According to new research from Washington State University, women in small towns are almost twice as likely to be victims of domestic abuse as their suburban counterparts.

According Kathryn DuBois, a WSU associate professor and criminologist, women in small towns are 27 percent more likely to be victims of domestic violence than women from big cities and 42 percent more likely than women from the suburbs.

DuBois, who conducted the study, said these results were surprising. She said criminology, like most social sciences, has an urban bias — urban spaces are traditionally considered more dangerous or criminally active while other places.

After reviewing hundreds of thousands of women’s responses to the National Crime Victimization Survey from between 1994 and 2015, she said it was actually suburban spaces that were found to be safest. Meanwhile, she said women in small towns were more likely to be victims of domestic violence than their urban, suburban and “very rural” counterparts.

“So when you look at it in relative terms, it’s a fairly substantial difference but when you look at the proportion of women who are being victimized in a given six-month period, it’s pretty small,” DuBois said. “I’m only looking at a six month period, but … if I was able to look at over a six-year period, or 10-year period, or 20-year period, then, in terms of women who’ve been victimized over a lifetime, then you really start to have some fairly high absolute numbers.”

The survey separates respondents by locale as either “urban” or “rural,” but DuBois took it a step further. By looking at population density, she was able to divide these regions into urban, suburban, small town and rural.

DuBois said these data look at relative risk over a 6-month time period and while the actual, overall number of victims may seem small, it begins to add up over time in high population areas. She said by actual numbers, 3.3 per 1,000 women in small towns were victims of domestic violence while the number from urban populations was 2.6 women per 1,000.

DuBois said as domestic violence is consistently underreported, these numbers are not a perfectly accurate representation of the true prevalence of the crime — but it does help to illustrate the relative risk.

“When you’re doing that in the context of an overall crime survey, you get lower numbers than if you have a survey where you’re dealing specifically with gender-based violence,” DuBois said, of the National Crime Victimization Survey. “What we do know is that this is going to be an underestimate of how much of (domestic violence) is occurring but we do know that that underestimation is randomly distributed.”

DuBois said domestic violence perpetrators want to control their victims — which is why she was surprised small towns were found to be more dangerous than yet more rural, relatively isolated areas. She said this is also why the pandemic likely worsened instances of domestic violences throughout society. When a victim’s only respite from abuse is going to work, she said removing that creates more opportunity for abuse. She noted the YWCA where she lives in Clark County has been a lot busier in recent months.

While she admits studying domestic violence does take an emotional toll, DuBois said it also gives her reason to hope.

“The larger story about this is about people and communities coming together to try to solve problems,” she said. “You look at these places, like in the Dakotas and Nebraska network, where there’s really widespread population — it’s basically women coming together and taking responsibility to help other women out on a very informal basis.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to

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