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Prisoners’ ambivalent sexism and domestic violence: a narrative study

Ines Testoni (Dipartimento di Filosofia, Sociologia, Pedagogia e Psicologia Applicata (FISPPA), Università degli Studi di Padova Scuola di Psicologia, Padova, Italy)
Giulia Branciforti (Penitentiary Medicine and Drug Abuse Unit Public Health Service of Padova, Padua, Italy)
Adriano Zamperini (Dipartimento di Filosofia, Sociologia, Pedagogia e Psicologia Applicata (FISPPA), Università degli Studi di Padova, Padua, Italy)
Livia Zuliani (Due Palazzi Prison of Padova, Padua, Italy)
Felice Alfonso Nava (Due Palazzi Prison of Padova, Padua, Italy)

International Journal of Prisoner Health

ISSN: 1744-9200

Article publication date: 16 August 2019

Issue publication date: 18 September 2019




Gender inequality and sexism are often at the root of domestic violence against women and children, with both serving to justify male domination. This runs in parallel with mother-blaming bias, which constitutes a pervasive common sense and scientific error derived from the myth of the good and the bad mother, characterising a large part of studies on deviance. The purpose of this paper is to consider the possible role of sexism in prisoners’ deviant biographies; for this, the authors considered the role of the mother in the biographies of prisoners, and the results lend support to the idea that mother-blaming is a serious fallacy. Starting from a critical psychology point of view and following the retrospective methodology, the authors interviewed 22 drug-addicted prisoners through Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) regarding their biographies and their relationships with parents and partners.


In the survey, the authors followed the same intention, and the results lend support to the idea that mother-blaming is a serious fallacy. The authors interviewed 22 drug-addicted prisoners through IPA concerning their biographies and their relationships with parents and partners.


The main result of this qualitative study was the recognition of a fundamental sexism assumed by participants, characterised by a paradox between the representation of the mother and the representation of the ideal woman. Despite the mother being their positive affective referent, and battered by her husband/partner, the same participants had been witnesses of domestic violence, and sometimes victims, they interiorised from their father an ambivalent sexism: benevolent sexism with regard to their mother and exhibited hostile sexism with their partner. On the one hand, it emerged that female empowerment was desirable with respect to the mothers. On the other hand, the ideal woman was exactly as their mother was, that is, being absolutely subordinated to men (a patient, caring, submissive housewife, totally dedicated to her children and her husband).

Research limitations/implications

From a mainstream psychological perspective, the limits of the research are linked to the utilisation of the narrative method. Also, this methodology does not verify any hypotheses, so quotations from the participants are used to illustrate themes, and thus, it is difficult to report the informational complexities arising from the dialogues. However, the literature has emphasised that these limitations do not invalidate qualitative research findings, despite the difficulties in generalising the results of the qualitative studies. Thereafter, the critical analysis moved within the intersection of experience-centred approaches and the culturally oriented treatment of narratives, so that the focus on the stories of the prisoners makes meaning because it applies structure to experience, albeit, with the form and content of the texts. This research did not permit us to measure and evaluate post-hoc any post-traumatic hypotheses, which, in turn, would give room for further research. Another limitation of the research was that the relationship between culture of origin and gender biases, especially with participants from non-European countries, was not analysed. This topic would require an important in-depth study, which encompasses how women are treated in different countries and its effects on social maladjustment for immigrants in Italy.

Practical implications

The outcome of this study suggests that within similar structures in the Institute of Mitigated Custody, the theme of sexism should be considered in more depth. Since sexism justifies violence against women, and is therefore a factor that can cause recidivism in the antisocial behaviour of prisoners once they have served their sentences. It is important to allow them to analyse the relationship between their sexist attitudes, witnessing violence in childhood and the possibility of changing moral values of reference in favour of equality. This type of psychological intervention must necessarily be based not only on the elaboration of traumas suffered during childhood with an abusive father, but also on issues related to gender equality and the theme of social inclusion.

Social implications

The study suggests the idea that male sexism can be a factor responsible for suffering and maladjustment for men and that therefore an education that promotes equality of gender differences can also help prevent the social distress associated with drug addiction and deviance.


The paper considers some cogent issues inherent to ambivalent sexism that pervades prisoners’ aspirations for their future.



Testoni, I., Branciforti, G., Zamperini, A., Zuliani, L. and Nava, F.A. (2019), "Prisoners’ ambivalent sexism and domestic violence: a narrative study", International Journal of Prisoner Health, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 332-348.



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