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Domestic Violence

How Gender Norms Can Make Domestic Violence Worse for BIPOC

How prescriptive gender roles hurt everyone.

Key points

  • The overall rates of domestic and intimate partner violence are distressingly high, but they are higher for BIPOC communities.
  • There are a number of factors that contribute to the higher rates of domestic violence and abuse in BIPOC communities.
  • As a result of societal influences men in general tend to internalize certain masculine norms and expectations about what it means to “be a man.”
  • Gender norms may be more intense and rigid in Indigenous communities and communities of color due to historical oppression.

A “pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic.” That is what domestic violence (DV) has been called over the last two years due to the alarming increases in domestic violence in various countries throughout the world, including the U.S. Since one of the numerous factors contributing to the surges in domestic violence was that people were spending more time at home, it may have been reasonable to presume that the situation would improve as societies have increasingly reopened. Instead, they have remained high. Moreover, just as the pandemic itself has been experienced more intensely in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, so too is domestic and intimate partner violence (IPV) linked with unique stressors and barriers these communities face such that efforts to mitigate the problem would need to take these factors into account.

The Role of Gender Norms and Socialization

The overall rates of domestic and intimate partner violence against both women and men are distressingly high to begin with, but they are even higher for Indigenous communities and people of color, specifically. For instance, 41 percent of Black women and 36 percent of Black men experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes, compared to 31 percent of white women and 27 percent of white men. The rate is even higher among Indigenous populations, with 52 percent of women and 43 percent of men experiencing this kind of violence in their lifetimes. And the numbers get even higher for all groups if we include other forms of domestic and intimate partner violence such as sexual violence and psychological aggression.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the higher rates of domestic violence and abuse in BIPOC communities. Some of these are widespread factors that contribute to domestic violence for all groups in general such as gender norms. For example, as a result of societal influences, men in general tend to internalize certain masculine norms and expectations about what it means to “be a man.” Discouraging boys and men to express their emotions, and encouraging them to express anger through aggression, are among some of the masculine norms that are transmitted both overtly and implicitly and which have been linked to violent behavior. It’s important to acknowledge as well that gender norms related to either gender get internalized by both men and women. An example of this is when girls and women feel attracted to boys and men who display aggressive traits as a result of socialization linking attractiveness to aggressive behaviors.

Gender Norms Enforced by Historical Oppression

Gender norms may be more intense and rigid in Indigenous communities and communities of color due to historical oppression. In Indigenous communities, for instance, where women were traditionally revered and respected, people have internalized the dehumanizing aspects of colonialism—manipulation, control, domination—even as these things have simultaneously undermined the cohesion of community life which used to serve as a protective buffer against domestic violence. Similarly, penalties for transgressing gender norms may be more unforgiving in communities of color and/or of lower socioeconomic status. At the same time, the racial disparity of job losses during the pandemic means that, in a society where people are socialized to associate masculinity with employment, men of color may be feeling frustration and helplessness over not being able to provide for their families. Of course, this is on top of the anger and frustration Black men have experienced due to historical economic inequalities. None of this is to justify violent behavior but to contextualize it so that we can better understand and therefore better address it.

Meanwhile, the women in these communities face unique stressors as well. Due to a context of historical oppression, unequal burdens of work and domestic responsibilities have been imposed by the broader society and have become normalized among some Indigenous women even as Indigenous men may not be fulfilling their side of the patriarchal arrangement in which they are playing the prescribed “provider” role—due to unemployment, for example. Or, as with Black women, there may be a reluctance to seek help due to negative experiences with the police or a sense of loyalty to the community in the face of historical oppression which may lead them to protect their abusers. And when Black women experiencing domestic violence do call the police, they are less likely to be protected due to systemic racism.

All of these existing factors were exacerbated by the pandemic which has caused disproportionately high rates of job loss in minority and Indigenous communities, and we know that unemployment is a risk factor for domestic violence. Where the pandemic created a pressure cooker situation is that not only did people lose their jobs, but lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have led to couples spending an inordinate amount of time indoors together and removed many options for diffusing the tension by going out. But again, while the situation of being stuck indoors during the pandemic was common, not only were BIPOC communities hit harder by job losses, but they were also disproportionately represented in service industry jobs, which meant that remote work was not an option for many. It is one thing to be stuck at home all day; it is another thing to be stuck at home and unemployed.

Breaking the Silence and Normalization

Given the strong links between gender norms and domestic violence, anything that can contribute to the healthy evolution of gender norms helps with the reduction of domestic violence as well. But too often the burden of changing society is placed on those who are already overburdened. Since the foremost priority for people who are experiencing violence and abuse is safety and survival, the onus for long-term systemic change must necessarily fall on the shoulders of those who are not in abusive situations and therefore safer.

First, the changing of gender norms is a slow, gradual process that needs to start with raising critical consciousness in ourselves. We can do this by reading about, thinking about, and discussing gender role ideologies and how these things are reflected in our own lives. Then we need to give voice to these issues by talking about them in our families, with our children, and with our intimate partners in order to break the societal taboo that surrounds these issues. If you are noticing any imbalances in your own lives—say, with the division of household labor—this can serve as a natural opportunity to have conversations by gently pointing out, in constructive ways that encourage discussion (such as by making “I” statements rather than “you” statements), what you’re noticing. It’s not about getting everyone to go against all traditional gender norms and roles. Many people may genuinely enjoy certain aspects of conventional gender roles. It’s more about thinking critically and not taking gender norms for granted. Even in situations where, for example, women may genuinely enjoy and even prefer traditional gender roles, if their work isn’t being equally valued as that of men, it is still an unjust situation and would benefit from critical thinking and dialogue.

Next, this topic can feel potentially threatening for those who are in positions of privilege, or who are benefiting from gender norms. For this reason, people may be more receptive to thinking critically about these issues if we are able to frame the discussion in such a way so as to help them see that rigid gender norms and inequality ultimately hurt everyone, boys and men as well as girls and women.

And finally, social workers and mental health professionals who work with marginalized populations must not normalize any injustice, abuse, or unequal treatment that women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, or men who don’t fit conventional gender norms experience. Don’t keep it confined at the personal and individual level and address the ways in which it is systemic and institutionalized. Failing to center gender, race, sexuality, and intersectionality in conversations with clients is to be complicit in the structural inequalities that cause many of their mental health challenges to begin with.

More private and public discussions about gender norms and their link to domestic violence, and the ways these issues intersect with race and culture, will also make it safer overall for those who are victims to speak out and seek help. This is also important because staying silent amplifies the anguish and mental health consequences of victimhood, and it also reinforces the taboo and stigma surrounding these issues, which is what leads to the silence in the first place. It is only when we are all talking about this—in our homes, schools, workplaces, and counseling centers—that we can begin to undo the ways that we have internalized the gender norms and implicit biases that underpin domestic violence and are causing it to surge during times of societal crisis.


McKinley, C. E., Liddell, J., & Lilly, J. (2021). All work and no play: Gender roles with Indigenous women “pulling the weight” in home life. Social Service Review, 95 (2), 278-311. (Issue published June 2021). PMC8321394