Undertaking research in the area of strangulation is vital to better understanding the nature and extent of these acts. Research findings can helpfully inform awareness-raising, and can – and should – be embedded within the practice of professionals working around these topics. However, good-quality and useful research is not always easily achievable. This blog will explore some common research challenges, specifically applied to the context of strangulation research, and will suggest ways in which these may be overcome. It may therefore be helpful for researchers and practitioners alike.
Please note that this blog will discuss the topic of strangulation and, more broadly, domestic abuse behaviours, and therefore may be distressing. Please click here for support links and other helpful resources if required.
When researchers are faced with important topics that require further exploration, a common hurdle is presented early on, which relates to the data that is going to be used for analysis and discussion. A typical research process includes the collation of data, an analysis of those data, and then a discussion around the findings, often with implications noted for future research and practice. Issues related to data can include volume, consistency, and context – or lack thereof.
Addressing Data Scarcity
Challenges around the volume of data available for strangulation research, particularly in the UK, are linked to how information is recorded by relevant teams, services, and processes. The volume of strangulation data, and therefore research generated using this data, is less scarce in the United States where they have been working on this issue for longer (e.g., see Herbenick et al., 2023: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/373491798_Sexual_ChokingStrangulation_During_Sex_A_Review_of_the_Literature).
In England and Wales, prior to June 2022, non-fatal strangulation (strangulation that doesn’t directly cause the death of the person being strangled) was not a stand-alone offence under England and Wales legislation, meaning criminal justice records may have records of these behaviours, but hidden within other offences such as common assault. This would make the extraction of relevant information difficult, particularly on a large scale. (More information around the change in strangulation legislation can be found here: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/9/section/75A)
In order to overcome challenges in the volume of data, researchers must carefully consider what the research is being designed to achieve. We may instead focus on a case study of a particular cohort of individuals – for instance, by focusing on one police force area or one support service – rather than making large generalisations across the whole of England or the UK.
In addition, as a sector, we should drive for better recording of data as cases are being presented. With the new non-fatal strangulation and suffocation legislation in 2022, this is now being done more effectively from a criminal justice perspective (although, there is still more to be done here too). Data collection and record keeping should always be proportionate, but perhaps if services were to include a specific ‘strangulation’ field in their case management systems, this information would be easy to extract when required. Either for research purposes or for the practical prevention of and responses to these incidents moving forward.
Striving for Consistency
Commencing data recording on strangulation is a commendable step. However, services must also strive for consistency.
From our analysis of strangulation Domestic Homicide Reviews, we have found large inconsistencies between what has been reported and what has not been shared. One example of this has been ethnicity data of victims and perpetrators of domestic homicides. The inconsistency of this information means we are unable to report on the ethnicities of individuals involved in strangulation cases, and means therefore as a sector working on violence and abuse, we don’t necessarily know who may be more commonly affected.
If services or processes are aiming for consistency – which would greatly support research outputs from these data sources – simple solutions may include, for example, a pro forma or template or information to record. Whether research is then intended to work with large data sets or a small collection of cases, there will be information that can be analysed and reported on consistently.
Understanding the Broader Context
In addition to when data should be collected and recorded (volume), and what data should be collected and recorded (consistency), it is also helpful – from a research perspective specifically – to understand the broader context of that information.
For example, the proportion of reported non-fatal strangulated cases that resulted in a charge or summons in the first six months of the new legislation (12%, IFAS, 2023) is interesting on its own, but perhaps more interesting when contextualised. We could compare this to, for example, the percentage of reported sexual offences resulting in the same outcome (3.6%, Home Office, 2023) or to the proportion of all offences resulting in charge or summons in 2023 (27%, Home Office, 2023).
Context is therefore key (and interesting), and in considering data collection and record keeping practices, this should also be taken into account in whatever way is feasible and appropriate. Again, record keeping should always be proportionate, but if there are ways to ‘show your working out’ to support the context of information recorded, it would perhaps be useful for practitioners to consider.
In recognition of context, we cannot discount the challenges that come specifically with researching sensitive areas such as strangulation. The impact on recounting and (re)reading information about traumatic events in individuals’ lives can be significant for participants and researchers.
For participants in primary research, it is important, as researchers, to be exceptionally clear about the purpose of engaging with individuals, especially those with lived experiences. No participant in research should be unsure of how or why they may be engaged in the project, and then what may happen with their information as a result of their engagement. The scope of their involvement should be clear, and it is the responsibility of the researcher to effectively balance the trauma-informed principles of choice, empowerment, and boundaries. As a research community, we also cannot make presumptions about who may or may not be able to engage in our projects. This is something we may see in sensitive research where we assume, perhaps for example, that sexual violence victims/survivors will be too traumatised to participate. This is not an empowering or trauma-informed position for a researcher to take.
A significant principle of a trauma-informed approach focuses on the importance of self-care. This principle should be communicated effectively to potential participants, and be mirrored by the actions of the researcher. Researchers must also feel safe and secure in the research they are conducting and reporting on. As such, secondary traumatisation is a risk that must be mitigated. Strategies may include researchers engaging in clinical supervision, taking breaks from distressing content, and generally debriefing with team members where possible.
Although challenges in strangulation research may seem daunting, they can be significantly alleviated through collaborative efforts. Whether you identify as a researcher, practitioner, victim/survivor, or a combination of these roles, consider the capacity within which you wish to forward the research. Can you improve your data collection for these cases? Could you work with others to report on commonalities in the cases you’re responding to? Can you better prioritise your well-being in the completion of initiatives such as research?
Every contribution to advancing this agenda plays a vital role in supporting victims and survivors, contributing to the broader goal of preventing strangulation entirely—an objective at the heart of every research and practice endeavor.
Written by Harriet Smailes (she/her) | Research Officer