Domestic Violence in the United States

Jenell Sutton[*]



Imagine being seven years old, sitting at home on New Year’s Eve, and watching your father keep drinking alcohol and smoking his pipe like nothing else in the world mattered.  He did not want to be bothered with either of the children as they were expected to stay in their rooms until their mother got home. 

I had no idea that this was going to be a night I would never forget.  My mother came home forty-five minutes late because she had a drink with one of her friends when she got off work.  My father did not think that was right and the second she walked in the front door he threw her into the wall and would not stop hitting or kicking her.  I told my brother to stay in his room and I went down there yelling at him to stop.  He stopped only for enough time to run to the kitchen for another beer while my mother and I had gone upstairs and locked the bedroom door.  I picked up the phone and called 911 as I heard my father trying to beat down the door to get to us.  He pulled my mom out by her hair and dragged her down the stairs.  I was relieved when I heard the doorbell.  My father threatened me not to open the door, but I did and saved my mother’s life that night.  My dad was taken to jail, and my mom was sent to the hospital with several broken ribs, arm, and toes.  It hurt so bad seeing my mother in so much pain, but at least it was over and she would be safe.  My mom held my brother and me, and thanked God that we were unharmed.

My father only spent one night in jail and was released the next day.  With no previous convictions, and no murder, they decided they had nothing to hold him on.  The police told my mother that she could get a restraining order, but what good is a piece of paper if my dad really wanted her dead.  Luckily, my dad voluntarily went to counseling and Alcoholics Anonymous classes to regain his life.  But not all women are as lucky as my mother was.  Many men get out of jail and come back to finish what they started.

Are the laws in the United States written to protect these women from domestic violence?  How many women had to die before intimate partner violence was seen as serious?  Facts demonstrate that most lawmakers are men, and history has shown that men used to think women were nothing more than their property and were there merely to serve them.  At one point, there was even a law written saying it was not illegal to beat your wife.  Women used to be property of men, and because of this, men had the power to treat their wives as they wished.  There is an old myth that says the law was written based on the “Rule of Thumb.”  Men could beat their wives as long as the stick was no wider than their thumb (Gautier 2008).  This paper will examine the history of laws written to protect women from domestic violence, how far we have come as a nation, and the prosecution and conviction rates for intimate partner violence.


An Overview of Domestic Violence Research

“Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior perpetrated by an intimate partner against another. It is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, race, religion, nationality or educational background. Violence against women is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior, and thus is part of a systematic pattern of dominance and control. Domestic violence results in physical injury, psychological trauma, and sometimes death. The consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and truly last a lifetime” (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2007).


Historically, domestic violence had been seen as a private matter of the family that did not need any type of criminal justice intervention.  Police had considered responding to domestic violence calls as low status in police work.  Police receive the largest number of emergency calls each year for incidents pertaining to domestic violence, and domestic violence is the single largest cause of injury to women in the United States (Zorza, 1992).

The Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment was a study done in the early eighties led by Lawrence D. Sherman and Richard Berk.  Over the course study of one year, Minneapolis police officers were instructed to use one of the three strategies when responding to misdemeanor domestic assaults: (1) arrest the suspect, (2) send him from the scene of the assault for eight hours, or (3) give advice and mediate.  A random lottery determined each officer’s response.  Sherman and Berk (1984) reported that “arrest was the most effective of the three standard methods police use to reduce domestic violence.  The other methods were found to be considerably less effective in deterring future violence in the cases examined.”  In response to this study, Minneapolis changed its policy from avoiding arrests for wife beaters to actually arresting the assailant.  The Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment laid groundwork for lawmakers to enact policies for arresting batterers, and if the batterer could not be identified then both parties would then be arrested.

Sherman and Berk’s (1984) experiment was so highly received by law enforcement and legislators that the National Institute of Justice funded research in six additional cities (Dade County, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Omaha, Nebraska) to replicate the Minneapolis Experiment  (Dunford, 1992).  A study in Omaha, Nebraska used 330 cases in which they randomly assigned to mediation, separation, and arrest.  Dunford (1992) found that arrest was no more effective than either mediation or separation for rates of recidivism.  He measured the cases at both the six-month and one-year interval.  A study in Milwaukee, Wisconsin found some varying effects.  There was a short-term deterrent effect when the batterer was arrested, but it was only lower for whites who were married and employed.  Violence levels were found much higher for African Americans, unmarried men, unemployed men, and also high school dropouts (Sherman et al., 1992).  Employment status was found to be a huge factor in a Colorado Springs study as well.  Berk et al. (1992) found that arresting the batterer often made the situation worse and even more likely to recidivate.  In Charlotte, North Carolina, Hirschel and Hutchinson (1992) found that the batterer’s previous criminal record was the best indicator if arrest was the best policy or not.  Many other city experiments found only marginal support for mandatory arrest as recidivism rates dropped only by a fraction (Pate & Hamilton, 1992).

The Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment overall was criticized as only having a short-term deterrent effect since other researchers failed to duplicate their findings.  Recidivism is assumed to reoccur within six months, so a six-month follow-up period is the time period used to access recidivism in these cases of domestic violence (Sherman & Berk, 1984).  One of the unintended consequences of the new policies based on the Minneapolis study was significant rise in the number of women arrested for “violent crimes” (Miller & Meloy, 2006).  Jurisdictions nationwide continue to institute pro-arrest policies in domestic violence cases because of the Minneapolis study.      

Social Learning Theory and the “Stake in Conformity”

Over time, many theories have been developed to explain deviance in human behavior.  Violence among couples may stem from both contextual and situational factors.  Contextual factors include individual aggressive personalities, stress, and violence in the family.  Situational factors may include substance abuse or financial difficulties.  Men who have a higher stake-in-conformity and are socially invested have much lower rates of domestic abuse (Winfree & Abadinsky, 2003).  Variables such as marital status, residential stability, employment, and social investments are all variables that men take pride in and often do not want to jeopardize.  Social learning theory extends to explain these factors by giving understanding to the influence of children growing up with a combination of these external forces (Lemkey, 2003).

          Social learning theory, as presented by Akers et al. (1979), explains criminal offending as being learned through modeling one’s behavior.  Babies are not born as criminals.  Children must be taught evil ways (Winfree & Abadinsky, 2003).  Some embrace reading and writing, while others are learning the A-B-C’s of crime and delinquency.  People learn through observing other’s behavior, and this theory is applied to explain how people learn through the stages of imitation.  The basic assumption to Akers’ social learning theory is that the probability that one will commit a crime increases when they associate with others that commit criminal behavior (Akers et al., 1979).  Akers attempts to explain deviancy by combining variables that encourage delinquency with variables that discourage delinquency.

          Social learning theory occurs in two ways.  The first is by imitation.  This is done by observing what happens to others.  Early childhood socialization can teach important definitions of what is “right” and “wrong” that are held throughout life.  The second is through differential reinforcement.  Given two forms of behavior, the most highly rewarded one will be retained and repeated.  Those with higher stakes in society are less likely to take risks associated with punishment.  Akers observed that the learning is “most dramatic and effective when the alternatives are incompatible and one is rewarded while the other is unrewarded” (Winfree & Abadinsky, pp.196). 

          Domestic violence batters are often linked to social leaning theory because many batters have learned violence from their role models when they were children.  Their behavior continues into adulthood as a way to respond to stress, or as a way to control conflict.  Social learning theory predicts that violence is greater amongst those that have witnessed others they admire use aggression against a partner (Sellers, Cochran, & Branch, 2005).  Children from violent families are more likely to grow up with behavioral problems and societal issues.  Townsend et al. (2006) reported that men who have seen their parents attack each other are three times more likely to hit their own wives, as compared to those who did not witness violent parents.  About four out of ten female victims of intimate partner violence lived in households with children under the age of twelve.  Population estimates suggest that twenty-seven percent of United States households were home to children under twelve (Rennison & Welchans, 2002).  Witnessing violence between one’s parents is the strongest risk factor of transmitting behavior from one generation to the next.  Most children in these homes know about the violence. Parents may think children do not know about the violence, but most of the time they do.  Children should never be made to feel like the violence was their fault.

Prosecution and Convictions

Domestic Violence in the United States is considered to be under-reported.  Prosecutions and convictions for domestic violence charges are rare.  No one knows how many women have actually suffered from the abuse of their husbands or boyfriends.  Women for so long had been seen as a man’s property, and having no position in a patriarchal system (Haines & White, 2004).  Women were often afraid of what would happen if they reported their lover as an attacker.  In many cases, the abuser can even convince the woman to drop the charges that she was finally courageous enough to make.

In 2005, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act.  The act recognized that “violence against women is a crime with far-reaching, harmful consequences for families, children, and society” (United States Department of Justice, 2005).  Historically, the federal government has lacked jurisdiction over matters of domestic violence as each state and local jurisdiction has their own formalities. 

Victims of intimate domestic violence typically use the criminal justice system by calling the police for protection (Garner & Maxwell, 2008).  Each state has different policies and procedures on how to handle domestic violence disputes.  Some states policies propose that once an officer responds to a call, arrest is mandatory.     

A study by Garner and Maxwell (2008) researched in-depth how often reported incidents of intimate partner violence resulted in a prosecution, and how often those prosecutions resulted in conviction.  Their study suggests that prosecution and convictions for intimate partner violence have increased over time, but the lack of prosecutions and convictions stem from attitudes in society who are indifferent to supporting legislation for violence against women.

Often times the perpetrators are given the opportunity to attend treatment programs for domestic violence abuse.  Treatment programs are designed to reduce the rate of recidivism amongst those arrested for domestic violence offenses.  Treatment programs will surround the batterers with people who disapprove of intimate partner violence, and view intimate partner violence as a greater cost then reward to society as present in Akers social learning theory.  Treatment programs allow men to examine their thoughts towards woman, power, and control.

Women as Victims and the Harmful Consequences of Abuse

          Domestic violence is abuse that occurs between two people in a close relationship.  That abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, or even just threats of abuse.  Often times the abuse starts emotionally as a way of harming one’s self-worth, and then progresses to more of a physical and sexual form (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). 

          Being abused can pose several harmful consequences.  Many abused victims will sustain minor injuries such as scratches, bruising, and/or cuts.  Some women are not so lucky and actually get broken bones, internal bleeding, and/or head trauma.  This kind of abuse can have lasting effects.  Some risk factors for perpetration may include: using alcohol or drugs heavily, seeing or being a victim of violence as a child, and/or not having a job which causes feelings of stress (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2006). 

Men tend to get abusive because they like to enhance the power and domination over the household.  That male entitlement causes abusers to feel justified to abuse when they do not feel like they are on control or not getting what they feel like they deserve.  Abusers may have the sense that their behavior is justifiable if their victims need to be “taught a lesson.”  Men batter because “violence is a highly effective means of control,” and men batter because “they can” (Belknap, 2007).

          Many abused women begin to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  A study by DeMaris & Kaukinen (2008) found that women are constantly living with the fear of retaliation after their loved one was arrested.  Women feel vulnerable and powerless when they are faced with assault.  Some women fall into a state of learned helplessness.  This is an aspect of social learning theory used to help explain abused women’s behavior.  Learned helplessness refers to experiencing repeated failure and they no longer believe they can control their own destiny.  Because they have no control over their environment, there is no point in trying (Belknap, 2007).  Every year, women experience about 4.8 million domestic violence assaults and rapes.  Many of the attacks are not even reported to police because the victims do not think the police can help them (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2006). 

Many battered women stay in abusive relationships because they fail to identify and plan an escape route.  Abusive relationships can cause low self-esteem and negativity emotions such as anxiety and depression.  Parenting responsibilities often impede an escape, which is why relatives are critical to leaving an abusive relationship.  Women often cannot economically afford to leave a man.  It is not uncommon for abusers to control the money in the household, and many times the woman does not have job skills to survive without him (Belknap, 2007).  “Employed women may be less likely to enter, tolerate, or stay in abusive relationships, and others may be employed because they are compelled by their partners to work and contribute income to the household” (Belknap, pp.337). 

What about men that are battered by women?  Some research views men and women as mutually combative in relationships.  The most recent case of NFL star Steve McNair is an example of a male victim of domestic violence.  He was fatally shot in his sleep by his girlfriend in a murder suicide (Associated Press, 2009).  Most of the gender similarities however are found at the minor level of violence, such as slapping (Belknap, 2007).  Even minor instances of violence can lead to an escalation of something much more serious.  The reality is that the violence men direct at women is not comparable to the violence women direct at men.  Imagine a 250-pound man slamming a 100-pound woman into a wall and her shoving him back forcefully.  Men tend to underestimate the amount of injury they can cause a woman.  A considerable amount to research suggests that men tend to batter women in approximately ninety-five percent of all domestic violence situations (Belknap, 2007).  In 2004, domestic violence was responsible for 1,544 deaths.  Of these deaths, seventy-five percent were females, and twenty-five percent were males (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2006). 

          The Bureau of Justice Statistics report that intimate violence over the last ten years has actually decreased.  The statistics report “Intimate partner relationships involve current spouses, former spouses, current boy/girlfriends, or former boy/girlfriends. Individuals involved in an intimate partner relationship may be of the same gender.  The FBI does not report former boy/girlfriends in categories separate from current boy/girlfriends.  Rather, they are included in the boy/girlfriend category during the data collection process” (Rennison & Welchans, p.8).   Women that live in households with low annual income are more likely to be abused.  Black females experience significantly higher rates of abuse than any other race.  Two-thirds of all intimate partner violence occurs in the victim’s home between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. (Rennison & Welchans, 2002).

  The National Crime Victimization Survey in 1999 indicated that over 600,000 women over the age of twelve had experienced a violent episode from a former spouse, boyfriend, or date (Townsend et al., 2006).  In 2005, 1,181 were murdered by an intimate partner.  That averages out to one woman every three days.  Of all the women that were murdered in the United States that year, one-third of them were killed by an intimate partner (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2007).


Domestic violence is a serious concern for American women and their families.  The majority of violence against women in the United States is at the hands of their intimate partners.  One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2007).  Relationships or even the commitment of marriage does not give a man the right to hit a woman.  A marriage license is not a “hitting license.”  Since much of intimate partner abuse is not reported, it is impossible to know how many women are actually being abused each year.  Only approximately one-quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes, and one-half of all stalking perpetuated against females by intimate partners are reported to the police (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2007).

The simple fact of domestic violence is that any woman can become a battered woman.  It is a frightening thought, and most women want to believe it would never happen to them.  It seems like a lot of research suggests that women are afraid to report their attacks because they feel shame about the violence.  Over the last twenty years, more women are reporting their attacks.  Women in society have become more independent overall, and hopefully that independence carries through when abusive partners beg for their forgiveness promising that they will never hurt them again. 

My mother always told me, once an abuser, always an abuser.  Many women love the man that abuses them, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.  The abuser may buy the woman gifts, quit drinking, or do other things to convince her that he really loves her, and that the abuse will never happen again.  That glimpse of how the love used to be cannot be restored unless the man has gone through treatment, and has truly gotten rid of every abusive trait.  Women have to be careful not to be vulnerable to the abuser’s promises that the abuse will just magically stop. 


Women are more often abused then men, and in many cases the children will suffer too.  No one should have to see someone they love getting abused by someone they also loved and trusted.  I thought my mom was going to die that night…so did she.  She was just telling me how much she loved me, and that she was going to try and hold on as long as she could through all the abuse.

Wives are much more likely to be slain by their husbands when separated from them than when co-residing…One implication is that threats which begin “If you ever leave me…” must be taken seriously.  Women who stay with their abusive husbands because they are afraid to leave may correctly apprehend that departure would elevate or spread the risk of lethal assault.  As one Chicago wife, a victim of numerous beatings by her husband, explained to a friend who asked why she didn’t leave her husband,” I can’t because he’ll kill us all, and he’s going to kill me.”  He did.  (Belknap, p.319)

  I look back on that New Year’s Eve and it seems surreal.  I am now twenty-five years old, and eighteen years ago really seems like yesterday.  I could never picture how my life would have been without my mother.  She is my best friend and the person I admire most in this world.  I am so proud of her for having the strength to get away from an abusive husband because not all women do. 

My father went through a series of treatment programs when he was released from prison.  He chose being a father over an abuser, and realized that nothing was bad enough to hurt his family.  My father has now been off drugs and alcohol for thirteen years.  We have all forgiven him for that night.  Even though my parents are no longer together, they will always have that bond of being my parents.  Respect and forgiveness have made my father a strong man and now a positive force helping guide me through life.  My dad’s imperfections and my mother’s strength made me the strong and determined person I am today.  Because of him, I want to spend my life prosecuting batterers.  I think about that night every day of my life.  I have never been able to bury the memories, but I am thankful I did not have to bury my mother. 




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[*]  Jenell Sutton is a graduate student in the Department of Criminal Justice, UNLV.  This is a revision of a paper written for a graduate class in the fall, 2009.