Domestic violence is when one partner in an intimate relationship abuses the other. The abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional or a combination of all three. Physical abuse can include very aggressive acts, such as beatings and forced sexual activity including intercourse, or it can take the form of less severe acts like throwing, shoving and slapping. In emotional abuse, the abuser constantly humiliates and puts down the victim. The weapons of emotional abuse include verbal insults, threats, control of physical activity, unfounded accusations of infidelity, control of economic decisions and social isolation. Depending on the relationship, the physical or emotional abuse may happen very often or not as often. Either way, it will usually continue and get worse over time. No matter how often the abuse happens, the victim of domestic violence suffers constant terror and stress, living in fear of the next episode. While women are most commonly the victims of their male partners, domestic violence can happen between all sorts of people and in all sorts of relationships.
It happens between people who are married and between people who aren’t living together. It can be abuse by a man against a woman, or by a woman against a man. It can occur in gay or lesbian couples. Domestic violence is a common reality in our society. It occurs in all social classes, ethnic groups, cultures and religions. Most people don’t realize how common it is, because very often victims of abuse keep quiet. These two studies show just how strongly victims feel the need to keep quiet: •A study of women treated by medical practitioners reported that 92 percent of the women whose partner had physically abused them did not reveal the abuse to their physicians, and 52 percent had not discussed the abuse with anyone. (Social Problems, 34 (1), 1987) •The National Crime Survey found that 48 percent of all domestic violence incidents against women were not reported to law enforcement. (New York: The Commonwealth Fund, July 14, 1993)
Despite these facts, a number of studies have attempted to show how often domestic violence occurs: •Seven percent of women who were married or living with a partner were physically abused, and their spouse or partner verbally or emotionally abused 37 percent or them. (New York: The Commonwealth Fund, July 14, 1993) •Between 3 million and 4 million adult women in the United States are abused yearly by an intimate partner. About one in four women is likely to be abused by a partner in her lifetime. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 267:3184-3189, 1992) •A study conducted in emergency rooms and walk-in clinics reported that 54 percent of a sample of women treated in emergency departments had been threatened or physically injured by a partner. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 273:1763-1767, 1995) There is some disagreement as to how often men are abused by their female partners and who initiates the incidents of abuse.
Understanding Domestic Violence
Domestic violence, or violence in the family unit, with women and children as primary victims, is a major public health problem. Domestic violence constitutes a pattern of abusive behavior that includes the use or threat of violence and intimidation for the purpose of gaining power and control over another person. A violent event is seldomly an isolated incident, but part of a pattern which increases in both frequency and severity over time. Abusive behavior can be defined as physical abuse, psychological and emotional abuse, sexual abuse or economic coercion. •Physical Abuse—Any act of violence that is designed to control, hurt, harm or physically assault a partner. This includes pushing, punching, kicking, grabbing, pulling hair, choking, slapping, damaging property or valued items, the use of weapons and refusing to help a sick partner.
•Sexual Abuse—Any action forcing the partner to perform sexual acts against her or his will. This includes pursuing sexual activity with a partner that is not fully conscious, uninvited touching, unwanted sexual intercourse and coercing a partner to have sex without protection against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. •Psychological or Emotional Abuse—Any action intended to degrade, humiliate or demean, both in public or private. This includes verbal threats, yelling, intimidation, harassment, criticism, lying, withholding information and isolation from family or friends. Psychological abuse may precede or accompany physical violence as a means of control. •Economic Coercion—Any action forcing the partner to become dependent on the abuser for money and survival. This includes withholding money, a car or other resources; sabotaging attempts to make money independently; or controlling all family finances.
The Scope of the Problem
Domestic violence is a major worldwide epidemic. This section will focus on the scope of the problem in the United States. Battering is the No. 1 cause of injuries to women—more common as a source of injury than rapes, muggings and automobile accidents combined. Although it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics concerning the incidence of domestic violence, it is estimated that at least 3 million to 4 million women are beaten by their husbands or partners annually. A woman is more likely to be assaulted, injured, raped or killed by a male partner than by any other type of assailant. About half of all marital relationships involve some form of domestic violence. Of males that beat their wives or partners, 47 percent do so three or more times a year. More than one-half of the female homicide victims in this country are killed by their male partners. In Massachusetts alone, a battered woman is killed once every nine days. To put the information in perspective, during the Vietnam War, there were 58,000 American soldiers killed in Southeast Asia; during the same period of time, 51,000 women were murdered by their partners in America.
Who Is at Risk?
Domestic violence threatens the lives of millions of Americans each year and crosses all ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, religious and socioeconomic lines. The majority, an estimated 90 percent to 95 percent, of domestic violence victims in heterosexual relationships are women. There are various factors that appear to place certain women at a somewhat greater risk for abuse. •Age—Women between the ages of 19 and 29 are at greater risk. This age group reported more violence by intimate partners than any other age group. •Marital Status—Separated or divorced women were 14 times more likely than married women to report having been a victim of domestic violence. It is, however, possible in some situations that separation or divorce directly resulted from the violence.
•Pregnancy—Medical sources suggest that about 37 percent of obstetric patients are physically abused while pregnant. About 21 percent of women who were previously abused report an increase in the abuse during pregnancy. Pregnant women who were already victims of domestic violence face the risk of more severe violence. Advanced stages of pregnancy leave a woman less mobile and less able to avoid a physical attack; therefore, the risk for injuries to the woman and her fetus increases.
•Possessive Partner—Women in a relationship with an excessively jealous or possessive partner are at a greater risk. •Substance Abuse—Women who abuse alcohol or other drugs or have a relationship with someone who abuses alcohol or drugs are at a greater risk. •History of Abuse—Children raised in families in which domestic violence was present are more likely to be the victim or perpetrator of domestic violence in adulthood. Men who have witnessed domestic violence between their parents are three times more likely to abuse their own wives than children of nonviolent parents.