Domestic Violence

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All states made "wife beating" illegal by 1920. However, only since the 1970s has the criminal justice system begun to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, not as a private family matter. Domestic violence is any physical, sexual, or psychological abuse that people use against a former or current intimate partner. It refers to a number of criminal behaviors: assault and battery; sexual assault; stalking; harassment; violation of a civil restraining order; homicide; and other offenses that occur in the course of a domestic violence incident, such as arson, robbery, malicious destruction of property, and endangering a minor. No person can validly consent to a breach of the peace or a battery that may result in serious injury or death. Furthermore, most states have abolished the marital rape exemption in toto; this exemption precluded husbands from being prosecuted for raping their wives. Thus, in general, there is no legal distinction between crimes committed against intimate partners and those committed against strangers.

Police, prosecutors, and judges are routinely trained in domestic violence, and aggressive interventions are continually implemented. Individuals across the political spectrum have generally supported these changes, although there is ongoing debate as to which interventions work best. Furthermore, some fear that the pendulum has swung too far, and that those who are accused of domestic violence, particularly men, are presumed guilty rather than innocent. Advocates are concerned that the needs of victims are being sacrificed for higher conviction rates. Indeed, the ongoing challenge for the criminal justice system is to protect the rights of both defendants and victims while at the same time treating domestic violence as a serious social problem. Even though the criminal justice system has come a long way since 1920, it still has a long way to go. 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...
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