DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.








               Domestic Violence: Definitions, Prevalence, and Causes of a Social Problem

                                                                Darius Muñiz

                                                          New York University















Domestic violence and abuse takes on many forms and is endured by many individuals from many different walks of life. Defined by its victims according to different lived experiences and contextual situations, domestic violence is among the most underreported crime afflicting millions of people daily. Propagated by differing causes such as social isolation, poverty, cultural acceptance, or drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence is prevalent whenever any combination of these factors lead to violent reactions by a perpetrator and endured physical, emotional, and psychological abuse by the victim.

              Key Words: Domestic Violence, Prevalence, Causes, Definitions, Cultural Influence, Social Isolation.














                Domestic Violence: Definitions, Prevalence, and Causes of a Social Problem

Domestic violence was once considered one of the most underreported crimes occurring within the familial and domestic realm. Various individuals and groups have defined domestic violence to include everything from saying unkind or demeaning words (verbal & psychological abuse), to grabbing a person's arm, to hitting, kicking, choking, or even murdering (physical abuse). 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, and mediating conditions such as poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, and mental illness can increase its likelihood. There are even studies indicating that the incidence of domestic violence among homosexual couples is approximately equivalent to that found among heterosexual couples.

A common consensus among scholars’ who have studied domestic violence find that domestic violence usually occurs in a cycle with three general stages. First, the abuser uses words or threats, perhaps humiliation or ridicule (verbal & psychological abuse). Next, the abuser explodes at some perceived infraction by the other person, and the abuser's rage is manifested in physical violence (physical abuse). 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, with reconciliation the violent cycle is repeated.

Legal Definition

Heightened awareness and an increase in reports of domestic violence have led to a widespread legal response since the 1980s in the United States. 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 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 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. 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.

Research Definition

Krishnan, Hilbert, and VanLeeuwen, (2001) defined domestic violence for their Study participants as a person who has experienced physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse, harassment, stalking, or abuse with a weapon in their current intimate relationship. Domestic violence can be perpetrated by either a man or a woman and can be inflicted on a person of any gender, race, age, and socio-economic status. Doctor Carole Warshaw states that becoming increasingly clear over the past two decades, domestic violence constitutes one of the most serious public health problems facing women in this country. She believes that the ongoing physical violence, psychological abuse and sexual assault from someone a woman has known and trusted carries serious medical, psychological and social consequences.

Without intervention this violence usually continues, involving repeated acts of assault and a pattern of continuing threats, intimidation and control. The prevalence of domestic violence cannot adequately be defined without taking into account the fact that different cultures define this violence in different ways. Yoshihama (1999) suggests that there should be alternative means of defining domestic violence. She argues that there are major limitations to mainstream definitions of domestic violence because they lack sociocultural contexts.

Similarly, Natalie, Sokoloff, and Dupont, (2005) suggest that African American women’s perceptions of violence may differ from mainstream definitions as well as in the way various forms of violence are experienced. In a study involving life history interviews with nine African American women, Natalie, Sokoloff, and Dupont, (2005) found that the women did not always regard physical aggression as violence, whereas acts of racism were uniformly experienced as such.




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 found that approximately four million people each year are victims of some form of domestic assault, ranging from minor threats; to 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 and 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.

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.  According to a report by Tjaden and Thoennes, physical assault is widespread among adults in the United States: 51.9 percent of surveyed women and 66.4 percent of surveyed men said they were physically assaulted as a child by an adult caretaker and/or as an adult by any type of attacker. An estimated 1.9 million women and 3.2 million men are physically assaulted annually in the United States.

Women experience more intimate partner violence than do men: 22.1 percent of surveyed women, compared with 7.4 percent of surveyed men, reported they were physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend or girlfriend, or date in their lifetime; 1.3 percent of surveyed women and 0.9 percent of surveyed men reported experiencing such violence in the previous 12 months. Approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. Violence against women is primarily intimate partner violence: 64.0 percent of the women who reported being raped, physically assaulted, and/or stalked since age 18 were victimized by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, or date. In comparison, only 16.2 percent of the men who reported being raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 were victimized by such a perpetrator.



Kasturirangan, Krishnan, and Riger, (2004) state that despite the increase in recent years of research on domestic violence, little attention has been paid to the influence of culture and minority status on a victims experience of Abuse. Family structure, acculturation, immigrant status, community response, and histories of oppression affect the experiences of women from minority communities and how they view domestic abuse and violence (Kasturirangan, Krishnan, & Riger, 2004). Some theories that examine the connection between culture and abuse claim that battering is a result of cultural values, rules, and practices that afford men more status and power than women (Torres, 1991, p. 115).

These values outweigh any other in patriarchal societies. Present within many cultures, including American culture, patriarchy may manifest itself in different ways. For example, in American society, men often earn more money than women and may control family finances; subjective accounts of the lives of Chinese women often focus on responsibilities to her father, then to her husband, and then to her son (Lee, 2000). These examples illustrate the way that patriarchal values may foster an environment in which violence may flourish, although they do not indicate that cultures explicitly condone violence against women. With these culturally propagated forms of violence stem another cause of domestic violence.

Social Isolation

In a study by West, Kantor, and Jasinski (1998) they found that Among various ethnic groups, Mexican women are less likely than Mexican American and Puerto Rican women to seek help from intimates. These findings may reflect the limited informal social support system available to immigrant women (West, Kantor, & Jasinski,1998), and the extreme physical isolation, limited availability and access to appropriate social and health services, patriarchal family structures and views, and strongly held religious beliefs that socially isolate domestic violence victims (Krishnan, Hilbert, & VanLeeuwen, 2001).

Informal and formal social support have been shown to improve battered women’s mental health, willingness and ability to seek help from formal sources, and subsequent capacity to stay safe. Friends and relatives often provide domestic violence victims with informal supports in the forms of emotional support such as advice, encouragement, or affirmation, and material assistance; such as financial help, babysitting, or a place to stay. Formal support may be provided by the police, actors within the criminal justice system, social service agency staff, medical services personnel, crisis hotline workers, mental health professionals, clergy members, domestic violence advocates, and staff at domestic violence shelters. Without these support systems socially isolated people in abusive situations tend to feel helpless and more often than not choose to remain in these abusive relationships.


In a study conducted by West, Kantor, and Jasinski, (1998) they found that while Latinas and Anglo women are equally likely to experience severe violence in an abusive relationship, poverty and the lack of resources may further intensify the abuse for Latinas. A lack of financial resources will limit a person’s social capital and available social networks to turn to in a time of emotional distress such as experiencing domestic violence. Poverty will also increase the daily stresses that individuals will have to endure further increasing the likelihood of ill feelings, domestic disputes, and eventually violent behavior toward proximal individuals.

Drug & Alcohol Abuse

Drugs and alcohol are stimulants that alter a person’s perception of reality and when taken in excess can lead to severe emotional and behavioral mood swings with sometimes-violent outcomes. When compared to Anglo women, Latinas more often categorized their marriages as male dominated and their husbands as heavy drinkers (West, Kantor, & Jasinski,1998).

Domestic violence is usually characterized as having multiple ecological features that propagate its occurrence. These features range from drug and alcohol abuse at the individual level, social isolation of the victim at the familial or micro level, the poverty or social status of the person, and finally the belief systems and practices at the cultural level. Any one feature or combination of features of these possible accelerants of domestic abuse can lead to violent behavior and the subsequent physical, emotional, and psychological traumas experienced.




Kasturirangan, A., Krishnan, S., & Riger, S., (2004). The impact of culture and minority status

       on women’s experience of domestic violence. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 5(4), 318-332.

       DOI: 10.1177/1524838004269487

Krishnan, S. P., Hilbert, J. C., & VanLeeuwen, D., (2001). Domestic violence and

       help-seeking behaviors among rural women: Results from a shelter-based study. Family and  

       Community Health, 24(1), 28–38.

Natalie J. Sokoloff, N. J., & Dupont, I., (2005). Domestic violence at the intersections of race,

       class, and gender: Challenges and contributions to understanding violence against

       marginalized women in diverse communities. Violence Against Women, 11(1), 38-64.

       DOI: 10.1177/1077801204271476

Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N., (2000). Full report of the prevalence, incidence, and consequences

       of violence against women. National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control

       and Prevention. pp. 1-68.

Torres, S. (1991). A comparison of wife abuse between two cultures: Perceptions, attitudes,

       nature, and extent. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 12, 113-131.

West, C. M., Kaufman Kantor, G., Jasinski, J. L., (1998). Sociodemographic predictors and

       cultural barriers to help-seeking behavior by Latina and Anglo American battered women.

       Violence and Victims, 13(4), 361-375.

Yoshihama, M. (1999). Domestic violence against women of Japanese descent in Los

Angeles: Two methods of estimating prevalence. Violence Against Women, 5, 869-897.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.