Domestic Violence

views updated May 29 2018


All states made "wife beating" illegal by 1920. However, only since the 1970s has the criminal justice system begun to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, not as a private family matter. Domestic violence is any physical, sexual, or psychological abuse that people use against a former or current intimate partner. It refers to a number of criminal behaviors: assault and battery; sexual assault; stalking; harassment; violation of a civil restraining order; homicide; and other offenses that occur in the course of a domestic violence incident, such as arson, robbery, malicious destruction of property, and endangering a minor. No person can validly consent to a breach of the peace or a battery that may result in serious injury or death. Furthermore, most states have abolished the marital rape exemption in toto; this exemption precluded husbands from being prosecuted for raping their wives. Thus, in general, there is no legal distinction between crimes committed against intimate partners and those committed against strangers.

Police, prosecutors, and judges are routinely trained in domestic violence, and aggressive interventions are continually implemented. Individuals across the political spectrum have generally supported these changes, although there is ongoing debate as to which interventions work best. Furthermore, some fear that the pendulum has swung too far, and that those who are accused of domestic violence, particularly men, are presumed guilty rather than innocent. Advocates are concerned that the needs of victims are being sacrificed for higher conviction rates. Indeed, the ongoing challenge for the criminal justice system is to protect the rights of both defendants and victims while at the same time treating domestic violence as a serious social problem. Even though the criminal justice system has come a long way since 1920, it still has a long way to go.

Who are the abusers? Who are the victims?

The majority of those arrested for domestic violence are heterosexual men. However, between 5 and 15 percent of those arrested for battering are women. Many of these cases involve self-defending women who have been mistakenly arrested. While women can be the initial aggressor, female abusers are rarely identified or studied. Thus, most theoretical and practical work on domestic violence, as well as the policies and controversies that are discussed in this entry, assume the male batterer/female victim paradigm.

Gay men and lesbians constitute only a small percentage of those arrested for domestic violence. As with female abusers, we know surprisingly little about domestic violence in same-sex relationships. Same-sex victims receive fewer protections and face many more social consequences when reporting domestic violence to the authorities than heterosexual victims. For example, many states define domestic violence in a way that excludes same-sex victims, and some states with sodomy laws also require victims to acknowledge that they are in a domestic relationship, forcing victims to admit to a crime before receiving legal protection.

How many people are victims of domestic violence? The honest answer is that we just do not know. The federal government and a majority of the states collect statistics on domestic violence, but there are wide variations in how each jurisdiction defines offenses, determines what is counted, and measures or reports incidents. Statistics on the incidence and prevalence of domestic violence vary greatly. Thus, it is imperative that when evaluating data one considers the source and the methodology. It is vital to have an accurate picture of domestic violence in order to formulate appropriate policies and maintain intellectual integrity.

There are two official federal measures of crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) of the F.B.I. The NCVS gathers information about crime and its consequences from a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents. It surveys respondents about any crimes experienced, including their relationship to the perpetrator. However, there is no way to independently verify this information or to determine how many incidents go unreported to authorities. In fact, it is estimated that about one-half of the incidents of intimate violence experienced by women are never reported to the police. This percentage is likely higher for both straight and gay men and lesbians given that the traditional definition of domestic violence is "wife beating."

The UCR tracks crimes reported to law enforcement. However, it does not require local law enforcement to maintain data on the relationship between victim and offender except in the case of murder. The National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), authorized by Congress in 1995, will include and standardize data collection on domestic violence. However, NIBRS has not yet been implemented nationally.

Data compiled in 1996 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics yielded the estimate that women experienced 840,000 rape, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated and simple assault victimizations at the hands of an intimate, down from 1.1 million in 1993. Men experienced about 150,000 such victimizations, with little variation between 1992 and 1996. In 1996, just over 1,800 murders were attributable to intimates, and in almost three out of four of these killings, the victim was a woman. By comparison, in 1976, there were nearly 3,000 victims of intimate murder (Greenfeld). Other studies have suggested that as many as four million women are battered each year, and that 14 percent of women report having been violently abused by a spouse or boyfriend at some time in their lives. (Healy, Smith, and O'Sullivan).

Most intimate relationships are established between people of the same racial and economic background. Domestic violence occurs across all demographic groups. However, official rates of nonlethal, intimate violence are highest among women aged sixteen to twenty-four, women in households in the lowest income categories, and women residing in urban areas (Greenfeld). Couples who cohabitate experience more violence than those who are married (Holzworth-Munroe). Other studies have found that abused women are more likely to live in communities with the highest rates of stranger violence (Fagan). African American women comprise the largest group of victims, although they are also more likely to report intimate victimizations to the police than any other group. However, ethnicity and race are not significant correlates with domestic violence when controlling for other socio-demographic variables, such as income, employment status, and age.

Official statistics may be overinclusive of the poor and minorities. Women with higher incomes often have the resources to deal with domestic violence privately without involving the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the police may be more likely to arrest people in poor and middle-class neighborhoods than in upper-class neighborhoods. However, those with fewer resources also face more stressors, and while stress itself does not lead directly to violence, it can exacerbate the risk of violence (Holzworth-Munroe).

The causes of domestic violence

There are many theories as to the causes of domestic violence. Feminist-inspired theories look to the institution of patriarchy and argue that battering mirrors male power and control over females. Family-based theories examine the level of family conflict and the indirect lessons children learn about the relationship between violence and love. Individual-based theories attribute domestic violence to personality disorders or biomedical factors, such as head injuries or mental illness. Evolutionary theorists have suggested that male violence against females, both in primates and cross-culturally, is a strategy used to control the female's reproduction and, in humans, is often precipitated by male sexual jealousy (Daly and Wilson).

Furthermore, domestic violence researchers are exploring how race, class, religion, and culture, as well as psychological variables such as low self-esteem and abusive childhoods, affect one's experiences with violence. As a result, we are beginning to understand how the battering experience is both common and unique among abusers and victims.

No single causal model can explain why people hurt those they claim to love. As research becomes more interdisciplinary, and policies are driven as much by empirical data as by politics, theories will have to account for the complicated interplay of biological, social, economic, cultural, and individual factors that lead to domestic violence.

Federal approaches to domestic violence

Local and state governments are responsible for enforcing most domestic violence crimes. However, in 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Among its many provisions, VAWA makes certain offenses federal crimes, such as interstate stalking and violation of a protection order. In addition, the 1996 Lautenberg Amendment to the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits the transfer, possession, or receipt of both firearms and ammunition by anyone convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence offense. These laws reflect a larger trend to federalize the criminal law, and they are controversial. Advocates applaud them as providing for a fundamental change in the criminal justice system's response to domestic violence. Opponents argue that they are overreaching, ineffective, and grant excessive power to the federal government, and insist that combating domestic violence is best left to local, not federal, law enforcement. It is too early to access VAWA's impact on curbing domestic violence.

Arrest policies

Prior to 1984, most police could not legally make a warrantless arrest unless a misdemeanor occurred in the officer's presence, or the officer had probable cause to believe that a felony had taken place. Since most domestic violence cases involve simple assault and batterya misdemeanorthe police could not make an arrest at the scene. Advising the husband or boyfriend to "take a walk around the block" was often the extent of police intervention.

In 1984, the U.S. Attorney General recommended arrest as the standard police response to domestic violence. This recommendation resulted from a landmark Minneapolis controlled experimental study that compared the deterrent effects of arresting the suspect, mediating the dispute, and requiring the batterer to leave the house for eight hours. The study found that arrest more effectively deterred subsequent violence than did the other courses of action. The results were widely publicized.

That same year, Tracy Thurman received a $1.9 million settlement from the Torrington, Connecticut, Police Department for its policy of nonintervention and nonarrest in domestic violence cases. After the Thurman case, police departments concerned about similar lawsuits began to rethink their policies. All fifty states now provide for warrantless arrests in domestic violence cases.

Since arrest statutes have been broadened, many jurisdictions have adopted mandatory or pro-arrest policies. Under these policies, an arrest is either required or preferred if the police officer has probable cause to believe that a domestic battery has taken place, regardless of the victim's wishes. These policies have received mixed reviews. Some advocates maintain that mandatory arrest not only substantially reduces domestic assaults and murders, especially when prosecution follows, but also provides police officers with clear guidelines on how to proceed, correcting the "take a walk around the block" mentality. Opponents argue that these policies fail to account for the criminal justice system's historic mistreatment of minorities. Furthermore, when officers are either unable or unwilling to discern who was the initial aggressor, mandatory arrest policies can result in both parties being arrested. Thus, these pro-arrest policies have the unintended consequence of penalizing rather than protecting victims. Others argue that police ought to have more discretion to handle domestic violence situations on a case-by-case basis.

Does arrest work? The research is inconclusive. For example, when the Minneapolis study was replicated in other jurisdictions, the results differed significantly. Specifically, arrest consistently deterred employed batterers, but increased repeat violence among unemployed batterers. Yet, these findings were largely ignored. Furthermore, between 1992 and 1996, while the police responded to 90 percent of calls for assistance, in only 20 percent of the cases was the alleged abuser arrested immediately (Greenfeld). These findings raise questions as to how effective arrest policies have been in reducing recidivism or changing police practices.

Prosecution and sentencing policies

Prosecutors routinely fail to initiate cases and follow through with prosecution. Victim noncooperation is often cited as the major reason for dismissing a domestic violence case. Thus, once police began to arrest alleged batterers, advocates began to focus reform efforts on prosecution practices. As a result, prosecutors are undertaking new initiatives. Many have established specialized domestic violence units. A few units specialize in same-sex battering, while others target teenagers in dating relationships, where experimentation with violence often begins. Vertical prosecution, in which one prosecutor is assigned to handle the case from arraignment to completion, thus providing the victim with ongoing support, is becoming common. Increasingly, jurisdictions are employing social workers to counsel victims and their families. Some courts expedite, or rocket docket, domestic violence cases. Others divert first-time offenders into batterer treatment prior to trial.

Most controversial, many jurisdictions are implementing no-drop policies. Under such policies, prosecutors cannot routinely dismiss charges at the victim's request, but are required to pursue a case if enough evidence exists to substantiate the charge. Moreover, the prosecutor usually signs the charge, relieving the victim of responsibility. At least four states have adopted legislation encouraging the use of no-drop policies, and VAWA has authorized grants to local law enforcement agencies that adopt aggressive prosecution policies.

Pro-prosecution policies are often characterized as either hard or soft no-drop policies. Under hard policies, cases proceed regardless of the victim's wishes when there is enough evidence to go forward. This can include subpoenaing the victim to testify and requesting that the judge issue an order of contempt if the victim refuses to cooperate. Most states recognize an exemption to marital privilege laws in cases in which one spouse is charged with a crime against the other and, thus, the vast majority of victims can be compelled to testify as a witness for the state and incarcerated for refusing to do so. Some jurisdictions go forward without the victim's testimony, just as if it were a homicide case, by introducing other evidence, such as 911 tapes, photographs, medical records, and testimonies of police officers and expert witnesses.

Under soft policies, victims are provided with support services and encouraged to proceed, but are never mandated to participate. The state will not proceed if the victim insists that the case be dropped.

Those supportive of aggressive prosecution argue that no-drop policies take the burden off the victim by removing her as the "plaintiff." They contend that the batterer has less incentive to try to harm or intimidate his victim once he realizes that she no longer controls the process. Furthermore, aggressive prosecution sends a strong message that domestic violence is a crime against the state as well as the individual. However, many advocates for battered women argue that the use of hard policies has the unintended effect of punishing or revictimizing the victim for the actions of the abuser. It also fails to take into account the effect that prosecution will have on family income or children. The state should neither force the victim into a process over which she has no control, nor undermine her autonomy or decision-making.

Do aggressive prosecution policies work? It is difficult to measure the difference between policies as written and policies as practiced. While early data indicate that aggressive policies can reduce domestic homicides, lower recidivism rates, and change attitudes within the criminal justice system, more research is needed to verify these findings (Hanna, 1996).

Despite these reforms, most domestic violence cases still end in arrest. Of those cases that are prosecuted, many are charged or plead down to misdemeanors even though the conduct constituted a felony. When prosecutors do go forward, the final disposition is most often a period of probation. A growing number of defendants must also complete a batterer's treatment program as a condition of probation. Only a small percentage of domestic violence offenders are sentenced to incarceration (Hanna, 1998).

How do domestic violence cases compare to nondomestic violence cases? As of 1999, no empirical evidence supported the assertion that the criminal justice system treats domestic violence offenses less seriously than other violent crimes. One study in the mid-1980s found that offenders closely related by blood or sexual ties to their victims were usually given probation or had their cases dismissed, but so too were offenders unrelated to their victims (Ferraro and Boychuck). According to a 1998 study of all inmates incarcerated in state prisons, the median sentence for assault was four years longer if the victim was the offender's spouse rather than a stranger (Greenfeld). Given the changes in arrest and prosecution policies, as well as increased public pressure on law enforcement to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, it is likely that domestic cases are being treated more seriously than nondomestic cases.

Batterer treatment programs

In 1984, the Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence concluded that treatment for domestic violence is most successful when the criminal justice system mandates it. Although the Task Force report recommended incarceration for serious offenses, it encouraged the use of batterer treatment programs in cases where the injury to the victim was not serious. Since then, the criminal justice system has adopted faith in treatment as a matter of policy. Some states require courts to order attendance into a batterer treatment program as a condition of probation. Others have pretrial diversion programs in which first-time offenders can avoid conviction by completing a batterer treatment program. VAWA also endorses batterer treatment for violations of its criminal provisions.

Many states mandate the length and content of treatment programs that can be court ordered, although there is no convincing evidence that either the length or model of the treatment determines its effectiveness. Most court-ordered programs are six months to a year long. Program content varies greatly. Early programs were based on the premise that poor conflict management skills within the relationship caused violence and, therefore, treated both parties. Most court-ordered programs today, however, reject couple's therapy and treat the batterer only. While some programs focus on anger control and the individual's history with violence, increasingly, the majority of court-ordered programs adopt the premise that battering is an outgrowth of patriarchy and focus on the use of violence by the batterer to establish power and control over his victim. Most of these programs will not accept batterers who have substance abuse problems, although more than half of those incarcerated for domestic violence had been using drugs or alcohol at the time of the incident for which they were incarcerated, suggesting that many abusers are in need of multiple interventions (Greenfeld).

Does batterer treatment work? Some available data suggest that court-ordered treatment correlates with a reduction in physical violence, although treatment neither terminates violence in many cases nor curbs the more subtle forms of abuse. However, whether treatment, or simply individual motivation brought on by legal intervention, causes the reduction of violence is unclear. In fact, some studies have found that men arrested and treated resume violent behaviors as frequently as do men arrested and not referred to treatment, and that there is no significant difference between men who complete batterer's treatment and men who drop out of the program (Rosenfeld). The available research on batterer treatment is hampered by the lack of a control group. As of 1999, no study has randomly assigned abusers to incarceration, treatment, or unsupervised probation. A control group would give researchers confidence that treatment, and not some other variable, such as threat of incarceration, individual motivation, support from one's partner, social stigma, or other factors, are influencing a change in behavior. Additionally, many studies are methodologically unsound. Sample sizes are often too small to draw valid conclusions and drop-out rates are high. Even more troubling is that most studies that report treatment successes include only subjects who have no substance abuse problems, no psychiatric difficulty, and high motivation. Thus, the complex question of which programs work best for whom, and under what circumstances, remains largely unanswered.

Finally, some jurisdictions have established specialized probation units. Probation officers trained in domestic violence intensively supervise abusers, following their progress in treatment and at home. This is considered to be the last loophole that the criminal justice system needs to close in order to hold abusers accountable for their crimes.

Future of the system's response to domestic violence

One of the most promising developments in the prevention and treatment of domestic violence is research on batterer typologies. Despite popular misconceptions, all abusers are not equally dangerous, nor are they all alike. It is estimated that only two percent of the total male population is repeatedly severely abusive to women in any given year (Dutton). Most men arrested for domestic violence are low-risk offenders, and are violent only with family members. Those who pose the greatest risk often have extensive criminal histories, including property crimes, drug or alcohol offenses, and violent offenses against nonfamily victims (Dutton). This research will help law enforcement to better screen cases and develop interventions that account for the differences among abusers. In addition, research on the relationship between violence and biomedical conditions is likely to lead to treatments for abusers that involve both medical and behavioral therapy.

The criminal justice system also needs to expand its understanding of domestic violence beyond the male abuser/female victim model and to provide adequate protections for all victims regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Further research into why most men do not engage in intimate violence is imperative to understand what role gender does play in domestic violence.

Only time and solid research will tell if the criminal justice system can successfully reduce domestic violence. None of the initiatives described above will work in isolation. The best research suggests that a coordinated community response, which involves police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, probation officers, victims' advocates, treatment providers, and medical professionals, is essential. And, while both lethal and nonlethal intimate violence declined in the 1990s, so too has nondomestic violence. Thus, we must be cautious before attributing progress solely to more aggressive criminal intervention. Nevertheless, many remain optimistic that treating domestic violence as a serious public crime and not a trivial family matter will make for a safer society.

Cheryl Hanna

See also Family Abuse and Crime; Homicide: Behavioral Aspects; Justification: Self-Defense; Scientific Evidence; Stalking; Victims; Violence.


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Domestic Violence

views updated May 17 2018

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence can be defined as any domestic partner or interfamilial altercation that involves emotional, psychological, verbal, or physical abuse. The abuse may be sufficient to warrant the involvement of law enforcement officials, but this definition includes acts that are not illegal, such as verbal abuse. There is no crime labeled domestic violence; rather, the crimes committed defined legally as domestic violence include assault, assault and battery, rape, stalking, aggravated assault, and assault with a dangerous/deadly weapon.

Domestic violence affects all socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic categories. The majority of victims are women, but the scope of domestic violence is not limited to women. Adult children and spouses victimize the elderly; children can be physically, psychologically, or sexually abused by parents, relatives, or siblings; gay men and lesbians can perpetrate or be victims of abuse within same-sex relationships; and intimate dating partners can commit assault or rape. The act committed determines the crime, not the relationship between the offender and victim, but the relationship determines if the crime is classified as domestic. The relationship is recognized as domestic if partners are married, unmarried but live together, cohabiting same-sex partners, roommates, and family members. Yet there is no broadly accepted conception of what constitutes a domestic relationship. Because domestic violence generally falls under the jurisdiction of state legislation, the definitions of domestic relationships vary in each state.


Law enforcement reports indicate that the most frequent act of domestic violence is the battery of women. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury and death for women in the United States, and close to two in five women have reported being victims of physical or sexual assault in their lifetimes. In 1999 domestic violence caused 32 percent of the homicides in women (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence [NCADV]). Women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four experience the highest rate of domestic violence—sixteen of every 1,000 women (NCADV). Seventy percent of the teenage and college age women who report being raped say the assault occurred during the course of a date (NCADV). Child abuse accounts for the leading cause of death in children, usually at the hands of one or both parents. In 2002 approximately 1,400 children died as a result of abuse or neglect, and nearly 900,000 children were found to be victims of abuse or neglect across the United States (National Center for Victims of Crime [NCVC]). Abuse of the elderly is a prevalent form of domestic violence. Neglect is the most common type of this abuse with physical and/or financial exploitation being the goal(s). Women are the majority of the victims; however offenders are equally likely to be male or female.

The national prevalence of elder abuse is difficult to ascertain because there are no nationwide tracking systems for this type of abuse. However data is collected from state agencies to estimate the pervasiveness of elder abuse. Approximately one to two million men and women over the age of sixty-five have been injured or mistreated (National Center on Elder Abuse [NCEA]). And at least one in five incidents of elder abuse occur through financial exploitation, which suggests that there are as many as five million financial exploitation cases annually (NCEA). While abuse within gay and lesbian relationships is still under-researched, researchers are paying more attention to this type of domestic violence. In 2003, for example, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals reported 6,523 incidents of domestic violence, with men constituting 44 percent of the victims (NCVC).


There are a number of approaches to understanding how domestic violence occurs. Because a single answer does not exist, scholars and professionals have created categories, such as psychiatric, social-psychological, and sociocultural, to organize various models of domestic violence theories. The psychiatric model identifies substance abuse, personality disorders, and mental illness as the causes of domestic violence and included in this model are the psychopathology and substance abuse theories. The psychopathological theory stipulates that individuals can suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, which trigger aggressive behavior towards family members and intimate partners. Yet medical professionals have not elaborated on the personality traits that are affiliated specifically with domestic violence acts. The substance abuse theory suggests that drug and/or alcohol use contributes to domestic violence. While these substances do not directly cause violence, they do prompt impaired judgment and lowered inhibitions that can facilitate aggressive and violent behavior.

The social-psychological model looks at external factors that affect family members and intimate partners and includes theories defined as social learning, exchange, frustration-aggression, ecological, and sociobiology/evolutionary. The social learning theory identifies modeling and reinforcement as the two tactics used to learn behavior. An individual models behaviors from those around him or her and these behaviors are then reinforced by the same people. Behaviors can be both violent and nonviolent. This theory does not explain, however, the occurrence of spontaneous aggressive acts.

The exchange theory argues that interactions within the family or between intimate partners are based on a system of rewards and punishments. Violence perpetrated by one individual against another in a domestic setting is done so to realize particular goals as long as it does not offset the aggression. Next the frustration-aggression theory is based on the notion that individuals will exhibit aggressive behavior towards impediments of their goals. If a family member or intimate partner encounters difficulty in achieving a goal because another family member or partner functions as an obstacle, then violence could result. This theory does not take into account the range of cultures and what behaviors are acceptable within these cultures. The ecological theory includes examinations of the domestic environment and the systems in which the family develops. It also specifies that domestic violence occurs when the family is disparate from the community. To prevent violence, services and assistance must be readily available in the immediate community. Finally the sociobiology/evolutionary theory is based on the idea that parents will more often exhibit violence towards children who are not their own. The risk of abuse increases when there is an absence of an emotional bond between parent and child.

The sociocultural model of domestic violence includes theories called, variously, the culture of violence, patriarchy, general systems, social conflict, and resource. The theories consider the societal roles of men and women as well as cultural attitudes towards gender and violence. The culture of violence theory contends that violence is not distributed evenly, but is more prevalent within lower socioeconomic categories. This theory does not account for the various sources by which people learn violent and aggressive behaviors that permeate all subcultures and socioeconomic categories (e.g., the media). The patriarchy theory attempts to explain domestic violence via the patriarchal structure of our culture, namely males dominating society with females in subordinated positions. This structure explains the historical pattern of violence perpetrated by men against women. The general systems theory of domestic violence posits that violence results from the social systems in which the family and intimate partners live. The levels of violence are also sustained by the family system. The social conflict theory examines communications, marriages/partnerships, and large conflicts and suggests that isolation/alienation can create domestic violence. Finally the resource theory contends that the individual who controls resources, like money and property, will assume the dominant position within the domestic setting, and that violence depends on these resources. Possessing a large amount of resources increases the power one has in the family; however, access to those resources also lessens the potential for the actual deployment of violence. Violence is more often perpetrated by an individual with fewer resources and a lower socioeconomic status.


The majority of victims of intimate partner abuse are women, and they are assaulted by someone who is a former or current spouse, cohabiting partner (opposite or same-sex), date, or boyfriend or girlfriend. When the victim is female, 93.4 percent of the time the offender is male, and when the victim is male, 85.9 percent of the time the perpetrator is male (Gosselin 2000). Studies focusing on the adult male batterer have identified characteristics and personality risk-factors that characterize this type of abuser, but these factors can also be applied to female perpetrators, abusers in gay and lesbian relationships, and elder and child abuse situations. These characteristics, behaviors, and tactics of the offender of intimate partner domestic violence can include controlling behaviors (i.e., attempts to control the victim's time, dress, and behavior), fear and intimidation, manipulation, excessive rule-making, and isolation.

The average male abuser, as revealed through statistics on court appearances and encounters with law enforcement officials, is thirty-two years old (with two-thirds in their mid-twenties), possesses low self-esteem, is frequently jealous and possessive, and is overly dependent on the victim. He often denies responsibility for his actions, blaming others for his behavior, and minimizes the effects of his actions on the victim. Some personality risk-factors in male abusers include an aggressive personality, insecurity, emotional dependence, low empathy, and low impulse control. Also substantial evidence exists linking alcohol and/or drug abuse and the frequency of domestic violence occurrences. Furthermore studies have indicated there is not one single type of male abuser. Three categories of offenders have been identified: family-only, dysphoric or borderline, and antisocial or generally violent (Gosselin 2000). The last type is the most aggressive and is likely to have had a past that includes abuse as a child or a violent family history.

Within heterosexual intimate partner relationships, 6 to 10 percent of the abusers are women (Gosselin 2000, p. 105). In the majority of these cases, women are engaged in self-defending acts, or, in other words, aggressive physical acts to prevent further abuse. Battery in lesbian relationships can occur as often as in heterosexual relationships, and 22 to 46 percent of all lesbians have indicated being in an abusive (physical, emotional, and/or sexual) relationship (Gosselin 2000). Women also have a high rate of being both victims and perpetrators in teen dating relationships. This type of abuse is an epidemic problem, and women often cite their aggression as self-defense.

Finally perpetrators of abuse in gay male relationships share many of the same characteristics identified earlier but also exhibit an unclear understanding of the concept of masculinity. This stems from the systemic homophobia and imposed expectations of masculinity on males. This type of abuse, like abuse within lesbian relationships, has been underreported and under-researched in the past but is currently receiving more attention from the sociological and legal fields.


The majority of child abuse is perpetrated by the parents (77%) or other relatives (11%) whereas only 2 percent of offenders were from outside of the home (i.e., childcare providers) (Gosselin 2000). Women accounted for 75 percent of the abusers in neglect and medical child abuse cases (Gosselin 2000). Fathers and mothers are equally likely to physically abuse children, and when a parent substitute is involved, the offender is usually the male or the father substitute. This form of domestic abuse is not constituted by a single act of physical violence, deprivation, or molestation. Emotional abuse is included in a broad definition of child abuse but may not be legally prohibited. Emotional abuse can include demanding unrealistic expectations from a child, aggressive or excessive parental behavior, or insisting a child perform beyond his or her abilities. Also child abuse can include sexual abuse, usually perpetrated by a parent, relative, or caretaker, and girls are the most frequent victims of sexual abuse, which often goes unreported.

Research has identified characteristics within the family that can generally contribute to abuse. These factors include family size (the larger the family, the greater risk for abuse), income level, single-parent households, and alcohol and drug abuse. Additionally violence among siblings occurs more often than spousal abuse and parent-child abuse; yet it is also underreported. The child offender is often male and larger than his siblings, and this type of abuse can often manifest similarly to intimate partner abuse (Gosselin 2000).


In the realm of domestic violence, less information exists on elder abuse than child abuse, for example. Adult children are the most frequent offenders of elder abuse, and men and women are equally likely to be the perpetrators. Sociological and psychological research has identified three categories of elder abuse: stress-precipitated, greed, and intentional harm (Gosselin 2000). The final category is the most dangerous because the offender's intention is to harm whereas the stress-precipitated and greed abusers generally do not intend physical harm. Within legal parameters, seven types of elder abuse have been identified including: financial exploitation; misuse of restraints; neglect and abandonment; physical abuse; emotional abuse; self-endangerment and sexual abuse. While every state does not include each form or uniformly define elder abuse, many laws overlap to cover elder abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) identifies similar categories but does not include the misuse of restraints and distinguishes neglect and abandonment as separate incidents. The most prevalent form of elder abuse is neglect, which accounts for 55 percent of elder abuse cases (NCEA).


There are generally four categories of the types of physical injuries sustained as a result of domestic violence: those that heal and leave no trace; those that leave visible scars; unknown long-term injuries; and long-term catastrophic injuries (Wallace 2002). Some traumatic injuries that can result from domestic violence include gun shot wounds, stab wounds, burns, and head trauma as well as the variety of physical injuries resulting from sexual assault, including the possible transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and/or HIV.

Emotional and psychological responses to domestic violence vary for each individual. A number of factors determine how a victim will respond including the frequency and severity of the abuse and personality of the victim. Mental health professionals have identified three stages in the reaction process to traumatic events: impact; recoil; and reorganization (Wallace 2002). The impact stage occurs directly following the violent event, when victims can feel a sense of shock, vulnerability, and helplessness. The temporal duration of this stage varies but can last a number of days. The recoil stage involves victims beginning to accept the violence they have endured, but they can also experience denial, fear, and anger. The reorganization stage finds victims beginning to release feelings of fear and anger and starting to normalize their lives.

Much attention has been paid to the psychological effects of domestic violence. Some of the psychological responses include borderline personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (of which battered women syndrome is a subcategory), Stockholm Syndrome, and self-inflicted violence (Gosselin 2000). These psychological effects are in addition to the range of physical injuries, both temporary and permanent, that victims endure. Additionally teenage girls who are victims of assault (physical or sexual) are more likely to engage in substance abuse and attempt suicide (NCADV "dating violence"). Women who suffer from violence at the hand of an intimate partner can experience feelings of helplessness, fear, and personal failure as well as the need to consider her financial situation, the pursuit of legal action, and personal security. Victims of assault may confront feelings of anger and fear and may face medical bills, lost work time, and physical injury.

According to scholar Harvey Wallace, the cost of domestic violence for society includes medical and mental health care, victim services, lost workdays, lost school days, lost housework, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment, death, legal costs, and second-generation costs. He also notes the cost of society's responses to crime, which include fear of crime, funding the criminal justice system, creation of victim service organizations and non-criminal programs, imprisoned offender costs, and justice costs. Moreover tangible losses, such as property damage, medical care, mental health care, and victim services, often surpass the intangible losses, like fatal and non-fatal injuries. It is estimated that intimate partner violence costs $5.8 billion annually, which includes healthcare expenses, lost productivity, and lost earnings.


Domestic violence has traditionally fallen under the jurisdiction of the states. Changes in statutes to address domestic violence crimes have come in the areas of police response, how cases are handled by the judiciary and prosecutors, increasing the availability and deployment of civil orders of protection, and the development of additional educational resources. Every state has adopted reforms to address these concerns, including enacting domestic violence codes, removing barriers to obtaining arrest warrants, and expanding grounds for arrest. Reforms on the state level began by the passage of criminal statutes on domestic violence. Laws also started to include enhanced punishments for domestic violence-related crimes, such as aggravated assault and battery. Police departments nationwide worked to standardize and institute practices for responding specifically to domestic violence crimes and victims, and practices that went beyond the actual arrest. Some of these new practices include arranging social services for victims, providing transportation for victims if necessary, removing dangerous weapons from the crime scene, and ensuring that violators of protective orders are not released prematurely by law enforcement officials. Laws that address how prosecutors and the judiciary handle domestic violence cases frequently offer more prosecutorial options and some mandated judicial action, such as limits on plea bargaining and creating written policies on working up domestic violence cases.

A significant tool in the defense against domestic violence has been the civil order of protection, better known as a restraining order. Protection orders are intended to create distance between offender and victim and provide relief from abuse for the victim. For an order of protection to be granted, an abusive offense must have occurred and the victim must be in imminent physical harm. In all states but Texas and Washington, where it is a felony, the violation of a protection order is a misdemeanor offense. Additionally as part of the reformation process, many states expanded the duration and scope of protection orders as well as increased the punishment for violation of those orders.

While states oversee much of the domestic violence legislation, some federal laws are applicable. Some federal statutes prohibit crossing state lines to commit domestic violence crimes or to violate protection orders. In 1984 the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act was passed to provide funds for victim assistance in the form of local community programs such as shelters and counseling services as well as research projects. Also the Federal Crimes Bill of 1994 included Title IV of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), which allocated additional resources for the local prosecutions of domestic violence crimes. The VAWA provides for federal penalties for sex crimes and mandatory restitution to victims Additionally the VAWA increased training for law enforcement and judicial personnel and improved the criminal justice response to domestic violence crimes. In 2000 Congress reauthorized the VAWA, and in 2005 the bill was up for reauthorization again and was signed into law in January 2006. The most recent version of the bill requests funds for legal assistance in the amount of $65 million annually as well as the continuation of financial support for the privacy protection of victims. The VAWA also includes cyberstalking in the broad definition of stalking, which facilitates the prosecution of those who stalk using telecommunication tools.

In 1996 Congress enacted anti-stalking legislation that makes it illegal for individuals to cross state lines with the intention of causing the physical harm or harassment of another person; the latest version of the VAWA expands the classification of stalking. Prior to 1990 no state had anti-stalking legislation and all harassment offenses were misdemeanors. In 1993 the National Institute of Justice proposed a model anti-stalking code, and the suggested components included the condition that a specific threat is not necessary if fear is present regardless of intent, and that violation of the statute be considered a felony. Many states adopted some or all of these propositions, but some states did require a finding that an explicit threat be present and that the offender have the means to commit the act. Penalties for stalking offenses vary greatly among the states, ranging from misdemeanor to felony punishments. More recently however states have reevaluated their anti-stalking statutes to take into account a variety of factors, including the use of cyber threats as a means of stalking and the need for psychological evaluations of defendants. Some laws provide for the creation of address confidentiality programs for alleged victims of stalking, and prohibit anyone subject to an order of protection from purchasing firearms or explosive devices.


More recently social services for victims of domestic violence have increased dramatically; yet the rate of incidents remains unchanged. According to the NCADV, support comes from a variety of sources, including crisis intervention, emotional support, legal assistance and advocacy, and other services. Crisis intervention can include crisis intervention services, crisis hot lines, shelters or other emergency residential facilities, medical services, transportation networks, and laws that allow either victims or perpetrators to be removed from the home. Emotional support can be found in self-help support groups, assertiveness training, self-esteem and confidence-building sessions, and parenting skills courses. Legal assistance and advocacy can include representation in child custody and property matters, financial support proceedings, applications for protection orders and public assistance benefits, and help with immigration status. Housing and safe accommodations, child care, and access to community services constitute other available support services for victims of domestic violence. The NCADV also suggests victims of domestic violence develop a safety plan that takes into consideration whether the victim is still in the abusive relationship. The organization also offers suggestions for workplace safety, proposes legal guidelines, and proffers tips on internet safety and identity theft protection.

see also Incest; Sex Crimes; Violence.


Berry, Dawn Bradley. 2000. The Domestic Violence Sourcebook: Everything You Need To Know. Los Angeles: Lowell House.

Buzawa, Carl G., and Eve S. Buzawa. 2003. Domestic Violence: The Criminal Justice Response. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Gosselin, Denise Kindschi. 2000. Heavy Hands: An Introduction to the Crimes of Domestic Violence. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC)."Domestic Violence." Available from

National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC). "Elder Victimization." Available from

National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). "Elder Abuse Prevalence and Incidence." Available from

National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). "Trends in Elder Abuse in Domestic Settings." Availabler from

National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). "Types of Elder Abuse in Domestic Settings." Available from

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Child Maltreatment." Available from

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Children and Domestic Violence Facts." Available from

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Dating Violence Facts." Available from

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Domestic Violence Facts." Available from

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). "Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence." Available from

Violence Against Women Act. Available from

Wallace, Harvey. 2002. Family Violence: Legal, Medical and Social Perspectives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

                                                 Michelle Parke

Domestic Violence

views updated May 17 2018

Domestic Violence

Sections within this eassay:

History of Police Responses to Domestic Violence
Recent Federal Legislation
State Legislation
Civil and Other Proceedings
Domestic Violence and the Workplace
Domestic Violence and Firearms
Battered Women's Syndrome
Identifying Signs of Domestic Violence
Additional Resources
American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence
Family Violence Department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
Family Violence Prevention Fund
Immigrant Women Program of NOW Legal Defense Fund
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Safe Work Coalition


Domestic violence consists of acts committed in the context of an adult intimate relationship. It is a continuance of aggressive and controlling behaviors, including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks, that one adult intimate does to another. Domestic violence is purposeful and instrumental behavior directed at achieving compliance from, or control over, the abused party. It is one of the most under-reported crimes in the United States, and the Department of Justice in 1998 estimated that there are between 960,000 and four million domestic incidents each year. In 1994, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that about 92 percent of domestic violence cases involve female victims.

Legal definitions of domestic violence are usually delineated by the relationship between the parties and by the nature of the perpetrator's abusive behaviors. For example, the relationship may be a current spouse, a former spouse, a family member, a child, parents of a child in common, unmarried persons of different genders living as spouses, intimate partners of the same gender, dating relationships, and persons offering refuge. Such definitions recognize that victims may not be exclusively women, and domestic assaults may not just occur between heterosexual couples. The types of behavior frequently encountered in domestic violence are physical attacks, sexual attacks, psychological abuse, and the destruction of property or pets.

History of Police Responses to Domestic Violence

Police responses to domestic violence have historically been clouded by notions, for example, the idea that a wife is the "property" of a husband and he has the right to carry out whatever behavior is necessary to "keep her in line." This idea and others like it reflect attitudes held by the greater society. Further aggravating the situation was the perception that domestic violence is not "real police work," and such disputes are private matters that should be kept within the household. Prior to 1980, when domestic situations were brought to the attention of police, calls were often diverted by dispatchers, given a lower priority, or officers responded to the scene and departed again as quickly as possible without achieving any type of meaningful intervention. Laws such as the "rule of thumb" (whereby it was legal for a husband to beat his wife with a stick not wider than his thumb) were still on the books until very recent times.

Prior to the 1980s, the practice of police agencies was to use mediation in domestic incidents. But ironically, much of this so-called mediation was done only when only one spouse was present. Several prominent court cases helped change legislation. In 1972, Ruth Bunnell was killed as a result of police non-intervention. The case of wrongful death against the City of San Jose was dismissed in the California Court of Appeals but received much publicity. In 1985, a jury verdict awarded $2.3 million in favor of plaintiff Tracy Thurman who sued the Torrington, CT, police department after they repeatedly failed to arrest her abusive husband (Thurman v. City of Torrington, 1985). Her husband eventually caused her serious bodily injury.

Another landmark case is currently being heard in the California courts system. In 1996, Maria Macias was killed by her estranged husband after an order of protection was not enforced by the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. The victim had requested help from the department on 22 occasions. The lower courts held that women have a constitutional right to safety and equal protection, and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department provided inadequate police protection based on the victim's status as a woman and a victim of domestic violence. The case is due to be heard in April, 2002 in the Appeals Court of California (99-15662).

Beginning in the late 1980s, there were many attempts to change the way police departments intervened in domestic violence situations. Inspired by Sherman's Minneapolis experiment, many police agencies adopted preferred or mandatory arrest policies. Arrest both acknowledges that society views domestic violence as a criminal offense and also provides immediate safety for the victim. Accompanying these new arrest policies were civil proceedings (discussed below).

Recent Federal Legislation

The 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), with additions passed in 1996, outlined grant programs to prevent violence against women and established a national domestic violence hotline. In addition, new protections were given to victims of domestic abuse, such as confidentiality of new address and changes to immigration laws that allow a battered spouse to apply for permanent residency.

According to the VAWA Act, a domestic violence misdemeanor is one in which someone is convicted for a crime "committed by an intimate partner, parent, or guardian of the victim that required the use or attempted use of physical force or the threatened use of a deadly weapon" (Section 922 (g)[9]). Under these guidelines, an intimate partner is a spouse, a former spouse, a person who shares a child in common with the victim, or a person who cohabits or has cohabited with the victim.

Another area this act addresses is interstate traveling for the purposes of committing an act of domestic violence or violating an order of protection. A convicted abuser may not follow the victim into another state, nor may a convicted abuser force a victim to move to another state. Previously, orders of protection issued in one jurisdiction were not always recognized in another jurisdiction. The VAWA specifies full faith and credit to all orders of protection issued in any civil or criminal proceeding, or by any Indian tribe, meaning that those orders can be fully enforced in another jurisdiction. Forty-seven states have now passed legislation that recognizes orders of protection issued in other jurisdictions. Three states, Alaska, Montana, and Pennsylvania, require that an out of state order be filed with an in state jurisdiction before the order can be enforced.

There are several landmark cases that have been decided under these new interstate provisions. For example, in the United States v. Rita Gluzman (NY), the defendant traveled from New Jersey to New York with the intention of killing her estranged husband. The weapons she took with her were used in the murder. Gluzman was convicted for this crime. In the United States v. Mark A. Sterkel (1997), the defendant was convicted of interstate stalking after traveling from Utah to Arizona to threaten his former boss.

The VAWA also allows victims of domestic abuse to sue for damages in civil court. However, this part of the VAWA was recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brzonkala v. Morrison (2000) in which the court held that Congress did not have the authority to implement such a law.

Another goal of the VAWA was to influence state legislators, particularly in regard to arrest policy for domestic situations. In order to receive Federal funding, states must adopt certain responses. The Act reads: VAWA 1994: (1) To implement mandatory arrest or pro-arrest programs and policies in police departments, including mandatory arrest programs and policies for protection order violations (Part U, SEC. 2101). This act has had a profound effect on state laws governing domestic abuse.

State Legislation

Until about ten years ago, many states still had laws that required an officer to witness an assault before making an arrest. Today, officers in all states can arrest someone they suspect has committed a domestic assault without having witnessed the event. The majority of states have adopted preferred arrest policies which require police to either arrest one or both parties at the scene, or write a report justifying why an arrest is not made. Arrest policies do differ by jurisdiction even in the same state. Some states, such as New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, have adopted mandatory arrest policies which dictate that an officer must make an arrest at a domestic situation. Such policies were adopted after it was realized how serious domestic situations could be for the victims and their children. An arrest is usually made after the following conditions have been satisfied:

  • There is probable cause of a crime;
  • The suspect and the victim fit the definition of having a domestic relationship;
  • The suspect's alleged act fits the definitions of domestic assault;
  • There is reason to believe that the domestic abuse will continue if the suspect is not arrested and/or there evidence of injury;
  • The incident was reported within 28 days of occurrence.

Usually, if any of these conditions is not satisfied, the officer may use his or her discretion in deciding whether to make an arrest. Although different states have variations on definitions of domestic violence, most are similar to the following example.

MINNESOTA: 1) domestic abuse means physical harm, bodily injury, or assault; 2) the infliction of fear of imminent physical harm, bodily injury, or assault or; 3) terrorist threats or criminal sexual conduct (518B.01).

Civil and Other Proceedings

There are several available civil options that can provide for the safety of victims of domestic assaults and their families, such as an order of protection or a judicial ex parte order. All 51 states have allowances for orders of protection. An order of protection can prohibit the abuser from contacting, attacking, striking, telephoning, or disturbing the peace of the victim; force the abuser to move from a residence shared with the victim; order the abuser to stay at least 100 yards away from the victim, his or her place of residence, and place of employment; order the abuser to attend counseling; and prohibit the abuser from purchasing a firearm. Orders of protection may also include a provision for the safety of children and others living in the home.

An ex parte order requires the abusive cohabitant to temporarily vacate the premises. Issued only after the battered spouse seeks it, this order is sometimes referred to as a temporary restraining order. In most states, a cohabitant refers to a person who has a sexual relationship with the victim and has lived with the victim for at least 90 days during the year prior to the order being filed. A victim who is threatened with imminent harm or has already been harmed by the abuser and/or already has an order of protection against the abuser has no other legal remedy than to seek a restraining order. In most states, an attorney is needed to get a restraining order.

Violation of an order of protection is the equivalent of contempt of a court order. In many states, police policy is to arrest violators automatically. A violator can also be fined and jailed and may be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony.

Domestic Violence and the Workplace

Domestic violence can reach beyond the home and into the workplace. Although a victim may leave the home and go to a shelter or change her or his address, the abuser usually knows where the victim works. Not only do abusers harass their partners at work, domestic violence can lead to missed days of work because of injuries or court appearances. Federal and state legislation has recently been amended so that victims of domestic violence are not penalized by employers for missed work.

At the Federal level, Labor Law Section 593 (1) states that when a victim of domestic violence voluntarily terminates his or her job, he or she is eligible for unemployment benefits. The Penal Law, Section 215.14, passed in 1996, makes it a crime to penalize an employee who has been a victim or a witness to a criminal offense and who must attend court. Fur-ther, both state and federal guidelines mandate that employers maintain a safe work environment.

Domestic Violence and Firearms

Under the 1994 VAWA Act, it is illegal for individuals who have been convicted of a domestic-violence related incident or who have an order of protection against them, to possess a firearm. Specifically, federal law prohibits the shipping, transporting, possessing, or receiving firearms or ammunition. Military and law enforcement personnel are not exempt from this law, even if they carry weapons when they are on duty. Questions about this policy should be directed to local branches of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) Office.

It is illegal for a person to possess a firearm while subject to a court order restraining such a person from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or the child of an intimate partner (18 U.S.C. 922 (g) [8]). It is also illegal to transfer a firearm to a person subject to a court order that restrains such a person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or the child of an intimate partner (18 U.S.C. 922 (d) [8]).

As of September 30, 1996, it is illegal to possess a firearm after conviction of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. This prohibition applies to persons convicted of such misdemeanors at any time, even if the conviction occurred prior to the new law's effective date (18 U.S.C. 922, (g) [9]).

Further, The Gun Control Act of 1994, which was amended in 1996, also makes it illegal to possess a firearm and/or ammunition if the individual is subject to an order of protection or if the individual has been convicted of a misdemeanor domestic assault.


Domestic situations may also involve stalking of the victim by the estranged partner. Stalking usually involves repeated threatening or harassing behaviors, such as phone calls, following or shadowing a person, appearing at a person's home or place of employment, vandalizing property, and any other activity that makes a person fear for his or her safety. Stalking laws vary greatly from state to state, with some requiring a minimum of two acts or other proof that the event was not an isolated occurrence, and others specifying that the threat of harm must be imminent. Some states also include activities such as lying-in-wait, surveillance, and non-consensual communication.

In its 1998 research on state codes and stalking, the National Institute of Justice defined stalking as "a course of conduct directed at a specific person that involves repeated visual or physical proximity, nonconsensual communication, or verbal, written, or implied threats, or a combination thereof, that would cause a reasonable person fear," with repeated meaning on two or more occasions. There are three types of stalking: erotomania, which is often committed by a female and is a delusional obsession with a public figure or someone out of the stalker's reach; love obsessional, which involves individuals' stalking someone with whom they think they are in love; and simple obsessional, which is stalking by someone the victim knows. Domestic violence stalking fits into this last category and is usually perpetrated by an exspouse or lover, employer or co-worker.

The following examples of state legislation on stalking illustrate differences in definitions of and punishment for stalking.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Stalking refers to more than one incident of willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly following or harassing or without a legal purpose, willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly following or harassing another person with the intent of causing emotional distress or creating reasonable fear of death or bodily injury. Harassment refers to engaging in a course of conduct either in person, by telephone, or in writing, directed at a specific person, which seriously alarms, annoys, frightens, or torments the victim or engaging in a course of conduct either in person, by telephone, or in writing, which would cause a reasonable person to be seriously alarmed, annoyed, frightened, or tormented. Such an offense can be punishable by a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment of up to 12 months or both (Title 22, Section 504). A second offense occurring within two years can result in a fine of up to $750 and/or imprisonment for up to one and a half years. A third offense is punishable by a fine of not more than $1500 and/or imprisonment for up to three years.

TENNESSEE: (a)(1) A person commits the offense of stalking who intentionally and repeatedly follows or harasses another person in such a manner as would cause that person to be in reasonable fear of being assaulted or suffering bodily injury or death.

(A) "Follows" means maintaining a visual or physical proximity over a period of time to a specific person in such a manner as would cause a reasonable person to have a fear of an assault, bodily injury, or death;

(B) "Harasses" means a course of conduct directed at a specific person, which would cause a reasonable person to fear a sexual offense, bodily injury, or death, including, but not limited to, verbal threats, written threats, vandalism, or physical contact that was non-consensual;

(C) "Repeatedly" means on two (2) or more occasions.

(b) (1) Stalking is a Class A misdemeanor.

In Tennessee, if there is a subsequent violation of this law within a seven-year period, the offense becomes a class E felony. A subsequent violation denotes a class C felony.

Battered Women's Syndrome

A phenomenon which has received much attention in the realm of domestic violence and particularly with women who kill is battered women's syndrome (BWS), which is a subcategory of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Walker, battered women's syndrome is:

A group of usually transient psychological symptoms that are frequently observed in a particular recognizable pattern in women who report having been physically, sexually, and/or seriously psychologically abused by their male domestic partners.

BWS develops as a battering relationship unfolds. This is typically a three-stage process that includes: 1) small incidents of verbal and minor physical abuse that begin infrequently but increase in frequency; 2) actual acute battering that often causes serious injury needing medical attention; and 3) a cycle where the abuser is contrite to the abused and ultimately teaches the abused to be submissive and passive toward further abuse.

A woman displaying symptoms of BWS may be apathetic toward subjects or activities for which she used to be enthusiastic, she may become involved in drug or alcohol abuse, and she may also experience completely different attitudes and emotions toward her spouse than she did before the abuse began. The importance in knowing about BWS lies in recognizing predictable, psychological effects caused by domestic violence. BWS is now recognized in legislation by many states and is considered when defending battered wives who kill their spouses. BWS is not used as a defense but more as an indication of the defendant's state of mind or as a mitigating circumstance. A reasonable fear of imminent danger (especially used in self-defense ) can be proven using BWS.

Identifying Signs of Domestic Violence

Montgomery County (MD) Sheriff's Department suggests that the following behaviors may indicate domestic violence to a police officer or dispatcher:

  • the victim is very fearful of the partner;
  • the victim states that the partner is extremely jealous;
  • the victim describes the relationship as full of conflict;
  • the victim makes references to being forced to have sexual relations with the partner;
  • the victim states police have often been called to the home;
  • the victim states that the partner controls everything the victim does.

Police and attorneys should recommend the victim apply for an order of protection if the victim has been abused or threatened, and if either of the following is present:

  • the victim fears further abuse;
  • the victim needs the abuser out of the home in order to protect herself and/or her family;
  • the abuser has threatened to take the children;
  • the victim cannot or does not wish to file criminal charges;
  • the victim wants the abuser to attend a counseling program;
  • the victim wants a period of separation from the abuser but is unsure whether to file for divorce or custody yet;
  • criminal charges are pending and the victim fears for her safety;
  • the victim's children have been abused.

Additional Resources

Police Responses to Wife Beating: Neglect of a Crime of Violence. Stephen E. Brown, Journal of Criminal Justice (1984) 277-288.

Stalking and Domestic Violence: The Third Annual Report to Congress under the Violence Against Women Act. Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 1998. Available online at:

The Battered Woman Syndrome. Leonore E. Walker, Springer, 1984.

The Federal Domestic Violence Laws and the Enforcement of These Laws. Margaret S. Groban, Violence Against Women On Line Resources, 2001.

The Impact of Arrest on Domestic Violence. Eva S. Buzawa and Carl G. Buzawa, American Behavioral Scientist, 1993, 558-574.

The Scientific Evidence Is Not Conclusive: Arrest Is No Panacea. Eva S. Buzawa and Carl G. Buzawa. Chapter 21. Issues in Social Intervention. Sage Publications, 1993.

Victimology and the Psychological Perspectives of Battered Women. Lenore E. Walker, Victimology: An International Journal, 8 (1/2), 82-104.

Violence Against Women. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, January 1994.

Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Available on-line at

Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends. U.S. Department of Justice, March 1998.


American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence

740 15th Street NW
Washington, DC 20005-1022 USA
Primary Contact:

Family Violence Department of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges

P.O. Box 89507
Reno, NV 89507 USA
Toll-Free: 800-527-3223
Primary Contact:

Family Violence Prevention Fund

383 Rhode Island Street, Suite 304
San Francisco, CA 94103-5133 USA
Phone: (415) 252-8900
Fax: (415) 252-8991
Primary Contact:

Immigrant Women Program of NOW Legal Defense Fund

1522 K St., NW
Washington, DC 20005 USA
Phone: (202) 326-0004
Primary Contact:

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

1532 16th St., NW
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 745-1211
Fax: (202) 745-0088
Primary Contact:

National Domestic Violence Hotline

P.O. Box 161810
Austin, TX 78716 USA
Toll-Free: 800-799-SAFE
Toll-Free: 800-787-3224
Primary Contact:

Safe Work Coalition

395 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014 USA
Phone: (212) 925-6635
Fax: (212) 226-1066
Primary Contact:

Domestic Violence

views updated May 23 2018


DOMESTIC VIOLENCE encompasses a range of actions, including assault, battery, rape, and murder, committed by someone to whom the victim is intimately related. Intimate relations include spouses, sexual partners, parents, children, siblings, extended family members, and dating relationships. Although victims of domestic violence include both men and women, females are affected disproportionately. According to the surgeon general, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the United States.

Historically, social and cultural responses to domestic violence have been complex. Americans have differed over what behaviors constitute abuse, to whom responsibility should be assigned, and what relief victims should receive. The evolution of legal doctrines concerning domestic violence has been predicated on the question of whether abuse committed by intimate relations constitutes a matter of private or public concern. A movement to define protection from domestic violence as a civil right entitled to constitutional protection emerged at the end of the twentieth century.

Common Law

Anglo-American common law tradition held that the male head of household possessed the authority to act as both disciplinarian and protector of all those who were dependent on him. The concept of the household was broader than that of the nuclear family for it included extended kin, servants, apprentices, and slaves in addition to wife and children. In the agrarian societies of England and colonial America, members of a household worked together as an economic unit; therefore the law also treated the household as a single entity and granted full legal status only to its male head. The household head acted as the unit's representative; individual members did not usually enjoy legal recognition as separate persons. Under the category of laws known as coverture, a married woman's identity merged with that of her husband. As an individual she could not own property, vote, sign contracts, or keep wages earned by employment outside the household.

Common law allowed the male head considerable discretion in controlling the behavior of the members of his household. In certain cases husbands might even be held liable for failing to control the actions of their dependents. In the American colonies the law defined extreme acts of violence or cruelty as crimes, but local community standards were the most important yardsticks by which domestic violence was defined and dealt with. In the seventeenth-century Puritan communities of New England, for example, a husband had a legal right to "use" his wife's body, but "excessive" use could be subject to prosecution. Puritan parents felt a strong sense of duty to discipline their children, whom they believed to be born naturally depraved, to save them from eternal damnation. While Puritan society tolerated a high degree of physicality in parental discipline, the community drew a line at which it regarded parental behavior as abuse rather than acceptable discipline. Those who crossed the line were brought before the courts.

The law of slavery in the United States granted the master virtually complete authority in punishing his chattel property. Although every slave state defined killing a slave as murder, the historical record amply demonstrates that extreme violence by masters against their slaves was common. Because slave populations greatly outnumbered whites in many communities, whites may have regarded strict control over slaves as necessary to the preservation of the social order. Again, local community standards played a significant role in drawing the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable levels of violence within a slave-owning household.

The Nineteenth Century

A number of social changes during the nineteenth century altered the public perception of domestic violence, and these changes were reflected in the law as well. The twin forces of industrialization and urbanization loosened the community ties that had traditionally served as important regulators of domestic behavior, and over time victims of domestic violence became more dependent on the police and courts for protection, although not always with positive results. A case brought before the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1864, State v. Jesse Black, illustrates the trend. Jesse Black had been found guilty of assault and battery in criminal court for seizing his estranged wife by the hair, pinning her to the ground and holding her there, and severely injuring her throat. The state supreme court, in reversing Black's conviction, held that while the abuse could be considered severe by local standards, the wife had provoked the quarrel, therefore Black was simply controlling her outburst in a manner allowable under the law. As this case demonstrates, in the mid-nineteenth century women could turn to the law for protection from domestic violence, but the common law tradition allowing men wide discretionary authority in controlling their wives retained its influence in the reasoning of the courts.

Even when the law did find in their favor, women and children who were victims of abuse lacked the legal standing and economic power necessary to survive outside of the household, and so they often gained no actual relief. Early women's rights advocates redefined women's legal dependency on men as an injustice rather than merely an accepted social convention and worked to reform property and child custody laws to allow women greater control over their lives. The first conference devoted to the topic of women's rights, held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, produced a declaration that in part criticized the law for granting husbands the power to "administer chastisement" to their wives.

By midcentury commercial capitalism had created a large middle class whose attitudes and values exerted considerable influence over American society as a whole. The new middle-class view regarded mothers and children less as productive members of the household and more as fulfillers of the family's spiritual and emotional needs. While violence within middle-class households remained largely hidden from public view, some reformers working in private charitable organizations began efforts to ameliorate the problem as they observed it among poor and working-class families. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the single largest women's organization of the nineteenth century, focused on domestic violence as the most serious consequence of alcohol consumption. The WCTU invariably portrayed women as the helpless victims of male drunkenness, rarely publicly recognizing women as either alcoholics or abusers.

Most nineteenth-century reformers, however, viewed children as the primary victims of domestic violence. In actuality the majority of cases brought to their attention constituted child neglect rather than physical abuse. They exhibited little sympathy, however, for mothers who, because of the urgent need to earn family income, failed to meet middle-class expectations for the proper education, hygiene, and supervision of children. Abused women, to access the protective services they needed for themselves, commonly claimed that male members of the household were injuring the children. These services tended to be quite informal and highly personalized interactions between agency workers and their clients.

The Progressive Era

A change in American social welfare practices occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Social reformers of the Progressive Era (c. 1890–1920) believed problems such as chronic poverty, poor health, and domestic violence among poor and working-class Americans to be the result of larger systemic forces rather than the particularized problems of individuals. They worked to create a more efficient system for addressing domestic violence. Protective services became the province of professionals trained in the social sciences or the law rather than philanthropists, and both private and public relief organizations developed into more bureaucratized and rational, although also more impersonal, agencies. In addition Progressives urged that solving the problem required more active involvement on the part of the state.

By the early twentieth century the increasing social recognition of adolescence as a distinct stage of human development became an important dimension of efforts to address domestic violence. Largely influenced by the work of the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, Progressive reformers extended the chronological boundaries of childhood into the midteens and sought laws mandating that children stay in school and out of the workforce. Reformers also worked for the establishment of a juvenile justice system that would allow judges to consider the special psychological needs of adolescents and keep them separated from adult criminals in order to protect them from harmful influences. Consequently juvenile courts began to play a central role in adjudicating cases of domestic violence.

Individual states began to allow women more control over property and child custody, and in 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment prohibited states from denying women the vote. But while they had gained a measure of legal equality, most women still lacked sufficient economic and social resources to escape abuse in their households.

Although it is unlikely that its incidence actually decreased over the following decades, domestic violence as a social rather than a private concern retreated from its Progressive Era prominence. When abuse was addressed in popular media, such as magazines, films, and television, it was interpreted as the result of individuals' psychological weaknesses rather than as a systemic problem integrally tied to lingering social, political, and economic inequalities among the members of a household. Often these popular portrayals indicted mothers for being either too permissive or too demanding in raising their sons. Thus women were commonly identified as the responsible agents in perpetuating domestic violence rather than its disadvantaged victims. Such an unfavorable cultural climate obscured the social and economic roots of the problem and was a barrier to individuals bringing their claims to the courts for redress.

Civil Rights

A sea change occurred in the 1960s as the product of two powerful and related forces, the civil rights movement and the emergence of modern feminism. The long crusade to bring full citizenship rights to African Americans engendered new movements to empower the poor and the disenfranchised. Campaigns for safe and adequate housing, equal opportunity in employment and education, and welfare rights redefined the many benefits of America's prosperous postwar years as entitlements for all citizens rather than privileges for a few. At the same time feminist legal scholars and political activists identified lingering manifestations of women's traditional social, economic, and legal subordination to men as severe impediments to full equality. Women's rights activists reclaimed domestic violence as a problem worthy of legal and social redress rather than merely an unfortunate dimension of intimate relations between men and women. Shelters for battered women proliferated as a response to this change.

In the 1960s the liberal Warren Court rendered a series of opinions that greatly expanded the protections the Constitution offered for citizens' rights. These interpretations were founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that "no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court's expansive reading of the amendment defined new rights of citizenship. In 1964 Congress passed a landmark Civil Rights Act that protected citizens against discrimination in housing, employment, and education based on race or gender. Within this renewed climate of civil rights activism, advocates for domestic violence victims sought to add protection against abuse to the growing list of citizens' constitutional protections.

In 1989 the Rehnquist Court heard the case DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services. The case originated in an incident in which a custodial father had beaten his four-year-old son so badly that the child's brain was severely damaged. Emergency surgery revealed several previous brain injuries. Wisconsin law defined the father's actions as a crime, and he was sentenced to two years in prison. But the boy's noncustodial mother sued the Winnebago County Department of Social Services, claiming that caseworkers had been negligent in failing to intervene to help the child despite repeated reports by hospital staff of suspected abuse. Her claim rested in the Fourteenth Amendment, asserting that the state's failure to help her son amounted to a violation of his civil rights. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protects citizens' civil rights from violations arising from actions taken by the state, not from actions the state may fail to take. In other words, individuals do not enjoy an affirmative right to protection by the state from violence committed by a family member in the privacy of the home.

Critics of the DeShaney decision worked to reform the law to make protection against domestic violence a matter of civil rights. Feminists argued that, because the majority of abuse victims are women, domestic violence constitutes not solely a private wrong but a form of gender discrimination. The ever-present threat of violence, they asserted, prevents women from realizing their full potential in employment, in education, and in exercising the privileges of citizenship. In the early 1990s the states formed gender bias task force commissions, twenty-one of which reported that a number of pervasive practices in their legal systems resulted in discrimination against women. For example, they documented that crimes disproportionately affecting women tended to be treated much less seriously by law enforcement and the courts than comparable crimes in which the victims were men. In response Congress enacted the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the first federal legislation to provide legal remedies for domestic violence. The act's provisions required states to give full faith and credit to protection orders issued in other states; directed federal funding to increase the effectiveness of law enforcement and to support shelters for battered women; and amended the Federal Rules of Evidence to increase protections for rape victims. Most significantly the act established protection from gender-motivated violence as a civil right and allowed women to bring civil lawsuits to redress violations.

In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the civil rights provisions of the VAWA. A university student in Virginia had been raped in her dormitory room by three assailants who had also verbally indicated their disdain for her as a female both during and after the rape. She subsequently filed suit against her attackers. In United States v. Morrison (2000) the Court ruled that Congress did not have the power to legislate the civil rights remedies contained in the VAWA. In providing them Congress relied on its constitutional authority over interstate commerce and its power to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment safeguarding individual rights against infringement by the states. But the Court found that congressional powers under the commerce clause did not extend to regulating this area of law in the states. Further, because the civil rights remedies in the VAWA pertained to the actions of private individuals rather than the states, they did not have a basis in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court's decision in United States v. Morrison has been both affirmed and criticized by legal scholars and the public. Disputes over the private and public dimensions of domestic violence therefore continued into the twenty-first century.


Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence: Boston, 1880–1960. New York: Viking, 1988.

MacKinnon, Catharine A. Sex Equality. New York: Foundation Press, 2001.

Taylor, Betty, Sharon Rush, and Robert J. Munro, eds. Feminist Jurisprudence, Women, and the Law: Critical Essays, Research Agenda, and Bibliography. Littleton, Colo.: F. B. Rothman, 1999.

Wallace, Harvey. Family Violence: Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996.


See alsoChild Abuse ; Civil Rights and Liberties ; Common Law ; Marriage ; Rape ; Slavery ; Violence ; Women's Rights Movement .

Domestic Violence

views updated May 11 2018


In general, the term "domestic violence" refers to violence that occurs in the home. Although violence in the home can be directed toward children, the elderly, or other household members, most often this term is used to represent violence between adolescents and/or adults who are currently or were previously involved in a romantic or intimate relationship. Domestic violence occurs between spouses, ex-spouses, and couples who are dating or who dated previously. The violence between these individuals is not limited to the home setting and may occur in locations outside the home as well.

Types of Violence

Domestic violence can involve physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological forms of abuse. Physical violence can include but is not limited to pushing, kicking, slapping, punching, and choking, and the use of objects to inflict pain upon the other person. Individuals may inflict sexual violence upon their partners by forcing them to have sex against their will, using sexual acts to degrade them, inflicting physical pain during sexual intercourse, calling their partners sexually degrading names, and requiring them to engage in sex with other individuals. Violence can also be enacted in the form of emotional and psychological abuse with the use of tactics such as intimidation, insults, threat of harm, isolation, and control of financial resources by the abuser.


Violence between intimate partners occurs among people at all socioeconomic and education levels and within all ethnic, racial, religious, age, and sexual identity groups. The U.S. Department of Justice estimated that in 1998 about one million violent crimes were committed against persons by their current or former intimate partners. The majority of these crimes (85%) were committed against women, with women aged sixteen to twenty-four experiencing the highest rate of violence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that 32 percent of female murder victims in 1999 were murdered by a husband or boyfriend, while 3 percent of male victims were murdered by a wife or girlfriend. In 2001 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that approximately one-fourth of all hospital emergency room visits by women resulted from domestic assault.

Although estimates are available as to the incidence of violent crimes occurring between intimate partners, many consider the figures to underrepresent the actual rates of occurrence. Victims of domestic violence may refrain from reporting abuse for a variety of reasons including a belief that it is a "private matter," fear of retaliation by the abuser, a desire to avoid feelings of shame, or a belief that the police could not effectively intervene. It has been suggested that individuals at higher socioeconomic status levels may be especially underrepresented in rates of occurrence because they have access to additional resources and do not need to rely as heavily on assistance from the police.

Impact on Victims and Children

The impact of domestic violence on victims varies according to the intensity and the type of violence inflicted. Victims may need to seek medical attention for injuries; may experience psychological problems such as depression and anxiety; and may even die as a result of the abuse. The children of victims may also be negatively affected through exposure to such violence. Children who witness domestic violence may experience feelings of depression and anxiety, have difficulty interacting with other children, and display increased rates of aggression. Some research suggests that children exposed to domestic violence may have an increased risk of becoming a victim or victimizer in future relationships. Children in violent families are also at greater risk for being abused themselves. Nevertheless, even though domestic violence can have serious consequences on the physical and emotional well-being of children, not all children exposed to violence will be affected to the same extent. Researchers have been limited in their ability to study the range of effects on children because the researchers often focus their studies on children in shelters, who may display more severe problems than other children. Additionally, it is difficult to determine the number of children who witness violence because the rates of occurrence available are only estimates that may underrepresent certain populations.

Causes of Domestic Violence

Not only is it challenging to determine the impact of violence on children, but determining the cause of domestic violence is also complex. Nevertheless, three general approaches attempt to examine possible reasons for violent behavior between individuals who are or have been intimately involved.

Individual Characteristics

One approach focuses on the characteristics of the individuals in the relationship. This approach studies psychological characteristics associated with the violent individual and the victim. Although one attribute by itself will not necessarily explain the characteristics of an abuser or a victim, it is thought that the examination of all attributes combined will help to predict which individuals may be predisposed to be violent or to become a victim of violence.

According to the first theoretical approach, characteristics associated with individuals who abuse their partners include low self-esteem, isolation from social support, a manipulative nature, and a desire for power and control (Kakar 1998). These individuals are likely to be unable to cope with stress, be unwilling to take responsibility for their own actions, have extreme feelings of jealousy and possessiveness, be overly dependent on the victim, and/or have certain mental or psychological disorders. Additionally, some studies have indicated that violent individuals are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. The use of controlled substances, however, has not been shown to necessarily cause violence.

The characteristics that have been associated with the victims of violence are used to explain why individuals would become involved with and/or remain in a relationship with an abusive person. Attributes associated with the victim include low self-esteem; isolation from social support; feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame; and mental illness such as depression. Some researchers suggest that victims experience feelings of helplessness that prevent them from leaving the relationship. After repeated failures of escape, victims believe that they cannot escape the relationship and resign themselves to remain in the violent atmosphere.

Another theory used to explain why victims remain in abusive relationships proposes that violence occurs in a cycle. This theory, first introduced by Lenore Walker in 1979, contains three main phases: (1) tension-building, (2) acute battering incident, and (3) calm, loving respite. The first phase includes minor incidents of abuse such as verbal attacks. During this stage the victim submits to the wishes of the violent individual in order to appease the attacker. The second phase contains more severe abuse and is followed by the third phase or the "honeymoon period." In the last phase, the abuser becomes loving and attentive and apologizes profusely for the attack. The victim believes that the violent behavior will stop and remains in the relationship. The tension-building occurs again, however, and the cycle repeats itself, leaving the victim to feel trapped and helpless.

Family Structure

Another approach to understanding domestic violence moves attention away from the individual and focuses on the structure of the family. In this approach, it is believed that certain characteristics put a family or a couple at risk for violence. Individuals who have witnessed violence within their own family as a child may be more likely to imitate similar behavior in their relationships as adults. At the same time, conditions exist that produce stress and conflict on the family. Factors such as low socioeconomic status; low-income occupations, which may result in frequent unemployment; and little to no social support from family, friends, or the community create high levels of stress. It is hypothesized that individuals who have learned to resolve conflict with violence use violence as a method of coping with these types of stressors (Flowers 2000).

Societal Perspective

A third approach takes a broader perspective than the previous two and examines domestic violence in the context of society and societal values. Violence against women is considered to be accepted by society as it has been supported through law and religion since the beginning of recorded time. This approach examines the traditional dominance of men in society, which has condoned and even encouraged men to act violently toward women to maintain dominance and control over them. An unequal distribution of power in the relationships between men and women assigns women a lower status. From this position of subordination, women become dependent upon their spouses or partners and are subjected to the demands and abuse of their mates.

The societal perspective may help to explain the lack of public attention to problems of domestic violence and prosecution of abusers until the 1970s. Permission for violence by men against their wives has been reinforced through Western religion and law for centuries. Examples of spousal abuse can be found in the Bible and serve to justify a husband's right to control the behavior of his wife. During the Middle Ages, English common law allowed a husband to chastise his wife as long as he used a stick no larger than the width of his thumb, a concept commonly known as the "rule of thumb." Although legislation was enacted in the American colonies to outlaw domestic violence in 1641, with later laws originating in the late 1800s, the laws were not usually enforced and served only to curtail extreme cases of violence. It is purported that American society's apparent acceptance of domestic violence resulted from long-held beliefs in Western society that supported a husband's control of his wife and that discouraged intervention by the law.

Legislation and Support Services

Parallel to the women's movement in the 1970s, Americans began to demand tougher legislation and greater police intervention in cases of domestic violence. Since then, laws have been passed that allow police to make arrests without a warrant when probable cause is evident, require police to inform victims of their rights and provide assistance, and require mandatory arrests of offenders under certain conditions. Additional legislation allows victims to receive financial compensation for attacks, prohibits stalking, and also provides for easier prosecution of rape of a spouse (Flowers 2000).

Not only have laws been enacted to arrest and prosecute violent partners, but services for victims have also arisen in response to public concern. Victims of abuse may receive support through social service agencies that assist them in accessing medical care and mental health services. Shelters are available that allow victims to stay temporarily in a safe environment while they recover from abuse and search for new living arrangements. Some shelters have also extended their services to include counseling and educational programs for clients. In addition, victims may access hot lines manned by crisis counselors who can offer advice to the individual about the abusive situation and provide referrals to other support agencies. Attendance to victim support groups and meetings with clergy members also provide individuals with opportunities to analyze their current situation and examine means of escaping the abuse.

Although support services for victims have increased and tougher legislation against violent offenders has been enacted, domestic violence remains a significant problem in society. It affects not only the victims of the violence, but also the children who witness it and the community that must decide if and how to intervene. Determining the cause of domestic violence is complex, thereby making it difficult to find viable solutions. Nevertheless, the struggle continues to control and prevent a serious problem that pervades all levels of U.S. society.



Buzawa, Eve S., and Carl G. Buzawa. Domestic Violence: The Criminal Justice Response, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform Crime Report, 1999. Washington, DC, 2001. Available from; INTERNET.

Flowers, Ronald Barri. Domestic Crimes, Family Violence, and Child Abuse: A Study of Contemporary American Society. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

Gordon, Judith S. Helping Survivors of Domestic Violence: The Effectiveness of Medical, Mental Health, and Community Services. New York: Garland, 1998.

Kakar, Suman. Domestic Abuse: Public Policy/Criminal Justice Approaches towards Child, Spousal, and Elderly Abuse. San Francisco: Austin and Winfield, 1998.

Kashani, Javad H., and Wesley D. Allan. The Impact of Family Violence on Children and Adolescents. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Administration for Children and Families Press Room Fact Sheet: Domestic Violence." Washington, DC, 2001. Available from; INTERNET.

U.S. Department of Justice. "Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Intimate Partner Violence." Washington, DC, 2000. Available from; INTERNET.

Walker, Lenore E. The Battered Woman. New York: Harper and Row, 1979.

Tracey R.Bainter

Domestic Violence

views updated Jun 08 2018


Societies have made important gains in addressing the problem of domestic violence, particularly in the area of service delivery to its victims. However, millions of women are battered by their intimate partners every year in countries around the globe.


During the 1960s, the women's liberation movement began drawing attention to violence committed against women, and the battered women's movement began to form. At its core was the outrage of women who argued that individual cases of violence against women in the home added up to an enormous and unacceptable social problem. By the end of the 1970s, statistics proved that isolated cases of abuse were part of a shocking national problem. Victims became more visible; so, too, did the inadequacy of society's response. The battered women's movement emerged, becoming one of the most powerful social justice and service movements in United States history.

Shelters and hotlines began to spring up around the country. What began as a social, service-based response to crisis began to take on political urgency. The staggering numbers of women and children turning to shelters perpetually outpaced the growth of the movement. The shelter work uncovered endless horror stories: law enforcement officials who mislabeled domestic disturbances, judges who ruled in favor of perpetrators, and health care providers who mishandled violence-related injuries. At every turn, women seeking help could expect indifference, hostility, and endangerment. It became clear that helping women in crisis required more than front-line emergency services. It required changing the established social institutions and creating or changing the laws that affected them. During the 1980s, a vibrant network of nearly two thousand domestic violence programs in the United States organized into state coalitions, formed to take on the challenge of pressuring social institutions to adequately respond to victims.

The 1990s proved to be a watershed decade. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA, 1994) was passed, a major federal bill that provided more than $1 billion to assist shelters, train law enforcement personnel and judges, and support other crime-prevention efforts addressing violence against women. The decade also saw, via live television, the trial of football legend O. J. Simpson for allegedly murdering his former wife, Nicole, and her friend. Though he was eventually acquitted of criminal charges, Simpson's case prompted unprecedented media coverage of the issue of domestic violence.


The domestic violence movement clearly has a rich history of achievement. The critical front-line service provision crisis response, while central to saving some women's and children's lives, can never realize its mission: to reach out to all victims. Despite its rapid growth, the service system is unable to keep pace with widespread need. Prevalence statistics and anecdotal evidence all point to the epidemic nature of domestic violence: Nearly one-third of American women (31%) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. Yet only a small fraction of abused women ever go to a shelter.

The domestic violence movement's agenda remains predominantly shaped by the quest to improve services for, and to make laws accountable to, domestic violence victims. As a result, the notion of domestic violence prevention in North America and most of Europe relies heavily on punitive criminal intervention. Although the movement has consistently educated policymakers and other institutions, the advocacy community has not focused collective attention on developing an agenda for preventing domestic violence at its earliest stages.

The criminalization of domestic violence and the sensitizing of criminal justice agents should by no means be abandoned. However, emphasis must also be given to other sectors of society, including communities of faith, health delivery systems, and workplaces. Preachers, doctors, employers, coworkers, friends, and family members are all in a prime position to reach out to help women facing abuse, as well as to let batterers knowperhaps for the first timethat their behavior is simply unacceptable. Evidence suggests that many battered women are actually more comfortable talking with friends and family members about the violence in their lives than with trained domestic violence professionals whom they do not know. Developing leadership within each of these arenas, then, represents a huge potential for disseminating more broadly messages that can begin to change the social norms.

Unfortunately, pervasive cultural acceptance of domestic violence at all levels of society helps to explain how the justice system has historically responded to domestic violence. Typically, police have not taken the problem seriously, rarely arresting perpetrators. When battered women persevered and tried to press charges, district attorneys often refused to support their cases, and the cases that did make it to court were likely to be dismissed.

While laws have strengthened the ability to respond to domestic violence cases, covert attitudes that condone battering explain why inaction is the norm rather than the exception. According to a 1996 public opinion survey, almost half of Americans (47%) currently believe that men sometimes physically abuse women because they are stressed out or drunk, not because they intend to hurt them. Clearly the domestic violence movement has yet to cultivate widespread attitudes that condemn violent abuse of women.


One of the greatest challenges facing the domestic violence movement is the widespread perception that spousal abuse is a "private matter." Domestic violence is often perceived as private business between two individuals that requires therapy rather than intervention. Creative approaches are needed in order to move a private matter into the sphere of public concern and to translate that public concern into a widespread social consensus for action. A successful strategy would include the following: a comprehensible institutional change approach to empower individuals to make contributions through the institutional structures that touch their daily lives; an emphasis on prevention that is partnered with an ongoing commitment to victims; a multifaceted media campaign that begins to change the collective social consciousness; and a reigniting of the community-based, political activism that spawned the movement in the first place.

For example, in the early 1990s, The Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) began to explore ways to strategically inject the politics of outrage back into the domestic violence movement in the United States, combining media and community-based activism into an overall approach. In 1994, the FVPF launched a nationwide media and grassroots organizing campaign called "There's No Excuse for Domestic Violence." It targets the friends, family, and coworkers of victims of abuse who sanction the violence with their silence and whose actions can help change social norms. The campaign includes public service announcements that trumpet the campaign's key messages that "domestic violence is everybody's business" and "there's no excuse for it." In one powerful print ad, viewers are confronted with the image of a man brutally beating his cowering wife, under the words: "If the noise coming from next door were loud music, you'd do something about it." These public service announcements provide a toll-free number individuals can call for a free action kit, which details concrete ways people can address abuse in their workplaces and communities.

These and other programs that generate and communicate this kind of collective sense of indignation about the problem of domestic violence work toward a broader, more comprehensive approach that involves ever more components of society. Their aim is to proactively affect public policy and wide-ranging institutional policies, community responsibility, and individual action, and to move a "private issue" into a public space in which domestic violence is forbidden.

Marissa Ghez

Leni Marin

(see also: Alcohol Use and Abuse; Antisocial Behavior; Gun Control; Homicide; Violence )


The Commonwealth Fund (1999). Health Concerns across a Woman's Lifespan: The Commonwealth Fund 1998 Survey of Women's Health.

National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control (1998). Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.

Straus, M. A., and Gelles, R. J. (1990). Physical Violence in American Families. Somerset, NJ: Transaction.

U.S. Department of Education (1998). Violence and Discipline Problems in Public Schools: 19961997. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Department of Justice (1998). Violence by Intimates: Analysis of Data on Crimes by Current or Former Spouses, Boyfriends, and Girlfriends. Washington, DC: Author.

(1997). Violence-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments. Washington, DC: Author.

Domestic Violence

views updated Jun 11 2018


Any abusive, violent, coercive, forceful, or threatening act or word inflicted by one member of a family or household on another can constitute domestic violence.

Domestic violence, once considered one of the most underreported crimes, became more widely recognized during the 1980s and 1990s.

Various individuals and groups have defined domestic violence to include everything from saying unkind or demeaning words, to grabbing a person's arm, to hitting, kicking, choking, or even murdering. Domestic violence most often refers to violence between married or cohabiting couples, although it sometimes refers to violence against other members of a household, such as children or elderly relatives. It occurs in every racial, socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious group, although conditions such as poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, and mental illness increase its likelihood. Studies indicate that the incidence of domestic violence among homosexual couples is approximately equivalent to that found among heterosexual couples.

Domestic violence involving married or cohabiting couples received vast media attention during the 1990s. The highly publicized 1995 trial of former professional football player and movie actor O.J. (Orenthal James) Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman thrust it onto the front pages of newspapers for many months. Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges, but evidence produced at his trial showed that he had been arrested in 1989 for spousal battery and that he had threatened to kill his ex-wife. The disclosure that a prominent sports figure and movie star had abused his wife prompted a national discussion on the causes of domestic violence, its prevalence, and effective means of eliminating it.

Despite the attention that domestic violence issues have received, publicized instances of domestic violence continue to occur. Like the case of o.j. simpson, several of these cases involved current or former athletes. Jim Brown, who, like Simpson, was both a famous football player and actor, received a six-month sentence in 2000 for vandalizing his wife's car during an argument. Also like Simpson, Brown had a history of alleged domestic-violence incidents, though he had not been convicted in the previous allegations.

Although thousands of cases involving domestic violence occur each year, those that involve celebrities continue to attract the most attention. In 1999, movie director John Singleton pled no-contest to charges of battering his girlfriend. Singleton is best known for such movies as Boyz 'n the Hood and Poetic Justice. In 2001, Rae Carruth, a player for the National Football League's Carolina Panthers, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the murder of his former girlfriend, who had been carrying Carruth's child at the time of her death. Although he avoided the death penalty, Carruth was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. Also in 2001, former heavyweight boxing champion Riddick Bowe was charged with third-degree assault for a fight with his wife.

Those who have studied domestic violence believe that it usually occurs in a cycle with three general stages. First, the abuser uses words or threats, perhaps humiliation or ridicule. Next, the abuser explodes at some perceived infraction by the other person, and the abuser's rage is manifested in physical violence. Finally, the abuser "cools off," asks forgiveness, and promises that the violence will never occur again. At that point, the victim often abandons any attempt to leave the situation or to have charges brought against the abuser, although some prosecutors will go forward with charges even if the victim is unwilling to do so. Typically, the abuser's rage begins to build again after the reconciliation, and the violent cycle is repeated.

In some cases of repeated domestic violence, the victim eventually strikes back and harms or kills the abuser. People who are repeatedly victimized by spouses or other partners often suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of shame and guilt, and a sense that they are trapped in a situation from which there is no escape. Some who feel that they have no outside protection from their batterer may turn to self-protection. During the 1980s, in a number of cases in which a victim of repeated domestic abuse struck back, the battered spouse defense was used to exonerate the victim. However, in order to rely on the battered-spouse defense, victims must prove that they genuinely and reasonably believed that they were in immediate danger of death or great bodily injury and that they used only such force as they believed was reasonably necessary to protect themselves. Because this is a very difficult standard to meet, it is estimated that fewer than one-third of victims who invoke the battered-spouse defense are acquitted.

Heightened awareness and an increase in reports of domestic violence has led to a widespread legal response since the 1980s. Once thought to be a problem that was best handled without legal intervention, domestic violence is now treated as a criminal offense. Many states and municipalities have instituted measures designed to deal swiftly and harshly with domestic abusers. In addition, governments have attempted to protect the victims of domestic violence from further danger and have launched programs designed to address the root causes of this abuse. One example is Alexandria, Virginia, which, in 1994, began prosecuting repeat abusers under a Virginia law (Va. St. § 18.2–57.2 Code 1950, § 18.2–57.2) that makes the third conviction for assault and battery a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. In addition, the city established a shelter for battered women, a victims' task force, and a domestic-violence intervention program that includes a mandatory arrest policy and court-ordered counseling. As a result, domestic homicides in Alexandria declined from 40 percent of all homicides in 1987, to 16 percent of those between 1988 and 1994. Other states have adopted similar measures. States that already had specific laws directed toward domestic violence toughened the penalties during the 1990s. For example, a 1995 amendment to California's domestic-abuse law (West's Ann. Cal. Penal Code §§ 14140–14143) revoked a provision that allowed first-time abusers to have their criminal record expunged if they attended counseling.

Public outrage over domestic violence also led to the inclusion of the violence against women act as title IV of the violent crime control and law enforcement act of 1994 (Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796 [codified as amended in scattered sections of 18 and 42 U.S.C.A.]). The act authorized research and education programs for judges and judicial staff to enhance knowledge and awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also provided funding for police training and for shelters, increased penalties for domestic violence and rape, and provided for enhanced privacy protection for victims, although the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 2000.

One of the more controversial portions of the original act made gender-motivated crimes a

violation of federal civil rights law. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the application of this portion in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 120 S. Ct. 1740, 146 L. Ed. 2d 658 (2000). In that case, a woman brought suit against a group of University of Virginia students who allegedly had raped her. Although the district court found that the woman had stated a claim against the respondents, it held that Congress did not have authority to enact the provision under the commerce clause or § 5 of the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision, and the United States, which had intervened to defend the statute, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court, per an opinion by Chief Justice william h. rehnquist, agreed with the lower courts, holding the Congress had exceeded its constitutional power. The result of the case is that the civil-remedy provisions in the original statute should fall under the purview of the states, rather than the federal government.

Studies on the incidence of domestic violence vary a great deal. Research conducted by Murray A. Straus of the University of New Hampshire and Richard J. Gelles of the University of Rhode Island, both veterans of extensive research into family violence, found that approximately four million people each year are victims of some form of domestic assault, ranging from minor threats and thrown objects to severe beatings. This number represents women and men who report suffering attacks by partners. In a 1995 survey conducted by Dr. Jeanne McCauley of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one in three women responding to a confidential questionnaire indicated that she had been physically or sexually attacked, and half of these incidents had occurred before the age of 18. The National Coalition against Domestic Violence reported in 1993 that 50 percent of all married women will experience some form of violence from their spouse, and that more than one-third are battered repeatedly each year.

The justice department suggests that incidents of rape and assault against women at the hands of intimates dropped between 1993 and 2001. According to these statistics, 588,490 women were victims of rape and assault by intimates in 2001, down from 1.1 million in 1993. The same report noted that men were victims of 103,220 violent crimes by intimate partners, down from about 160,000 in 1993. Statistics regarding domestic violence against men have been in dispute for several years. Straus and Gelles reported that men were as likely to endure domestic assault as women, but that women were far more likely to be injured. Domestic-violence activists dispute the notion that men suffer domestic assault at approximately the same rate as women, and other statistical reports, including those issued by the department of justice, tend to support these claims.

further readings

Douglas, Heather, and Lee Godden. 2003. "The Decriminalisation of Domestic Violence: Examining the Interaction between the Criminal Law and Domestic Violence." Criminal Law Journal 27 (February): 32-43.

Rohr, Janelle, ed. 1990. Violence in America: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

Sommers, Christina Hoff. 1994. Who Stole Feminism? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Straus, Murray, and Richard Gelles. 1988. Intimate Violence. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Child Abuse; Family Law.

Domestic Violence

views updated May 18 2018


Frequency and levels of domestic violence in America prior to the Civil War are very hard to determine. Laws and ordinances varied from colony to colony and state to state, and common-law tradition affected notions of what constituted acceptable "discipline" or means to maintain order within families and the extended household. These common-law traditions in most instances determined whether a case of violence in a domestic situation would result in a complaint and, if a complaint was made, colored court decisions.

In early America the lack of established government and legal systems except for tenuous knowledge of common law left absolute control of the household in the hands of patriarchs. Control of the domestic sphere by the father or the senior adult male in the household was universally accepted. Patriarchal authority included the control of wives, daughters, unmarried sisters, children, servants, slaves, and any other dependent males who happened to be associated with the extended household. Wives and mothers also had their realm of authority, over servants, slaves, and children. Dependent free men and women (and sometimes children) had authority over servants and slaves through delegatus non potest delegare, through the father or patriarch.

Violent action against dependents was sanctioned to the greatest degree within the extended household. This situation persisted from the 1750s through the 1850s, until local governments and laws were established to create order and to enforce it. The majority of households in early America contained neither servant nor slave; thus the most frequent instances of domestic violence were between husbands and wives, parents and children, and among children.

Throughout the colonial period and into the early nineteenth century, the use of both physical restraint and violence, short of murder and mayhem, were commonly allowed by law and upheld by society and the courts in their uses by authority figures over dependents. Within the immediate family, the English common-law "rule of thumb" allowed "necessary" physical correction of wives by husbands and children by parents. Such correction could be applied with impunity by means of a stick, rod, or switch no broader than a man's thumb to punish or maintain control.

Stronger measures could be taken to control or discipline servants or slaves. Although indentured servants, and later non-contracted domestic servants, had redress under the law in cases where excessive force or extreme physical abuse could be proven, they still were subject to potentially greater levels of violence by masters seeking to maintain control over them. Domestic servants in the nineteenth century could give notice and leave if the controls and punishments were more than they could bear. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, indentured servants, who were contracted to work for from three to seven years, could be legally beaten and whipped by their masters for various infractions, including insubordination and laziness. An overwhelming majority of indentured servants who sued their masters for unreasonable levels of abuse did receive favorable judgments in court, from reduced terms of service to immediate freedom. But justices of the peace would not recommend legal action unless they found evidence of a pattern of continuous violent punishments.

Slaves faced the highest levels of violence sanctioned by law. By the turn of the eighteenth century, laws in all colonies had identified slaves as chattel property subject entirely to their masters' "good will." An owner could treat his own property in any manner he chose. Thus slaves could be summarily beaten, tortured, maimed, or killed "at will" by their masters. Only the temperance advised either by the church or through social pressures stayed the hand of more severe masters. As far as the law and the court system were concerned, the only caution against extreme violence to slaves was that masters be aware of the public consequences of their actions—in other words, how extreme violence against their own slaves might affect the attitudes of other slaves. This became more of a concern when news of slave insurrections or planned rebellions spread through the colonies. After Stono, South Carolina began to limit punishments, and in the period after the Revolution almost all states criminalized the murder of a slave, even by a master. In addition, in the wake of the Revolution the states prohibited branding, castration, hamstringing, and other forms of excessive cruelty inflicted on slaves.

Attitudes toward domestic violence stemmed in part from America's origins in Puritan New England. New England Puritans viewed children as inherently evil and believed that children's will had to be broken in order for them to accept God. The "breaking" of children involved strict rules and regulations which, if disobeyed, brought routine corporal punishment. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was an understatement, since Puritan parents, including mothers, believed that their children's very souls were at stake if they were not held to a strict line. Puritan husbands were expected to keep their wives in line through corporal punishment when deemed necessary.

Elsewhere, as in seventeenth-century Virginia, the rarity of women prompted men to develop a more protective attitude toward them. As the number of women in the colony increased, however, instances of violence against wives increased. Courts typically sought proof that the violence was beyond acceptable levels of correction.

Pennsylvanians, both citizens and government leaders, exhibited a greater desire for spousal harmony and domestic tranquility. However, in the eighteenth century Pennsylvania's murder rate per capita was twice as high as London's and the frequency of assaults was higher than in most other colonies. Nearly as many murders and assaults occurred within the household as did in the public sphere. Despite Quaker influence and appeals for peaceful action, most colonists in Pennsylvania, as in the other colonies, saw corporal punishment of dependents as a routine matter. The vast majority of violent punishments were not reported. In more severe cases that came to light, beatings, rapes, and murders of women (nearly two-thirds of the cases were attacks by husbands and fathers against female dependents) were still judged by their potential acceptability as legitimate correction, or seen as beyond the purview of the courts. Close to one-third of domestic assault complaints in colonial Pennsylvania were either dismissed by magistrates or grand juries or dropped by attorneys as not contestable. Over half of the assailants in domestic cases brought to trial in Pennsylvania were found not guilty of exceeding a normal standard of correction. In the face of accepted standards of behavior, both biblical and legal, by household heads, as well as the fear of an embarrassing public display that would not in any event end or limit abuse, few victims chose to announce domestic violence.

Over time domestic violence came to be defined with greater uniformity across the United States. Likewise, limits began to be placed on the amount of control a household head could exercise over his dependents. Both society in general and local and state governments began to exert more influence and impose more strictures on physical punishments meted out in the home. In many ways, slavery itself became the last bastion of absolute domestic controls.

See alsoChildhood and Adolescence; Corporal Punishment; Crime and Punishment; Divorce and Desertion; Government: Local; Government: State; Home; Manliness and Masculinity; Marriage; Slavery: Slave Insurrections; Slave Life; Women: Rights .


Bardaglio, Peter. Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Brown, Kathleen M. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Daniels, Christine, and Michael V. Kennedy, eds. Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law and Society in Connecticut, 1639–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Greven, Philip J. Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Hoffer, Peter C., and N. E. H. Hull. Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England, 1558–1803. New York: New York University Press, 1981.

Pleck, Elizabeth. Domestic Tyranny: The Making of Social Policy against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Michael V. Kennedy

Domestic Violence

views updated May 23 2018


DOMESTIC VIOLENCE , behavior used by one partner to control the other; it can include verbal, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse and cuts across social strata. Although men can be abused, most victims are women. Children in abusive households are likely to have been abused or to have witnessed abuse. In recent decades, the term "domestic violence" has replaced "wife beating" or "wife battering"; such behavior is also referred to as "relationship violence," "domestic abuse," and "violence against a spouse."

Domestic violence is not a new issue among Jews. Although the word מכה (strike, blow, hit, beat) appears in the Bible, it is not associated with wife beating until talmudic times and even then it is not overtly discussed. The most useful source in the study of wife beating is responsa literature (ranging from geonic times to the present). There are a variety of attitudes towards domestic violence found in these texts, with some decisors who declare it unlawful while others justify it under certain circumstances. Gratuitous abuse, striking a wife without a reason, is unlawful and forbidden by all. However, the attitude of rabbinic sources toward perceived "bad wives" is ambivalent, and wife beating is occasionally sanctioned if it is for the purpose of chastisement or education.

Medieval Attitudes in the Muslim World

*Ẓemaḥ ben Paltoi, gaon of Pumbedita (872–90), allowed a man to flog his wife if she was guilty of assault. Rabbi *Yehudai b. Naḥman (Yehudai Gaon, 757–61) wrote that: "…when her husband enters the house, she must rise and cannot sit down until he sits, and she should never raise her voice against her husband. Even if he hits her she has to remain silent, because that is how chaste women behave" (Oẓar ha-Ge'onim, Ket. 169–70). The ninth-century gaon of Sura, *Sar Shalom b. Boaz (d. c. 859 or 864), distinguished between an assault on a woman by her husband and an assault on her by a stranger. The gaon of Sura's opinion was that the husband's assault on his wife should be judged less severely, since the husband had authority over his wife (Oẓar ha-Ge'onim, bk 62:198).

In his Mishneh Torah, Moses *Maimonides (1135–1204) recommended beating a bad wife as an acceptable form of discipline: "A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod" (Ishut 21:10). The responsa of R. Solomon b. Abraham *Adret (Rashba, 1235–1310) include examples of husbands who occasionally or habitually use force; few of these men are brought to court for beating a wife in a moment of anger. However, there are instances in Rashba's responsa of wives who considered the rabbis as allies against violent husbands (Adret, vol. 5, no. 264; vol. 7, no. 477; vol. 8, no. 102; vol. 4, no. 113).

Medieval Attitudes in Ashkenaz

Responsa from 12th- and 13th-century France and Germany express a rejection of wife beating without any qualifications in a Jewish society in which women held high social and economic status. This attitude is reflected in a proposed takkanah (regulation supplementing the talmudic halakhah) of R. Perez b. Elijah, who believed that "one who beats his wife is in the same category as one who beats a stranger"; he decreed that "any Jew may be compelled on application of his wife or one of her near relatives to undertake by a ḥerem not to beat his wife in anger or cruelty so as to disgrace her, for that is against Jewish practice." If the husband refused to obey, the court could assign her maintenance according to her station and according to the custom of the place where she dwelled. It is not clear whether this takkanah ever received serious consideration.

Some Ashkenazi rabbis considered battering as grounds for forcing a man to give a get. Rabbi *Meir b. Baruch of Rothenburg (Maharam, c. 1215–1293) and R. *Simḥah b. Samuel of Speyer (d. 1225–1230) wrote that a man has to honor his wife more than himself and that is why his wife and not his fellow man should be his greater concern. R. Simḥah argued that like Eve, "the mother of all living" (Gen. 3:20), a wife is given to a man for living, not for suffering. She trusts him and thus it is worse if he hits her than if he hits a stranger. R. Simhah lists all the possible sanctions. If these are of no avail, he not only recommends a compelled divorce, but allows one that is forced on the husband by gentile authorities. This is highly unusual since rabbis rarely endorse forcing a man to divorce his wife and it is even rarer to suggest that the non-Jewish community adjudicate internal Jewish affairs. Although many Ashkenazi rabbis quoted his opinions with approval, they were overturned by most authorities in later generations, starting with R. Israel b. Pethahiah *Isserlein (1390–1460) and R. *David b. Solomon Ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz, 1479–1573). In his responsum, Radbaz wrote that R. Simhah "exaggerated on the measures to be taken when writing that [the wifebeater] should be forced by non-Jews (akum) to divorce his wife … because [if she remarries] this could result in the offspring [of the illegal marriage, according to Radbaz] being declared illegitimate (mamzer)" (part 4, 157). Sixteenth-century responsa seem to acknowledge that wife beating is wrong, yet they avoid releasing the woman from the bad marriage. These evasive positions vis-à-vis relief for a beaten wife are part of halakhah and rest on the husband's dominant position in marriage.

Contemporary Perspectives

For many years there was a myth that domestic violence among Jewish families was infrequent. However, there is much data demonstrating that domestic abuse is a significant and under-recognized behavior in Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. Jewish women typically take twice as long to leave battering relationships than other women for fear that they will lose their children and because they are aware of the difficulties in obtaining a get, the Jewish divorce decree which is dependent on the abusive husband's consent. The major halakhic stance in the early 21st century continues to support the central role and authority of the husband and domestic abuse is not automatic grounds for Jewish divorce. Rabbinic courts tend to favor men who promise to reform their behavior (shelom bayit) and often force women to return to their vicious husbands or lose their rights to maintenance and property and custody of children. An abused woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce is considered an *agunah, a chained or anchored woman.

The problem of domestic violence in Israel surfaced in the media during the first Gulf War in 1991 when soldiers were not mobilized and husbands and wives (and their children) were forced to be together in sealed rooms. Beginning in the 1990s the rate of husbands murdering wives spiralled upwards in Israel and this trend has continued, with over 200 spousal murders reported by 2002.

Jewish Women International (jwi) is among contemporary organizations addressing the plight of victims of domestic abuse. It has developed resources for Jewish women and an information guide for rabbis. jwi coordinated international conferences on Jewish domestic violence (2003 and 2005) addressing this behavior in the U.S., Israel, South America, and the FSU. An inter-denominational group, the Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment (j-safe), promotes a Jewish community in which all institutions and organizations conduct themselves responsibly and effectively in addressing the wrongs of domestic violence. Its goal is to promote universal standards for training and policies that prevent abuse, that ensure that victims are treated supportively and appropriately, and that perpetrators are held accountable, thereby promoting a safer environment for all children and adults. In recent years, some rabbinic authorities, shocked by the growing murder rate, have made initial efforts to address the situation of women in abusive marriages.


D. Gardsbane (ed.), Healing and Wholeness: A Resource Guide on Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community (2002); N. Graetz, Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating (1998); A. Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Europe in the Middle Ages (Heb., 2001; Eng., 2004); C.G. Kaufman, Sins of Omission (2003); M. Scarf, Battered Jewish Wives: Case Studies in the Response to Rage (1988); J.R. Spitzer and Julie Ringold, When Love in Not Enough: Spousal Abuse in Rabbinic and Contemporary Judaism (1985, 1991, 1995); M.A. Straus and Richard J. Gelles, "Societal Change and Change in Family Violence from 1975 to 1985 as Revealed by Two National Surveys," in: Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48 (1986), 465–479; A. Twerski, The Shame Born of Silence: Spouse Abuse in the Jewish Community (1996).

[Naomi Graetz (2nd ed.)]

domestic violence

views updated May 17 2018

domestic violence Specifically male violence (physical or psychological) against women, the term was popularized by feminists in the 1970s, some of whom established refuges for battered women, and who argued that domestic violence is a reflection of gender inequalities in power and of women's oppression. More broadly, the term encompasses any violence within the family, although violence against children is usually described specifically as child abuse. Typically, the police have been reluctant to intervene in incidents involving domestic violence, preferring to regard the family as a private realm.

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