Overview of Domestic Violence
General Overview and History of Domestic Violence
Domestic Violence is physically or emotionally harmful acts between husbands and wives or between other individuals in intimate relationships. Domestic violence is sometimes referred to as intimate violence. It includes violence that occurs in dating and courtship relationships, between former spouses, and between gay and lesbian partners.
Abuse between intimate partners can take many forms. It may include emotional or verbal abuse, denial of access to resources or money, restraint of normal activities or freedom (including isolation from friends and family), sexual coercion or assault, threats to kill or to harm, and physical intimidation or attacks. In extreme cases, domestic violence may result in the death of a partner.
Many experts and lay people use the terms domestic violence and spouse abuse interchangeably. However, some scholars and activists consider the term spouse abuse inappropriate. They assert that because the term is gender-neutral—that is, it can refer to abuse of either husband or wife—it gives the impression that men are as likely as women to be victims of abuse. Because police and hospital records indicate that the majority of victims of domestic violence are women, some experts use the term violence toward women to refer to domestic violence. These experts tend to view violence in intimate relationships as a problem of coercive control of women by their partners.
Experts agree that domestic violence is a widespread problem. However, its actual extent is difficult to measure. Researchers believe that the extent of violence between intimate partners is higher than reports indicate. Data based on official documents, such as police or hospital records, tend to underestimate the extent of violence because many instances of abuse are never reported. Surveys of individuals generally produce higher estimates of violence than official records, but they are also assumed to underestimate the actual extent of domestic violence. For a variety of reasons, respondents may fail to report violence that occurs with an intimate partner.
According to a study published in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), women in the United States experienced about 840,000 nonlethal incidents of violence committed by an intimate partner in 1996. These incidents consisted of physical assault, robbery (theft that is accomplished by a threat of violence or actual violence), and rape or other sexual assault. The DOJ report indicated that intimate violence occurs almost equally among women of all races and is slightly more likely to occur among women with low incomes. The report showed that the most common victims of intimate violence are younger women, between the ages of 16 and 24.
Experts widely disagree over the extent of male victimization. According to the Department of Justice, men in the United States were victims in about 150,000 incidents of intimate violence in 1996. The department’s data indicate that women are about six times as likely as men to experience victimization by an intimate partner. However, in a privately funded survey conducted in 1993, American men and women reported experiencing similar rates of intimate violence.
In some cases, domestic violence results in homicide. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), more than 500 men were killed by their wives and girlfriends in 1996, representing about 5 percent of all male homicide victims in the United States. That same year more than 1300 women in the United States were killed by their husbands or boyfriends—approximately 30 percent of all female homicide victims. Murder by intimates accounts for about 9 percent of all homicides in the United States each year.
Two surveys of married couples in the United States conducted in the 1970s and 1980s found that some kind of violence between spouses had occurred during the previous year in 16 percent of the homes surveyed. In addition, 28 percent of couples surveyed reported marital violence at some point in their marriages. Researchers have found comparable rates of domestic violence in numerous other nations, including Canada and New Zealand.
No single factor explains why men and women assault and abuse their partners. The factors most closely related to spouse abuse are youth of both the offender and the victim (between 18 and 30 years old), low income, growing up in a violent family, alcohol or substance abuse, unemployment, sexual difficulties, and low job satisfaction. While no single personality factor causes domestic violence, offenders committing the most serious abuse tend to have antisocial personality disorders. People with such disorders have an impaired ability to feel guilt, remorse, or anxiety.
Social and cultural influences also contribute to spouse abuse. Because most victims of intimate violence are women, researchers who analyze social factors contributing to spouse abuse often focus on the role of women in society. In most societies, economic and social processes operate directly and indirectly to support a patriarchal (male-dominated) social order and family structure. Patriarchy is associated with the subordination (restriction to inferior status) and oppression of women. Some analysts believe that patriarchy accounts for the historical pattern of violence directed against women in intimate relationships. The violence is often institutionalized, or formalized in societal structures, for instance in traditional laws and customs that permit husbands to physically punish their wives. Also, analysts say, patriarchy contributes to lower economic status for women, which may make women dependent on men. This dependence may increase a woman’s likelihood of becoming involved in an abusive relationship or may limit a victim’s ability to leave such a relationship.
Effects on Victims
Victims of domestic violence experience both short-term and long-lasting effects. Physical injuries can range from bruises, cuts, and burns to broken bones, stab wounds, miscarriages (in women), and death. Also, victims experience depression and other psychological distress, eating disorders, and alcohol and substance abuse problems, and they are more likely than other people to contemplate or attempt suicide. Children who witness domestic violence experience depression and psychological distress and are more likely than other children to be physically violent.
Spouse abuse often involves repeated episodes of violence. In the past people sometimes blamed victims for failing to leave abusive relationships. However, considerable research indicates that most victims are not passive in response to abuse. Victims call the police, they go to social workers or mental health agencies, they flee to the homes of friends or parents, and they fight back physically. However, studies find that many factors—economic, interpersonal, cultural, and social—prevent victims from leaving violent relationships. Victims who seek help from community services often find that agencies are overwhelmed and limited in their resources. People who are dependent on their partners emotionally and economically learn to endure abuse and remain in unhealthy relationships, a process that has been labeled “learned hopefulness.” Learned hopefulness refers to an abuse victim’s belief that the abusive partner will change his or her behavior or personality.
Most experts agree that economic and cultural factors play an especially powerful role in contributing to and perpetuating repeated abuse of women. Because women, as a group, tend to have less power in society, they are more likely to be victims and are less able to end abuse once it begins. Traditional beliefs, customs, and laws restrict the roles women may play and limit their economic opportunities, contributing to their dependence on men. Some scholars assert that the process of socialization teaches boys and girls a belief system that devalues women—especially unmarried women—and creates a sense of female responsibility for the maintenance of the family. Women who believe that the end of a relationship or of a marriage represents a personal failure are less likely to leave abusive relationships.
Treatment and Prevention
A variety of programs and services, both for victims and offenders, exist to treat and prevent domestic violence. Since 1964, more than 1800 shelters or refuges for battered women have been established in the United States. Initially designed to provide simply a safe place for victims (and often victims’ children), shelters now provide a wide range of programs. At shelters, victims of abuse receive legal assistance, counseling for themselves and their children, referral to other treatment programs (such as substance abuse rehabilitation), and additional treatment and advocacy services.
An increasingly common response to domestic violence has been the establishment of treatment programs for offenders. Courts often require offenders who are found guilty of physically or sexually assaulting their partners to attend these programs as a condition of their sentences. The length of programs varies, but many are short term—lasting from 6 to 32 weeks.
Although programs for offenders vary in form and in underlying theory, most involve group therapy. Many are educational and offer a feminist perspective on domestic violence. Such programs seek to educate male offenders about the role of patriarchy and to demonstrate that men’s attitudes and behavior about control and power lead to abuse of women. The programs also encourage men to examine their attitudes about what it means to be a man. Many treatment programs also emphasize anger management for offenders. Counselors teach participants to recognize cues of anger and then use a technique, such as waiting a period of time to calm down before reacting, to control the anger and avoid violent behavior.
The laws of all 50 U.S. states provide that domestic violence is a crime. These laws have made it easier for victims to obtain protective or restraining court orders that prohibit offenders from having contact with them. Also, laws in most states allow police officers to arrest people suspected of committing domestic violence without the victim filing charges. Before the 1980s arrests were uncommon, in part because many victims were unwilling to press charges and also because many law enforcement officials were reluctant to make arrests. Instead, officers typically attempted to calm the violent parties down or restore order. In response to criticism by feminist activists and as a result of research indicating that arrests seemed to reduce subsequent violence, many cities changed their intervention policies.
In 1994 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which authorized more than $800 million in federal funds for state and local programs to combat domestic violence. This law makes it a federal crime for a person to travel from one state to another in order to violate a restraining order. It also prohibits an individual who is subject to a restraining order from possessing firearms. Although the title of the law refers to women victims, both male and female offenders are subject to its provisions.
The vast majority of programs that deal with intimate violence—such as shelters, police intervention programs, and treatment groups—are implemented after a severely abusive incident. A few programs and policies attempt to prevent intimate violence before it occurs. The most widespread prevention programs have been community and national public awareness campaigns that identify intimate violence as an important social problem.
For much of history and throughout the world, social and legal traditions have tolerated or even promoted the physical assault of women by men. In ancient Rome, a husband could legally divorce, physically punish, or even kill his wife for behaviors that were permitted for men. Punishment of wives was called chastisement, a term that emphasized the corrective purpose of the action and minimized the violent nature of the behavior. Under medieval English common law, a husband could not be prosecuted for raping his wife because the law provided that a wife could not refuse consent for sex to her husband. Because much of U.S. law was modeled on English common law, this definition of rape remained in effect in the United States until the 1970s, when many (but not all) states modified their rape statutes.
Although laws in the United States have always prohibited wife beating, these laws often were not enforced. Furthermore, laws prohibiting assault and battery set different standards for guilt if the victim was the wife of the assailant. That is, to be found guilty of a crime for hitting his wife, a husband had to more severely strike and more seriously injure her than if he had hit a stranger. Courts treated victims of assault differently because the husband had a legal right to chastise his wife. The right to chastise wives was first overruled by courts in Alabama and Massachusetts in 1871.
Since the 19th century, women have acquired greater legal and political rights, such as the right to vote. As the status of women has improved, attitudes toward domestic violence have shifted and laws have been changed. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s rights organizations in the United States have sponsored campaigns to raise public awareness of intimate violence. Whereas 30 years ago spouse abuse occurred behind closed doors and was largely considered a private matter, today it is widely recognized as an important, dangerous, and harmful social problem.