What Is Domestic Violence?

The federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was first passed in 1994. It provides substantial funding for efforts to end domestic violence.

Domestic violence is not new. It has existed in societies throughout the world for centuries. In the late 20th century, a growing movement sought to raise awareness of this longstanding social problem. As a result, the federal and state governments enacted laws designed to assist victims and hold violent offenders accountable. 

The prevalence of domestic violence represents a major public health concern. Domestic violence affects millions of Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that 41% of women and 26% of men experienced violence from an intimate partner and reported it in their lifetime. Domestic abuse reports to law enforcement include physical violence, sexual violence, and stalking.

Understanding the definition of domestic violence can help you to take more effective action against it. Not all victims of crime recognize the signs of an abusive relationship. Family members who grew up in a home with domestic violence are at risk of becoming victims or abusers themselves.

This article will help you learn more about domestic violence. It will identify the types of abuse experienced by domestic violence victims.

Definition of Domestic Violence

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship used by one partner to gain or maintain control over another intimate partner. In criminal law, the crime of domestic violence may occur in one or more incidents. It may include an attempted assault or threats of imminent physical harm. It may take the form of sexual assault. It may encompass the psychological abuse involved in stalking.

Domestic Violence: Types of Abuse

Many types of abuse are present in the definition of domestic violence:

  • Physical abuse can include hitting, biting, slapping, battering, shoving, punching, pulling hair, burning, cutting, pinching, etc. It may include any violent behavior or physical injury inflicted on the victim. It may include child abuse to a victim's child. Physical abuse may take the form of denying someone medical treatment and forcing drug/alcohol use on someone.
  • Sexual abuse occurs when the abuser coerces the victim into having sexual contact or sexual behavior without consent. This often takes the form of marital rape, attacking sexual body parts, physical violence followed by forcing sex, demeaning the victim sexually, or even telling sexual jokes at the victim's expense.
  • Emotional abuse involves invalidating or deflating the victim's sense of self-worth. Emotional abuse may include constant criticism and name-calling. An abuser may injure the victim's relationship with their children. An abuser may interfere with the victim's abilities.
  • Economic abuse takes place when the abuser makes or tries to make the victim financially dependent on the abuser. Economic abusers often seek to maintain total control over financial resources. They may withhold the victim's access to funds or prohibit the victim from going to school or work.
  • Psychological abuse involves the abuser invoking fear through intimidation. It can include threatening to physically hurt themself, the victim, children, the victim's family or friends, or the pets. It may involve destruction of property or trespassing on property. An abuser may injure pets. An abuser may isolate the victim from loved ones and prohibit the victim from going to school or work. Threats to hit, injure, or use a weapon are a form of psychological abuse.
  • Technological abuse involves an act or pattern of acts meant to harm, threaten, stalk, or monitor another through the use of technology. This may involve using internet-enabled devices, computers, cameras, smartphones, GPS, or location-tracking devices.
  • Stalking abuse may include any combination of the above. It may include behaviors that by themselves are not illegal. Common behaviors include following the victim, spying, watching, harassing, showing up at the victim's home or work, sending gifts, collecting information, making phone calls, leaving written messages, or appearing at a person's home or workplace. It may include behaviors that are illegal such as physical assault, sexual assault, or threats. Stalking crimes usually require two or more incidents that may be close in time. The focus of a stalking crime is to place the victim in fear or in mental distress. Cyberstalking refers to online action or repeated emailing or texting that inflicts substantial emotional distress on the recipient.

Federal and state laws provide the specific elements of domestic violence crimes. Most domestic violence cases occur in the state courts. Not every form of domestic abuse listed above will constitute a crime.

Domestic Violence: Relationship Status

Most domestic violence law today requires the State to prove that the victim and abuser have an intimate partner or family relationship. Although the majority of domestic violence victims are women, state laws recognize that victims can include anyone, regardless of sex, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, or education level.

Each state law sets forth the exact criteria required for the crime of domestic violence. Most states today include any of the following family or household relationships:

  • Spouses and former spouses
  • Intimate partners who have lived together
  • Parents with children in common
  • Children
  • Related cohabitants

Domestic Violence Protection Orders

Many people think that a victim of domestic violence can only get a protective order against a spouse. This is actually a myth. Most states allow a victim of domestic abuse to get a protective order against anyone who has lived in a family or household relationship with the victim. These court orders might have different names in each state. Common names include domestic violence protection orders, temporary restraining orders, or emergency protective orders. Some states allow victims of other violent crimes to request protection orders. This may include abusive adult relatives, roommates, or even non-cohabitating partners. The laws in each state are different, so you will need to check the laws in your state.

Dating Violence

Dating violence is another form of domestic violence. The Office on Violence Against Women defines dating violence as based on the dating relationship of the abuser and the victim. Dating violence occurs between persons in a social, romantic, or intimate relationship. The existence of such a relationship will be determined by the following factors:

  • The length of the relationship
  • The type of relationship
  • The partners' frequency of interaction

Most states do not have a separate, stand-alone criminal offense for dating violence. Police officers can help victims identify what crimes may have occurred during the abusive incident(s).

In recent years, victim advocates have lobbied schools to address dating violence. Many schools responded with education programs on dating violence. Laws in 37 states and the District of Columbia now require teen dating violence education in high schools.

Do You Have Questions about Domestic Violence? Ask an Attorney

Domestic or family violence is destructive and carries life-altering damage to everyone involved. Survivors of domestic violence can take action. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit their website. The hotline can connect you with victim services in your area. Local advocates can help you with safety planning. They can also direct you to human services and emergency shelters.

Do you have questions about what laws in your state may apply to your situation? You should speak with an experienced domestic violence attorney in your area.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Victims of domestic violence can press charges against their abuser
  • The ability or requirements to press charges varies in each state
  • Contacting a family law attorney or advocacy groups for advice is essential

Some attorneys represent victims of domestic violence. Others defend the rights of those accused of domestic abuse or other related crimes. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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