Domestic violence—usually defined as intentional physical, sexual, or emotional harm by an intimate partner or family member—likely has always been part of human history. The construction and reconstruction of this social problem in the United States occurred in several ways, beginning as the problem of wife abuse.
Claims makers concerned with wife abuse emerged during the 1970s out of several other moral entrepreneurial campaigns, particularly those of the second wave feminist consciousness-raising groups, the anti-rape social movement, and the child protection movement. The first two focused their attention on challenging the secondary status of women in society. Consciousness-raising groups gave women time and space away from their busy lives to share stories of harassment, victimization, and often, abuse. These groups let many women see that what they had experienced was not unusual but rather was typical of many women’s experiences. These groups gave women a discourse with which to analyze their individual and collective pain: how patriarchal institutions such as the family, the criminal justice system, and religion controlled women’s lives and how women and girls were vulnerable to male power from birth until death, among other issues. The anti-rape movement’s claims deepened the political analysis, showing how law enforcement often revictimized women when they reported sexual assaults and how police and prosecutors often did not follow through with investigations of incest and what came to be called “date rape.” Some other women shared the humiliation and frustration of rape by their husbands; even if they called on law enforcement for protection and justice, they were often turned away for lack of an offense that could be prosecuted. Thus many women did not report intimate wife abuse or rape; they feared not being believed and they were loath to suffer the humiliation of police investigative techniques.
Emboldened by the sheer numbers of stories of terror at the hands of men told in consciousness-raising groups, feminist activists initiated social change by creating sexual assault centers and training law enforcement officers to understand trauma and victimology; in time, they began to advocate for shelters where victims of wife abuse could go to be safe and to gain a time away to rethink their lives and their futures. With much hard work, the shelter movement grew across the United States. With its successes came awareness that the term wife abuse did not adequately capture the essence of what women were enduring. Not all victims were married to their abuser; as sexual mores changed, more women were living with a male partner without benefit of marriage, and thus the term wife abuse was a misnomer. The shelter movement— now a freestanding social movement—began to refer to the problem as “family violence.” Family was understood, in a holistic way, as anyone with whom a person creates an intimate bond; this normally meant a sexual relationship between two consenting heterosexual adults. But family violence was different in another way; there was a growing recognition that children were also victims, even if they were only witnesses to the adults in their lives hitting each other. Learning lessons from the child protection movement, family violence activists emphasized that such children were more likely to grow up to be violent with an intimate partner (if a boy) or to allow a partner to hurt them (if a girl). Thus the intergenerational cycle of violence theory was born, and it resonated with many in the general public.
Activists strove to find ways to keep their claims about this kind of violent act fresh and in the public’s consciousness. So by the 1990s, they reconstructed the social problem yet again, this time calling it “domestic violence.” This new term incorporated the earlier elements of the claim: Males were the perpetrators, while females and children remained as victims, but the new term allowed for expansion of the possible kinds of victimization and, therefore, created more possible victims and more accused perpetrators. Domestic violence became the umbrella term for other acts of interpersonal violence: Emotional abuse, fiscal abuse, even spiritual abuse were new ways that males could hurt their female partners. The success of these claims allowed for construction of new types of domestic violence: Sibling abuse, elder abuse, even roommate abuse also became instances of domestic violence. Nevertheless, for most people, domestic violence meant aggressive behavior between those who were—or had been—in romantic relationships.
When asked to identify the causes of domestic violence, experts focused on two. First, there was a societal explanation: U.S. society was thoroughly patriarchal. Major institutions such as the criminal justice system, the labor market, and education were infused with “male is superior” values and minimized women’s contributions, complaints, and suffering. Those institutions, undergirded by chauvinistic mass media, further socialized each sex into what patriarchy felt was its natural status. Not surprisingly, public policy also endorsed male superiority; this could be best illustrated by the few domestic violence shelters that existed and the difficulty they had in finding stable funding. Such limited societal resources to help victims of domestic violence often meant that women had to return to their abusers. Feminist experts—especially when they appeared in the media—explained repeatedly how this high rate of victim return did not mean that “women were asking for it” or that “they were masochists who enjoyed being hurt.” Individual causation, experts opined, was the second reason that domestic violence occurred: A man decided to hurt the woman he loved. Even though he had been socialized into patriarchy, every male faced a choice: He could channel his anger, jealousy, frustration, or other emotions into behaviors that fostered healthy communication and a healthy relationship, or he could choose to do harm to his intimate partner, whom he viewed as his inferior. Even if the man felt powerless in his other statuses in the public sphere, it was not acceptable, these experts claimed, to turn those feelings of powerlessness on innocent victims within his family. These experts also rejected male explanations for losing control, such as alcohol or drug usage, arguing that they were simply rationalizations to cover the men’s deliberate decision to hurt their partner.
By the mid-1990s, domestic violence claims makers had made significant gains in shaping public policy. Shelters were present in many more communities; passage of state and federal laws offered more protection for victims in areas as wide-ranging as mandatory insurance coverage, temporary protective orders, child custody, and so on. The public, thanks to several well-known cases covered by the media, such as the Nicole Brown-O. J. Simpson case, became much more sensitized to the harm that domestic violence could cause.
Such high-profile cases also added two new elements to the social problem of domestic violence. The first new element was stalking; perpetrators did not allow their victims to leave the relationship voluntarily. Instead, they followed their former partners, tracing their every movement in person, via the mail, or via the Internet, and threatened to commit, or committed, violence against their exes. Stalking behaviors were simply one more example of the male’s need to control his female partner, even after the relationship had ended. That led directly to the second new element, that without intervention, domestic violence would continue to escalate, culminating in the murder of one partner or ex-partner, most often the woman.
More recently some sociologists have critiqued the feminist construction of domestic violence as men exhibiting power over women, by studying interpersonal violence within same-sex relationships and violence perpetrated by females against their male partners. Their analyses show that although patriarchal values are woven through many relationships, not all violence between partners can be attributed to patriarchy.
- Cho, Hunkag and Dina J. Wilke. 2005. “How Has the Violence Against Women Act Affected the Response of the Criminal Justice System to Domestic Violence?” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 32:125-39.
- Gondolf, Edward W. 1998. Battered Women as Survivors: An Alternative to Treating Learned Helplessness. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
- Hoffman, Kristi L., K. Jill Kiecolt, and John N. Edwards. 2005. “Physical Violence between Siblings: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis.” Journal of Family Issues 26:1103-30.
- Renzetti, Claire. 1992. Violent Betrayal: Partner Abuse in Lesbian Relationships. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
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