What is Domestic Violence?
September 30, 2014
The month of October has been designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The goal of this month is to raise public awareness about domestic violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to recognize, prevent, and respond to domestic violence.
This article is the first in a series that will focus on the topic of domestic violence. For more on this issue, you can read Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, which is written by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb.
"Domestic violence" is used as an overarching term to encompass a large number of behaviors--physical, verbal, and psychological--that violate the well-being of an individual and his or her ability to act.
Historically, "domestic violence" was mostly associated with physical violence. "Domestic violence" today, however, has a much broader legal definition, which includes sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse.
Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive, controlling, or abusive behavior that is used by one individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate relationship. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, exploit, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound an intimate partner.
As such, domestic violence can take many forms, including willful intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault, battery, stalking, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, economic control, psychological abuse, spiritual abuse, isolation, any other abusive behavior, and/or threats of such. Of course, threats of abuse can be as frightening as the abuse itself, particularly, when the victim knows the perpetrator may carry out the threats.
Domestic violence includes the establishment of abusive control and power over another person through fear, isolation, and/or intimidation. Abusive behavior often is thought of as direct "hands-on" infliction of pain but also includes implied threat or actual physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, including withholding finances and medical equipment.
This understanding of domestic violence gets beyond our society's narrow understanding of the issue and expands the spectrum of actions to be considered domestic violence. A comprehensive definition and understanding of domestic violence includes several elements. Each element is important in understanding domestic violence:
- Intentional: The abuser consciously or subconsciously sets out to use deliberate abusive tactics to achieve his/her ends. The abuser chooses to abuse and he can choose to stop abusing at any time.
- Methodical: The abuser systematically uses a series of abusive tactics to gain power over the partner and to control her.
- Pattern: The abused partner often at first sees the abusive tactics as isolated and unrelated incidents, but they are really a series of related acts that form a pattern of behaviors.
- Tactics: The abuser uses a variety of tactics to gain power and to control his partner such as threats, violence, humiliation, exploitation, or even self-pity.
- Power: The abuser aims to acquire and employ power in the relationship. For example, the abuser may use force or threats of physical harm to intimidate his or her partner, thereby gaining physical and emotional power. Or the abuser may prohibit the partner from working, making the partner financially dependent on the abuser, and thereby gaining financial power.
- Control: With sufficient power, the abuser can control his partner--forcing or coercing her to do as the abuser wishes. For example, the abuser controls the decision making for the relationship, or controls who has social contact with the partner, or determines the sexual practices of the partner. The goal of the abuser is to force compliance.
- Desires: The abuser's ultimate goal is to get his emotional and physical desires met and he aims to selfishly make use of his partner to meet those needs. Most abusers are afraid their desires will not be fulfilled through a normal healthy relationship. Fear motivates them to use abuse to ensure that their desires will be met.
Domestic violence is a pervasive, life-threatening epidemic and crime that affects millions of people worldwide in every community.
It takes place across all races, ages, socioeconomic statuses, geographic regions, religions, nationalities, and education backgrounds, including traditional, nontraditional, teen dating, and adult dating relationships as well as older populations.
A National Problem
Domestic violence is dangerously good at hiding itself, yet it is extremely prevalent--and extremely damaging--in our world today.
Domestic violence exists in every community and culture (including communities and cultures that we might perceive as happy and "normal"). The number of occurrences of domestic violence is staggering. Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused at some point during her lifetime. Most often, the abuser is a member of her own family.
Intimate partner violence is pervasive in U.S. society. The prevalence of domestic violence in the United States is difficult to determine because the crime is vastly underreported, yet the statistics are still overwhelmingly high: one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
Nearly three out of four (74%) of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. Approximately 30% of Americans say they know a woman who has been physically abused by her husband or boyfriend in the past year.
In terms of lifetime abuse rates, various studies show that 22-33% of American women will be assaulted--including rape, physical violence, or stalking--by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Young women are particularly at risk. Women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Similarly, women who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence. And among teenage girls, one in three reports knowing a friend or a peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, or physically injured by a partner. Violence against women is primarily intimate partner violence: 64% of women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/ or stalked since the age of 18 were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabitating partner, boyfriend, or date.
Even if the recipient of abuse is the mother (and not any children), children are affected by domestic abuse in staggering and long-lasting ways. And it is here, among some of the household's most vulnerable members, that we see some of the most toxic effects of the cycle of abuse. If you have children, this section will be especially hard to read, but please bear with us, because we think it's important that you know this information.
To begin with, studies suggest that between 10-15 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year. And for these children, abusive adults can cause tremendous long-term physical, emotional, and spiritual damage in their lives. This is true even if the the mother is physically abused (but the children are not physically hurt), though roughly half of men who physically abuse their wives also abuse their children. Bruce Perry, one of the top neurological trauma researchers in the world, has conclusively shown that when young children merely witness domestic violence, this trauma exposure creates long-term physiological changes, including significant structural alteration and damage to the brain.
The aftermath of abuse comes out in children's behavior as well. Children exposed to violence are more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, be exploited in teenage prostitution, and commit sexual assault crimes. Children who witness violence at home display emotional and behavioral disturbances as diverse as withdrawal, low self-esteem, nightmares, self-blame, and aggression against peers, family members, and property.
The damage also occurs in more intangible ways. Children who witness the abuse often experience their mother's powerlessness and humiliation. Many lose their childhood innocence because their sense of security has been violated and they feel dramatically unsafe. Children often develop anxiety in anticipation of the next attack, blame themselves for the abuse, and fear abandonment - especially if they should fail to keep the violence secret. They are left isolated and frightened as they carry the weight of shame, responsibility, guilt, and anger.
And here, among children, we see one of the most toxic effects of the cycle of abuse: Witnessing violence from one parent or caregiver to another is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next. Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults. Men exposed to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or domestic violence as children are almost four times more likely than other men to perpetrate domestic violence as adults.
The most common factor among men who abuse their wives is that they experienced (received or witnessed) domestic violence themselves in childhood. Again, this history does not excuse anyone from choosing destructive behavior, but it does illustrate the far-reaching effects of abuse.
Additionally, we know that girls who grow up in physically abusive homes are more likely to be physically and sexually victimized by their own intimate partners in adulthood. Daughters are more than six times more likely to be sexually abused in homes where intimate partner violence occurs. Children in homes where domestic violence occurs are physically abused or seriously neglected at a rate of 1500% higher than the national average in the general population. And even when they grow into adults, children who've grown up in abusive households are 15 times more likely to be abused by other adults. If you are reading this and are still on the fence about getting out of the relationship.
All of these studies point to destructive effects of abuse that are long-term. Even if your child has not personally suffered abuse yet, the consequences of even witnessing it in the home over the rest of their lives could be catastrophic.
Frequency and Duration
One of the common perceptions that keep many women in abusive relationships is the belief that this time, he'll change--that this time, he really means it when he says it won't happen again. But the numbers tell another story.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately half of the women raped by an intimate partner and two-thirds of the women physically assaulted by an intimate partner said they were victimized multiple times by the same partner. Female rape victims have reported 4.5 rapes on average by the same partner, and female physical assault victims averaged 6.9 assaults. Among women who were victimized multiple times by the same partner, 63% of rape victims and 70% of assault victims say their victimization lasted a year or more. On average, women who were raped multiple times said their victimization occurred over 3.8 years, and women who were physically assaulted multiple times said their victimization occurred over 4.5 years.
Verbal abuse is one of the biggest indicators that physical abuse may follow. Much of the violence perpetrated against women by male partners is part of a systematic pattern of dominance and control, or what some researchers have called "patriarchal terrorism."
Naming and describing the evil done to victims does not ensure their healing. However, if domestic violence is not defined, named, or described, then it remains hidden.
There is an epidemic of domestic violence and victims need the kind of hope and healing that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide. Tragically, most churches and Christians are woefully unprepared to help the one in four women who have been abused. Helping victims of domestic violence starts with knowing what is.
Justin is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Lindsey, are authors of: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. Justin has written or edited numerous books: Know the Heretics (2014), Know the Creeds and Councils (2014), On the Grace of God, Acts: A 12-Week Study, For the World, and Christian Theologies of Scripture
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