In 2006, when the Office on Violence Against Women surveyed women about domestic violence, respondents did not commonly list it among the most pressing challenges facing women, though most agreed that it is a serious problem in the United States. The apparent cause of this discrepancy, upon further conversation with surveyed women, was an “‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ mentality.” This form of violence, often suffered in silence, is too easily overlooked or minimized. It must be brought to light.1
Intimate partner violence is a term for actions taken by a current or former spouse, partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend to coerce and control. Intimate partner violence (IPV) is sometimes called “domestic violence,” but it is not restricted to people living in the same home. Intimate partner violence commonly includes physical violence and intimidation, forced or coerced sex, verbal and psychological abuse, and economic manipulation, often in combination with one another.2
Intimate partner violence isn’t just about hitting. Physical violence and intimidation may include throwing objects, shoving, grabbing, shaking, scratching, hair-pulling, slapping or punching, biting, choking, restraining, burning, blocking exits, and using weapons to threaten or cause harm. Sometimes it takes the form of forcing alcohol or drugs on a partner or of withholding needed medications and treatments. An abuser may destroy property, punch walls, or make gestures expressing intent to harm and to make a person fear for her own safety.
Abuse in an intimate relationship may also involve sexual violence. A sexual abuser uses physical force, psychological intimidation, or coercion to compel a person to engage in sexual acts against that person’s will. It may also include attempted or completed sexual acts with a person unable to decline participation due to age or the influence of alcohol or drugs, illness, or disability. Forcing or coercing a spouse or partner who does not or cannot consent to participate in sexual acts is rape.
Verbal and psychological abuse may include the use of words and other coercive tactics to control what the victim can and cannot do or control where the victim can and cannot go. To maintain control, the abuser will often interrogate the victim or other family members or withhold needed information from the victim. In many instances, abusers will attempt to damage a victim’s relationships with family and friends, thus isolating them. Any of these tactics can denigrate and humiliate the victim, undermining her self-esteem and creating a sense of powerlessness. Invading a victim’s private space or vandalizing her property may be used to create a climate of fear. Verbal threats of harm to the victim, her children, other family members, or to her pets are potent weapons used to blackmail and control the victim.
Economic manipulation usually involves an abuser controlling his victim by means of making her financially dependent. He may acquire and maintain control over her income and finances, withhold access to money or transportation, and prevent her going to work or school. This method of abuse is one of the victim’s biggest obstacles to escaping.
A less investigated form of intimate partner violence, one that often involves elements of physical violence and intimidation, sexual violence, verbal and psychological abuse, and economic manipulation, has been termed “reproductive control.”3 Reproductive control primarily refers to actions which threaten, coerce, or attempt to get a woman pregnant and/or seek to control the outcome of her pregnancy either without regard to or against the woman’s will. At times, this behavior seeks to extend control over the woman beyond the pregnancy itself, as when a jealous or insecure man believes pregnancy or having children will make his wife or girlfriend undesirable to other men or more dependent on him. A man may accuse a woman of infidelity if she says she wants to abstain from sex or use contraception in an effort to manipulate her into having sex that could lead to pregnancy. He may sabotage contraception by flushing birth control pills, putting a hole in a condom, or refusing to withdraw during sex. He may use threats or violence to prevent abortion.* He may prevent her access to prenatal care, coerce her to get an abortion, or use violence to cause miscarriage. In a broader sense, reproductive control may also apply to forced sterilization of an intimate partner. In all these examples, the abuser seeks to impose his own reproductive decisions on a current or former partner through violence, intimidation, or manipulation.
Who is affected by intimate partner violence?
Some groups of people have unique vulnerabilities with regard to intimate partner violence.4 Small-scale studies show that a higher percentage of women with disabilities report being victims of intimate partner violence, despite the fact that disabilities may also hinder reporting, such as when the victim is unable to communicate verbally, fears losing a caregiver, or fears that no one will accept her word. Victims who belong to racial and ethnic minorities, are lesbian or gay, or are over the age of 50 are less likely to report abuse, fearing that authorities will not take them seriously or be willing to help them. Immigrant victims may face especially difficult challenges: Unfamiliarity with the local legal system or language may be a barrier to finding help and reporting violence, and an abuser may threaten to revoke residency sponsorship, refuse to file necessary immigration paperwork, or expose a victim’s undocumented status. People living in rural or impoverished areas may lack adequate healthcare and service providers, insurance, and public transportation systems. It is difficult even to acquire reliable information about abuse among some populations, including the homeless and those living in battered women’s shelters.
Teens are also vulnerable and more likely to be victimized through social media. Young people may lack models of healthy relationships or education about relationship violence and may be unaware of services and resources designed to help victims of dating violence. Teen dating violence is severely underreported, but surveys reveal that it is serious and widespread.5 One in four teens reports being verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually abused by a dating partner each year. Twenty percent of teens who have been in a serious relationship report being hit, slapped, or pushed by a partner; about 10 percent of students report being physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year. One in four teenage girls who have been in relationships report that they have been pressured to engage in sexual acts. A third of teens report knowing a friend or peer who has been physically harmed by a partner. More than a quarter of teenage girls in a relationship report being subjected to repeated verbal abuse, and a similar percentage of teens in serious relationships have experienced some attempts to isolate them from family and friends. A majority of teens say that boyfriends or girlfriends sharing private pictures or videos of them, or spreading rumors about them on cell phones and computers, is a serious problem. Young people who are victimized by an intimate partner in high school are at greater risk for later victimization.
Women are disproportionately abused by intimate partners.6 Women whose partners were verbally abusive or controlling are significantly more likely to report being raped, physically assaulted, and stalked by their partners. Violence Against Women Online Resources reveals that women are 2 to 3 times more likely to report minor physical attacks (for example, pushing and shoving) than men, and 7 to 14 times as likely to report serious attacks (for example, beating, strangulation, and use of a gun or knife). A Crime Data Brief by the Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that 85 percent of “nonfatal violent victimizations by current or former spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends” are committed against women. The National Violence Against Women Survey, furthermore, found that women assaulted by an intimate partner were more than twice as likely to be physically injured than assaulted men.
Though some people have unique vulnerabilities or suffer disproportionately, intimate partner violence can affect anyone regardless of sex, race or ethnicity, age, marital status, ability, educational achievement, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.7 It is estimated that in the United States, approximately 4.8 million incidents of physical assaults against women and 2.9 million incidents against men are committed by an intimate partner each year.8
Many victims of intimate partner violence, whether teens or adults, suffer physical injuries, both minor and serious, ranging from scratches to broken bones and internal bleeding to permanent disabilities. In 2007, IPV resulted in 2,340 deaths; 70 percent of the victims were women. Even more victims suffer psychological harm, including lowered self-esteem, anger, stress, depression, difficulty trusting others and fear of intimacy, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, such as flashbacks and panic attacks. Victims may also attempt to cope with their trauma in harmful ways, such as smoking, eating disorders, excessive drinking, drug abuse, engaging in risky sex, and suicidal behavior.
There are factors known to increase the risk that a person may commit violence against an intimate partner.9 Exposure to harsh parenting, inconsistent discipline, lack of parental supervision or affection, or physical or psychological abuse as a child can all hinder the development of positive relationship skills. They can also lead a person to believe that violence is normal or acceptable, as can having friends or associates who commit abuse. Social attitudes encouraging strict gender stereotypes, including male dominance and female submission, or discouraging intervention by witnesses, can create environments conducive to abuse. Symptoms of trauma, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and past violent or aggressive behavior may also be indicators of increased risk. Stressful experiences and circumstances, like economic hardship, unemployment, and overcrowding, can increase the chances that a person may lash out. Of course, none of these factors necessarily leads a person to become an abuser, nor do they in any way excuse it, but they can be indicators that a person needs help. Prevention programs designed to change teens’ or preteens’ social attitudes and improve problem-solving skills can be especially helpful. Because intimate partner violence against both genders is committed primarily by men, the National Institute of Justice recommends that prevention strategies should focus mainly on risks posed by men.10
Intimate partner violence affects many more people than just its immediate victims and perpetrators. Children and other family members, friends, employers and coworkers, witnesses, and members of the larger community are also affected. The economic cost alone is enormous.11 A conservative estimate of the cost of IPV in 2003 dollars exceeded $8.3 billion, 71 percent on costs of medical and mental health care and the remainder in lost productivity. (This estimate includes only reported incidents and does not include costs associated with the criminal justice system.) Each year, victims of severe violence by a spouse or partner lose an estimated 8 million days of paid work (an estimated 8.1 days per incident of rape, 7.2 days per incident of other physical assault) and almost 5.6 million days in lost productivity at home. A survey by the United States Conference of Mayors reveals that 50 percent of U.S. cities regard domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness. Other social costs are incalculable. Children frequently exposed to violence among parents or caregivers, for example, bear an increased risk of becoming victims or perpetrators themselves. All of us suffer some consequences of intimate partner violence, so we must not look the other way.
What role do cultural messages play?
We cannot ignore the important role that cultural messages play in how our society addresses intimate partner violence. News media, books, television shows, movies, and music often convey troublesome implicit messages about or closely related to relationship violence.12
A popular example of romanticized intimate partner violence may be found in the bestselling series of Twilight novels by Stephenie Meyer. The books (and subsequent movie adaptations) tell the story of a 17-year-old girl, Bella Swan, who falls in love with a 104-year-old vampire, Edward Cullen. Using the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s lists of signs that a relationship may be abusive, a number of the series’ readers and viewers have identified several signs of abuse in Bella and Edward’s relationship.13 Kyrie McCauley Bannar, a sociology student at American University, tracked six categories of unhealthy relationship behaviors through the novels and found 181 instances.14 Despite the fact that the plot contains clear examples of possessiveness, isolating, and stalking by an intimate partner (actions in which a real girl’s human boyfriend might engage), Bella dismisses a close friend’s suggestion that she is in a “controlling, abusive teenage relationship.” Unhealthy relationship behaviors are not limited to the main characters. In a sense, the novels depict a miniature culture of relationship violence, yet the relationships are portrayed not as a horror, but as passionate romances desirable to girls and women.
Implicit messages such as those found in the Twilight series appear elsewhere, too. A newspaper story might describe a crime in a titillating manner or encourage readers to blame the victim. A novel might suggest it is noble for a woman to allow an abusive partner back into her life. A popular song might devalue or objectify women, or a movie might portray domestic violence as a “lover’s quarrel” leading into a romantic interlude. Messages downplaying, excusing, normalizing, and romanticizing intimate partner violence may not be an author’s intent, but they are dangerous nonetheless. Audiences are affected by these messages. How they are affected depends on the extent to which audience members are educated about violence and have developed and engaged critical skills. Conscious, critical engagement is necessary in order to notice problematic messages, especially the more subtle ones, and avoid negative influence.
“Why doesn’t she just leave?”
Though it may seem simple and straightforward to someone who’s not experienced the abuse, in reality it is no easy matter to speak up about abuse or to leave an abusive partner.15
Perpetrators actively seek to control their spouses or partners through threats, intimidation, violence, or psychological or economic manipulation. They may apologize for abuse, promise to change, woo their partners, and extend lulling periods of respite (known within the cycle of violence as a “honeymoon phase”). Abusers may make the victim feel responsible for and ashamed of the abuse, as if it is something deserved, or they may make the victim feel economically, legally, or socially helpless. When a victim wishes to leave a violent relationship, serious barriers may include a lack of affordable and safe alternative housing. Other barriers may be a lack of education, job skills, or personal financial resources; fear of losing custody of children or of raising children alone; fear of retaliation, of being discovered and subjected to worse violence; or fear of failure, loneliness, or the unknown. Victims may have conflicted feelings, including a sense of loyalty to the relationship, a feeling that the abuser needs her help, or an optimism that the situation may change. Religious or cultural convictions that the abuse is normal, or that families must stay together at all costs, or that one must have a partner to be accepted in society can also play a part in her decision to stay.
It is crucial to make an effort to understand the victim of intimate partner violence and the difficult obstacles she faces. This understanding can lead to clarity in developing solutions that are much more practicable than “just leave.”
Whether a person is ready to leave a violent relationship or not, professional IPV counselors recommend devising a clear but flexible safety plan as something that can be done immediately. Experts say that such plans save lives and can begin well before a victim actually attempts to leave. If they are willing, trusted family members or friends can help, as can allies at places like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-SAFE).16
To make a safety plan, consider which places in the home, workplace, or other space are safest. Avoid rooms with easy access to weapons, like the kitchen, and rooms without exits, like bathrooms and closets. Seek rooms that do have escape routes or where, if one becomes unable to exit, shouting may attract attention, such as near an open window or shared wall. Practice escape routes. Teach children to find safe places with escape routes, too, whom and how to call for help, and never to get in the middle of a fight. Devise a code word or other distress signal to use with children, family members, friends, neighbors, doctors, or other allies who can contact the police or other help right away. If possible, keep a suitcase of necessary items in a safe and accessible location where the abuser will not find it — with a trusted friend, for example. Ideally, this should include any necessary documents and items, such as birth certificates, Social Security cards or numbers, any forms of photo identification or passports, health insurance cards, welfare benefits cards, immigration papers, marriage certificate, divorce papers, custody orders, restraining orders, records of police reports filed or other evidence of abuse, money and credit cards, keys, an address book, an unshared cell phone or calling cards, medications and prescriptions, and personal items that may help with coping, like photos or children’s toys.17 Although it may not seem necessary now, choose and plan where to go if it ever becomes necessary to leave home. Review the safety plan regularly. A person does not need to be ready to leave a relationship in order to contact a violence hotline or local shelter for support, safety planning, and services.
What can be done to prevent intimate partner violence?
The best time to stop violence is before it starts. Ideally, steps should be taken long before intimate partner abuse begins. Parents, schools, and youth organizations can take active steps to help instill mutual respect, healthy relationship behaviors, nonviolent conflict resolution, information about intimate partner violence, and how to identify abusive behaviors. A focus could be on an ability to recognize and think critically about cultural messages that downplay, excuse, normalize, or romanticize violence and abuse in intimate relationships and beyond. Special attention should be given to ensuring that young people at greater risk of becoming perpetrators or victims get the help that they need.
When violence occurs, the primary goal of any intervention must be ensuring victim safety and putting an end to violence, both immediately and in the long-term. An abuser may still pose a risk to his partner (or to someone else) after his partner has left the relationship, after a divorce or child custody ruling, or after release from jail. Batterer treatment programs are one way to serve the safety of abused partners and other potential victims in the long term.18 The goals of a batterer treatment group should include ensuring the safety of current or former partners of perpetrators, collaborating with the justice system and other service providers, cultivating positive relationship attitudes and skills consistent with human equality and mutual respect, and teaching offenders alternatives to violent and controlling behavior. The program should recognize that violence is intentional and that individuals can change if they are willing. Past perpetrators should be challenged to take full responsibility for their actions, to understand the effects their behavior has had on their partners and relationships, and to examine any beliefs and attitudes that minimize or deny abuse, or shift blame to others. They should learn to recognize when they are acting abusively, when they should withdraw from a situation or conflict, and to whom they can turn for help. Group treatment can reduce partner dependence among past abusers, encourage honesty, and allow members to support one another in their resolve to change.
If someone you know is being abused, the National Women’s Health Information Center and National Domestic Violence Hotline have webpages dedicated to ways to help a friend or family member.19 Whether or not you know someone who is being abused, learn more about intimate partner violence. Be prepared to educate children and other family members, friends, and others in your community via personal conversations, letters to editors of local papers, linking pertinent articles through social media, or encouraging educational events and forums on the topic. More people are needed to break the silence, dispel misinformation, and spread the word. Inquire at a local shelter or safe house about items they most need or whether you can help to collect and coordinate donations of food and clothing. If you have practical skills, such as plumbing or taking care of children, a shelter might be able to put them to good use. Check into volunteer opportunities like posting flyers or brochures, or you can commit on an ongoing basis. Each of us can play some part in changing the culture of violence.
* While Feminists for Life opposes the violence of abortion in favor of nonviolent outcomes, FFL advocates only nonviolent and noncoercive means of achieving these goals.
1. Office on Violence Against Women, “Awareness and Attitudes About Domestic Violence,” http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/docs/polling_summary.pdf.
2. Definitions and examples of intimate partner violence may be found in Violence Against Women Online Resources’ The Facts About Domestic Violence (), the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s general information on IPV (http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/intimatepartnerviolence/index.html), and the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women’s What Is Domestic Violence? (http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/domviolence.htm), among others.
3. Moore, Frohwirth, and Miller, “Male reproductive control of women who have experienced intimate partner violence in the United States,” Guttmacher Institute, http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/socscimed201002009.pdf.
4. Violence Against Women Online Resources, The Facts About Domestic Violence, .
5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Understanding Teen Dating Violence, http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/TeenDatingViolence_2010-a.pdf; Violence Against Women Online Resources, 10 Teen Dating Abuse Facts, .
6. Violence Against Women Online Resources, The Facts About Domestic Violence, ; National Institute of Justice, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181867.pdf.
7. U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, What Is Domestic Violence?, http://www.ovw.usdoj.gov/domviolence.htm.
8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Understanding Intimate Partner Violence, http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/IPV_factsheet-a.pdf.
9. Violence Against Women Online Resources, The Facts About Domestic Violence, ; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Intimate Partner Violence: Risk and Protective Factors, http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/intimatepartnerviolence/riskprotectivefactors.html.
10. National Institute of Justice, Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/181867.pdf.
11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Intimate Partner Violence: Consequences, http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/intimatepartnerviolence/consequences.html; Violence Against Women Online Resources, The Facts About Domestic Violence, .
12. Cf. Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs’ Connections issue “Media Savvy Youth: Challenging Pop Culture Messages that Contribute to Sexual Violence” (vol. XII, Spring 2010), http://www.wcsap.org/sites/www.wcsap.org/files/uploads/documents/MediaSavvyYouthSpring2010.pdf.
13. What Is Domestic Violence?, http://www.thehotline.org/get-educated/what-is-domestic-violence/; Am I Being Abused?, http://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/am-i-being-abused-2/; Tina Jordan, “Are Edward and Bella in an abusive relationship?” Entertainment Weekly, http://shelf-life.ew.com/2009/12/01/edward-bella-abusive-relationship/.
14. “The Romanticism of Teen Dating Violence: The Twilight Series as a Case Study,” .
15. The Julian Center, Why Do Women Stay?, http://www.juliancenter.org/Learn/Why-Do-Women-Stay-.aspx.
16. National Center for PTSD, Intimate Partner Violence, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/domestic-violence.asp; National Women’s Health Information Center, How to Help a Friend Who Is Being Abused, http://womenshealth.gov/violence/get-help/helpfriend.cfm; North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Safety Plan, http://www.nccadv.org/pdf/Safety%20Plan%20b.pdf; National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, Safety Planning: A Guide for Individuals with Physical Disabilities, http://www.vawnet.org/Assoc_Files_VAWnet/DisabilitySafetyPlan.pdf; National Immigrant Family Violence Institute, Visual Safety Plan, http://nifvi.org/Visual%20Safety%20Plan-English.pdf.
17. For a suggested packing list, please visit the National Women’s Health Information Center at http://womenshealth.gov/violence/get-help/safety-planning.cfm.
18. Stop Violence Against Women, Factors to Consider When Starting a Batterers’ Treatment Group and Prevention Strategies, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/svaw/domestic/link/factorstoconsider.htm and http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/svaw/domestic/explore/9prevention.htm; Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, Duluth Model on Public Intervention, http://www.theduluthmodel.org/duluthmodelonpublic.php.
19. National Women’s Health Information Center, How to Help a Friend Who Is Being Abused, http://womenshealth.gov/violence/get-help/help-friend.cfm; National Domestic Violence Hotline, How can I help a friend or family member who is being abused?, http://www.thehotline.org/get-educated/how-can-i-help-a-friend-orfamily-member-who-is-being-abused.