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Understanding Abuse: From Intimate Partner Violence to Spiked Drinks

July 11, 2017

When Dr. Suzanne Swan and colleagues conducted a recent survey of over 6,000 students at three universities, she found that one in 13 students reported being drugged at a social event and that 1.4 percent admitted to either drugging someone else or knowing someone who did.

The study was published last year in the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychology of Violence.

“When I talk about the study in my classes I find that students say, ‘We know about that,’” Swan said of the prevalence of campus drugging behavior. “College students are quite aware this is going on.”

Swan, an Associate Professor in the University of South Carolina’s Department of Psychology and Women’s and Gender Studies Program, has devoted her career to understanding the causes and consequences of intimate partner violence and other forms of aggression. Her focus includes the influence of gender, both in her ongoing research and in classes she teaches on women’s health and on men and masculinity.

Swan’s interest in these topics date back to her time as the Director of Family Violence Programs at The Consultation Center in Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, where in 1998 she received one of the first research grants from Women’s Health Research at Yale.

“It’s been 20 years?” she said when contacted for this story. “And you’ve gone on to fund over 80 projects? What an amazing and wonderful accomplishment!”

In her WHRY pilot project, Swan found that in intimate partner violence, women may respond to their partners’ abuse with violence, which then can lead to even more violence from their male partners. And compared with male victims, women were more often victims of more serious types of abuse, including sexual violence and injury.

She also found that almost all of the women who committed acts of domestic violence against their partners were themselves victims of violence, sometimes perpetrated by their current partners but also by others in past relationships.

“Sometimes they were women who were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of violence in their past and were then taking out their anxiety, anger, and frustration on a new partner,” Swan said.

“These were important insights,” Swan said. “Because the types of interventions we used at that time were all based on models of male violence against women. These interventions didn’t really work very well when we tried to use them with women because the women’s violence was often in reaction to male violence.”

Data from this study were used to identify factors that could predict violence and help shape treatment interventions that were designed to be more effective in preventing violence by both men and women.

More than one in three women in the United States have experienced physical violence, sexual assault, or stalking by an intimate partner. The majority of female victims of all types of violence report men as their attackers, and intimate partner violence is the primary cause of women’s injury-related emergency room visits. However, Swan began investigating the subject as part of her work with individuals referred by criminal courts following domestic violence incidences and found that about 25 percent of the referrals were women.

“That was an eye-opener for me,” Swan said. “Most research on intimate aggression focused on male violence.”

In a recent study Swan co-authored, she and her colleagues found that college students perceive male victims of sexual assault as less likely than female victims to tell someone else or seek formal services to help. And the students found campus resources for male victims of sexual assault inadequate. So Swan has challenged colleges to better understand how gender and other identities have shaped the administrations’ responses to sexual assault. And she continues to explore interventions that address the differing perspectives and experiences of male and female victims and perpetrators.

Since leaving Yale in 2003, Swan has embraced the opportunity to work with college populations, and she has discovered similar gender disparities at play in her more recent research involving drink spiking on college campuses. Her study found that women were more likely to report having had their drinks spiked with a drug, but 21 percent of the victims were men.

Women tended to report sexual assault as a motive behind the drugging, while men more often considered it part of recreational or party behavior that fits with the binge drinking common on campuses.

“When you talk about drugging, the image most people get in their head is the drug-facilitated sexual assault scenario,” Swan said, referencing the allegations of more than 50 women who have accused the comedian Bill Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them. “But there are people who report doing it for fun, sort of as a prank in a party atmosphere.”

Which doesn’t mean such behavior carries no danger, Swan quickly added. “People need to know this could hurt somebody,” she said. “You don’t know what medications people are taking. You don’t know their biology. In developing interventions to curb drugging, I think if students realize there are some very significant risks involved, that may make some of them rethink this behavior.”

For Swan, data-driven knowledge offers the best path toward a healthier and happier future for everyone. Dating back to her WHRY-funded project through her current teaching and research, she aims to make sure gender remains part of the discussion.

“Speaking generally, men and women have different health needs and motivations,” Swan said. “We need to understand those differences to provide the most effective solutions to the serious problems of violence and aggression.”

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Submitted by Carissa R Violante on July 11, 2017