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Domestic Violence

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).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawDomestic Violence - Who Are The Abusers? Who Are The Victims?, The Causes Of Domestic Violence, Federal Approaches To Domestic Violence