The Horror of Domestic Violence (NY Times Series - Day 4)
DAY 4 | BY ALISHA HARIDASANI GUPTA
The Horror of Domestic Violence
One of the biggest threats that women in America face today is domestic violence. In 2018, it affected more than a million women.
Domestic violence is an umbrella term for abuse at the hands of intimate partners and/or family members and it largely affects women, leaving hundreds of thousands across the country physically, emotionally and mentally scarred, often in the one place that’s supposed to be a refuge — their own home.
Violence by intimate partners, specifically, accounts for the majority of domestic abuse; about one in three women in the U.S. has experienced physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in 2014.
“Violence is not confined to the battlefield. For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest — in their own homes.”
— António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the rates of abuse vary across racial and economic lines. Another C.D.C. report, also published in 2014, found that Black, Hispanic and Native American women faced a higher rate of physical violence and rape by an intimate partner than white women, as did women in households with a combined income of less than $25,000. Intimate partner violence is not just more frequent, but also more severe for low income women, said Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland’s law school.
Rates of abuse are also higher for L.G.B.T.Q. people. More than four in 10 lesbians and six in 10 bisexual women have faced physical violence, rape or stalking by an intimate partner, the C.D.C. report stated.
Abuse is exacerbated in moments of extreme stress, such as the Sept. 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. This year, lockdown measures that were designed to slow the spread of the virus have created nightmare scenarios for women in abusive relationships.
From March to May of this year, the National Domestic Violence Hotline saw a nine percent increase in the volume of calls, texts and chat messages, compared with the same period in 2019.
But that number is likely to not take into account the many cases where women didn’t call for help out of fear that their abuser would find out. (Normally a victim waits for her abuser to leave the house before she seeks help, but if everyone is quarantining at home, that moment may never come.)
The risk that intimate partner violence might escalate is real: About half of all women killed in 2008 were killed by their intimate partners, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The psychological toll on victims of domestic abuse is also immense if the abuser is dominating and controlling, said Ruth Glenn, president and chief executive of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, who was herself a victim of domestic violence. About half of all women have experienced at least one act of psychological aggression, such as having their whereabouts monitored or receiving threats, by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, according to the C.D.C.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violence Against Women Act, designed to protect domestic abuse victims. The act, which was first introduced by then-Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., created a unit within the Department of Justice focused on violence against women that included training programs for victim advocates, police officers, prosecutors and judges to better handle gender-based violence cases. The act also set up the National Domestic Violence Hotline, funded shelters, research into domestic and intimate partner violence, and community programs.
Since then, cases of intimate partner violence against women have dropped by around 55 percent, from nearly 1.7 million in 1993 to around 750,000 in 2018, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Violence against women by other family members has also dropped, from 529,000 in 1993 to nearly 330,000 in 2018.
But those figures paint an incomplete picture, Ms. Goodmark said. The downward trajectory of domestic violence has dovetailed with the overall downward trajectory of violent crime, which saw a much larger drop of 62 percent between 1993 and 2018.
“We were putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the criminal legal response to intimate partner violence and, for that investment, it still got less of a drop than what was happening to other crime rates that weren’t receiving specific investments,” Ms. Goodmark said. “That's a problem.”
In fact, since 2015, domestic violence has been steadily increasing. Current levels are not as high as they were in the early 1990s, but cases in 2018 topped 1.3 million, or about 20 percent of all violent crimes in the U.S. that same year, according to the latest report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The report also noted that cases of rape and sexual assault — which are often committed by intimate partners — have almost doubled from 2015 to 2018.
And a recent study by Northeastern University’s criminology department found that intimate partner homicides also ticked up between 2015 and 2017.
Because much of the data collected is self-reported, these numbers are likely to underrepresent the scale of the problem, Ms. Goodmark added.
Taken together, the information we do have may suggest that the criminal legal system isn’t an effective solution for the problem, said Ms. Goodmark, who is also the author of “Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach to Intimate Partner Violence.”
In an argument that echoes the current debate around defunding, downscaling and dismantling the police force, Ms. Goodmark suggests that diverting resources from the criminal legal system to social services might work better at tackling domestic violence.
In 2017, for example, a total of $266 million in funding from the Violence Against Women Act was dedicated to the criminal legal system but just $30 million was allocated for housing, despite well-documented links between domestic abuse and economic and housing insecurity.
“If we're looking at what correlates with rates of intimate partner violence, it's poverty, unemployment and distressed communities,” Ms. Goodmark explained. “Those are the things that we need to be looking at if we want to make a real dent.”
She added: “It's about fundamental cultural change.”
Resources for Victims and Survivors:
The Anti-Violence Project offers a 24-hour English/Spanish hotline for L.G.B.T.Q. experiencing abuse or hate-based violence: Call 212-714-1141.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available around the clock and in more than 200 languages: Call 1-800-799-SAFE, chat with their advocates here, or text LOVEIS to 22522.
If you are in immediate danger, call 911.