Any abusive, violent, coercive, forceful, or threatening act or word inflicted by one member of a family or household on another can constitute domestic violence.
Domestic violence, once considered one of the most underreported crimes, became more widely recognized during the 1980s and 1990s.
Various individuals and groups have defined domestic violence to include everything from saying unkind or demeaning words, to grabbing a person's arm, to hitting, kicking, choking, or even murdering. Domestic violence most often refers to violence between married or cohabiting couples, although it sometimes refers to violence against other members of a household, such as children or elderly relatives. It occurs in every racial, socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious group, although conditions such as poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, and mental illness increase its likelihood. Studies indicate that the incidence of domestic violence among homosexual couples is approximately equivalent to that found among heterosexual couples.
Domestic violence involving married or cohabiting couples received vast media attention during the 1990s. The highly publicized 1995 trial of former professional football player and movie actor O.J. (Orenthal James) Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Lyle Goldman thrust it onto the front pages of newspapers for many months. Simpson was acquitted of the murder charges, but evidence produced at his trial showed that he had been arrested in 1989 for spousal BATTERY and that he had threatened to kill his ex-wife. The disclosure that a prominent sports figure and movie star had abused his wife prompted a national discussion on the causes of domestic violence, its prevalence, and effective means of eliminating it.
Despite the attention that domestic violence issues have received, publicized instances of domestic violence continue to occur. Like the case of O.J. SIMPSON, several of these cases involved current or former athletes. Jim Brown, who, like Simpson, was both a famous football player and actor, received a six-month sentence in 2000 for vandalizing his wife's car during an argument. Also like Simpson, Brown had a history of alleged domestic-violence incidents, though he had not been convicted in the previous allegations.
Although thousands of cases involving domestic violence occur each year, those that involve celebrities continue to attract the most attention. In 1999, movie director John Singleton pled no-contest to charges of battering his girlfriend. Singleton is best known for such movies as Boyz 'n the Hood and Poetic Justice. In 2001, Rae Carruth, a player for the National Football League's Carolina Panthers, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the murder of his former girlfriend, who had been carrying Carruth's child at the time of her death. Although he avoided the death penalty, Carruth was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. Also in 2001, former heavyweight boxing champion Riddick Bowe was charged with third-degree assault for a fight with his wife.
Those who have studied domestic violence believe that it usually occurs in a cycle with three general stages. First, the abuser uses words or threats, perhaps humiliation or ridicule. Next, the abuser explodes at some perceived infraction by the other person, and the abuser's rage is manifested in physical violence. Finally, the abuser "cools off," asks forgiveness, and promises that the violence will never occur again. At that point, the victim often abandons any attempt to leave the situation or to have charges brought against the abuser, although some prosecutors will go forward with charges even if the victim is unwilling to do so. Typically, the abuser's rage begins to build again after the reconciliation, and the violent cycle is repeated.
In some cases of repeated domestic violence, the victim eventually strikes back and harms or kills the abuser. People who are repeatedly victimized by spouses or other partners often suffer from low self-esteem, feelings of shame and guilt, and a sense that they are trapped in a situation from which there is no escape. Some who feel that they have no outside protection from their batterer may turn to self-protection. During the 1980s, in a number of cases in which a victim of repeated domestic abuse struck back, the battered spouse defense was used to exonerate the victim. However, in order to rely on the battered-spouse defense, victims must prove that they genuinely and reasonably believed that they were in immediate danger of death or great bodily injury and that they used only such force as they believed was reasonably necessary to protect themselves. Because this is a very difficult standard to meet, it is estimated that fewer than one-third of victims who invoke the battered-spouse defense are acquitted.
Heightened awareness and an increase in reports of domestic violence has led to a widespread legal response since the 1980s. Once thought to be a problem that was best handled without legal intervention, domestic violence is now treated as a criminal offense. Many states and municipalities have instituted measures designed to deal swiftly and harshly with domestic abusers. In addition, governments have attempted to protect the victims of domestic violence from further danger and have launched programs designed to address the root causes of this abuse. One example is Alexandria, Virginia, which, in 1994, began prosecuting repeat abusers under a Virginia law (Va. St. § 18.2–57.2 Code 1950, § 18.2–57.2) that makes the third conviction for ASSAULT AND BATTERY a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. In addition, the city established a shelter for battered women, a victims' task force, and a domestic-violence intervention program that includes a mandatory arrest policy and court-ordered counseling. As a result, domestic homicides in Alexandria declined from 40 percent of all homicides in 1987, to 16 percent of those between 1988 and 1994. Other states have adopted similar measures. States that already had specific laws directed toward domestic violence toughened the penalties during the 1990s. For example, a 1995 amendment to California's domestic-abuse law (West's Ann. Cal. Penal Code §§ 14140–14143) revoked a provision that allowed first-time abusers to have their criminal record expunged if they attended counseling.
Public outrage over domestic violence also led to the inclusion of the VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT as title IV of the VIOLENT CRIME CONTROL AND LAW ENFORCEMENT ACT OF 1994 (Pub. L. No. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796 [codified as amended in scattered sections of 18 and 42 U.S.C.A.]). The act authorized research and education programs for judges and judicial staff to enhance knowledge and awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault. It also provided funding for police training and for shelters, increased penalties for domestic violence and rape, and provided for enhanced privacy protection for victims, although the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional in 2000.
One of the more controversial portions of the original act made gender-motivated crimes a
violation of federal CIVIL RIGHTS law. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the application of this portion in United States v. Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 120 S. Ct. 1740, 146 L. Ed. 2d 658 (2000). In that case, a woman brought suit against a group of University of Virginia students who allegedly had raped her. Although the district court found that the woman had stated a claim against the respondents, it held that Congress did not have authority to enact the provision under the COMMERCE CLAUSE or § 5 of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision, and the United States, which had intervened to defend the statute, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court, per an opinion by Chief Justice WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST, agreed with the lower courts, holding the Congress had exceeded its constitutional power. The result of the case is that the civil-remedy provisions in the original statute should fall under the purview of the states, rather than the federal government.
Studies on the incidence of domestic violence vary a great deal. Research conducted by Murray A. Straus of the University of New Hampshire and Richard J. Gelles of the University of Rhode Island, both veterans of extensive research into family violence, found that approximately four million people each year are victims of some form of domestic assault, ranging from minor threats and thrown objects to severe beatings. This number represents women and men who report suffering attacks by partners. In a 1995 survey conducted by Dr. Jeanne McCauley of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one in three women responding to a confidential questionnaire indicated that she had been physically or sexually attacked, and half of these incidents had occurred before the age of 18. The National Coalition against Domestic Violence reported in 1993 that 50 percent of all married women will experience some form of violence from their spouse, and that more than one-third are battered repeatedly each year.
The JUSTICE DEPARTMENT suggests that incidents of rape and assault against women at the hands of intimates dropped between 1993 and 2001. According to these statistics, 588,490 women were victims of rape and assault by intimates in 2001, down from 1.1 million in 1993. The same report noted that men were victims of 103,220 violent crimes by intimate partners, down from about 160,000 in 1993. Statistics regarding domestic violence against men have been in dispute for several years. Straus and Gelles reported that men were as likely to endure domestic assault as women, but that women were far more likely to be injured. Domestic-violence activists dispute the notion that men suffer domestic assault at approximately the same rate as women, and other statistical reports, including those issued by the DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, tend to support these claims.