before them, they partnered with specialist domestic violence organizations, to ensure “support systems and safety were built into the process. We knew that participants were being supported by experienced professionals throughout the research process”. These organizations advised on interview protocols, consent forms, aided recruitment and provided safe spaces for interviews. This security conscious approach was vital given participants’ need for safety and privacy and was notably absent from “some Australian RECs demand that interview transcripts be sent to participants for verification”; not ideal if your abuser opens your mail. This partnership with NGOs did however exclude victims who had not made contact with services. They used a “positive empowerment” approach to “ensure that the research process is not re-traumatizing for survivors with commitments to provide participants opportunities to tell their stories”.

Template analysis of interviews identified five themes – reflection on recovery and personal growth; helping other women; rejecting victim-shaming; empowerment; and the importance of timing. All 20 participants reported that they found the interviews to be a positive experience overall and that they would recommend participating in similar research to other women.

Are there implications for clinicians as well as researchers?

As one participant stated, survivors “are silenced all the time”. When asking our patients about their experiences, where do we draw the line between causing harm and giving them space to speak? With specialist training from and co-working with skilled organizations supporting victims of gender-based violence, can we sensitively allow women to draw this line for themselves? Further research could define optimal training content, competencies and measurement of competencies for researchers and indeed for clinicians working with victims. No demographic group – including survivors of domestic violence – should be denied research into their problem because of un-evidenced assumptions about their problem related vulnerabilities.

Dr Phoebe Collins (ST5) has just finished her placement on Bow Ward, in John Howard Centre MSU.
Bow Ward is a female forensic ward where many patients are survivors of abuse.

Research can transform lives. We want to support discoveries about what helps people with mental disorder who have been victims of criminal behaviour, or perpetrators of criminal behaviour, and their families, and the clinicians and others who treat them and, indeed, the wider community when its members are in contact with these problems. More effective prevention is the ideal, when this is not possible, we need more effective, evidenced interventions for recovery and restoration of safety.

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[i] Russell, D. E. H., & Howell, N. (1983). The prevalence of rape in the United States revisited. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 8(4), 688–695. https://doi.org/10.1086/494003.
[ii] Women’s, & Aid (2020). Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Welsh Women’s aid. Research Integrity Framework (RIF) on domestic violence and abuse (DVA). Women’s Aid, Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Welsh Women’s aid.
[iii] Jaffe, A. E., DiLillo, D., Hoffman, L., Haikalis, M., & Dykstra, R. E. (2015). Does it hurt to ask? A meta-analysis of participant reactions to trauma research. Clinical Psychology Review, 40, 40–56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2015.05.004.