Woodland: A '70s Throwback: Domestic Violence

The DOJ's definition of domestic violence will have damaging consequences.

by Ophelia Woodland | 10/1/19 2:15am

It has been over a year since the Department of Justice drastically changed its official definition of domestic violence — but hardly anyone has heard about it. Although the media did not bring significant attention to this policy change, it will have grave consequences for survivors. Worse than invalidating the experiences of many victims (which, admittedly, is already pretty bad), the change in definition will prevent many legitimate intimate partner violence nonprofits from receiving federal aid. Similarly, we've been receiving a fair bit of attention about the way we handle sexual assault at Dartmouth, while discussion on other sorts of abuse is largely ignored. It is imperative that this conversation be held in a manner that reflects the nuances of this issue, but neither the DOF nor Dartmouth seem to be making progress toward this.

The DOJ’s previous definition of domestic violence was complex, nuanced and perhaps most importantly, vetted by actual experts on intimate partner violence. It included sections on emotional, economic and psychological abuse, as well as the more obvious physical and sexual abuse. Emotional and psychological abuse are often confused with each other due to their seemingly synonymous names. The former involves the abuser systematically breaking down their victim’s self esteem (through name-calling, extreme criticism, etc.), while the latter is hallmarked by scare tactics (threats of violence, destruction of property, etc.). Economic abuse can be best described as “making or attempting to make an individual financially dependent” by withholding access to funds, intentionally sabotaging the victim at their job and so forth. The inclusion of these less-often spotlighted forms of abuse is vital to effectively defining and thereby combating domestic violence.

These types of abuses are very real and very damaging. Nearly half of all women have experienced psychological abuse at least once, and 70 percent of them will display symptoms of PTSD or depression as a result. Victims of economic abuse lose over 8 million billable hours of work every year. Up to 60 percent of victims will lose their job due to abuse. Looking at just this handful of grim statistics, it’s clear that emotional, psychological and economic abuse are relatively common, and that their effects can be extremely damaging in the long term.

On the flip side, the new definition is exclusively crime-focused. It classifies domestic violence as “felony or misdemeanor crimes” committed against a partner (current or previous), whereas the previous definition focused on the actual acts of abuse that might occur day-to-day. 

This reframing is rather problematic. As we’ve seen, emotional, psychological and economic abuse have drastic effects on victims. They are also typically how an abusive relationship begins. Unfortunately, domestic abuse cases are almost impossible to prosecute. It is very difficult to prove that an intimate partner has sabotaged their partner in their job, or that they have broken down their partner’s other close relationships or even that they have threatened their partner. In an American court, these claims are usually dismissed immediately because the survivor can’t provide concrete evidence — and even if the survivor could prove these offenses, they should not be obligated to. No victim of any act of violence should be required to “prove” their victimhood through a verdict. A definition of domestic violence that is only framed in reference to litigation denies the existence of the subtler, less “provable” forms of abuse and therefore limits the aid that can be given to domestic abuse victims. 

These changes introduce new obstacles in properly identifying, preventing and combating domestic abuse cases — something that was already difficult to accomplish. The DOJ’s new definition of domestic violence will limit the organizations the government can send aid to. Any organization that helps victims who have been abused in a non-physical or sexual way, under this new definition, is no longer eligible to receive funding from the government. In turn, any victim of psychological, emotional or economic abuse can no longer be helped by a nonprofit receiving federal aid. Whether this will be true in practice is difficult to say, but the idea of it is certainly scary. 

While the Trump administration may be focused on domestic abuse from a legal perspective, it must be understood that many victims of intimate partner violence may not want to press charges against their abusers. There may be a whole host of reasons for this — fear of retaliation, inability to pay legal fees, fear of ridicule, damage to reputation, etc. — but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is. No victim should be obligated to enter into litigation with their abuser. Court battles force a victim to recount their trauma in close proximity to their abuser, which can be traumatic in its own right. 

The actionability of an abuse case is not indicative of the level of trauma borne by victims, and it should not determine if they are able to receive help from organizations using federal aid. The change in the definition is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of domestic violence and the damaging effects that domestic abuse can have on victims. All types of intimate partner violence are domestic violence, and all victims deserve space to recover.