Domestic violence is like no other crime. It does not happen in a vacuum. It does not happen because someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Homes and families are supposed to be sacred territory, the “haven in a heartless world,” as my college sociology teacher drilled into me. This is part of what makes the violence so untenable. It’s violence from someone you know, from someone who claims to love you. It is most often hidden from even one’s closest confidantes, and on many occasions the physical violence is far less damaging than the emotional and verbal violence.
I’ve been studying domestic violence for the better part of the past decade and have interviewed hundreds of people—victims, abusers, and experts in domestic violence— for my book on the topic. I can’t tell you how many abusers I’ve heard bemoaning their inability to stop loving the same women they assaulted so severely it landed them in prison. It is, perhaps, a powerful aphrodisiac, the idea that someone is gripped by love so intensely that he or she is powerless in the face of it.
American culture dictates that children must have a father, that a relationship is the ultimate goal, that family is the bedrock of society, that staying and working out one’s “issues” in private is better than leaving and raising kids as a single mother. As if a home with one adult abusing another adult isn’t broken, as if there are degrees of brokenness.
The messages are insidious and they are consistent. Those messages reverberate when politicians wrangle over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, and then fund it so sparingly it’s practically a hiccup in the federal budget. The Office of Violence Against Women has an entire budget of just under $489 million at present. To give a frame of reference, the entire annual budget for the Department of Justice, which oversees the Office of Violence Against Women, is currently $28 billion.
But victims receive the message to stay in other ways, too. It’s visible when the court system puts them on the defensive, asks them to face a person who might have tried to kill them, a person they know only too well might kill them for real next time. It’s visible in court rulings that give violent perpetrators a mere slap on the wrist, a fine, maybe. A few days in jail after a brutal assault. It’s visible when law enforcement treats domestic violence as a nuisance, a “domestic dispute,” rather than the criminal act that it is.
And, after all of this, people have the audacity to ask why victims stay.
The reality is that many victims are actively and stealthily trying to leave, working within the system that exists and step-by-step, with extreme vigilance, doing everything they can to escape. In so many cases, onlookers mistake what they see from the outside as the victim choosing to stay with an abuser. They fail to recognize a victim who is slowly and carefully leaving, and what leaving actually looks like.
None of this is surprising, given that many societies didn’t recognize domestic violence as wrong for most of human history. Some interpretations of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions have given the husband purview to discipline his wife in more or less the same manner as he might discipline and control any of his other properties, including servants, slaves, and animals. Some of these faiths’ holy texts even gave instructions on the manner of wife beating, such as avoiding direct blows to the face or making sure not to cause lasting injury. In the United States, the Puritans had laws against wife beating, though they were largely symbolic and rarely, if ever, enforced. (I also recognize that men can be victims and women can be perpetrators, and that there are grim statistics of domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships and communities. In general, men remain the overwhelming majority of perpetrators, and women the overwhelming majority of victims by nearly every measure.)
Often, abused wives were believed to have provoked the violence of their husbands—and this belief threads through hundreds of years of literature on domestic violence, infecting nearly everything written about spousal abuse prior to the 1960s and ’70s. On those very rare occasions when a case of private violence did make it to a courtroom, the rulings tended to side in favor of the man so long as the wife’s injuries were not permanent.
Apart from the Puritans’ laws, it’s only been in the past century or so that laws against wife beating have been written in the United States, and even those early states that began writing legislation against spousal abuse in the late 19th century—Alabama, Maryland, Oregon, Delaware, and Massachusetts—rarely enforced their own laws. The founding of the American Society Against the Cruelty of Animals predates laws against cruelty toward one’s wife by several decades. A federal law prohibiting domestic violence wasn’t passed until 1984.
As I write this, there are still more than a dozen countries where violence against one’s spouse or family member is perfectly legal—which is to say that no specific laws against domestic violence have been written. These include Egypt, Haiti, Latvia, Uzbekistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. Russia decriminalized any domestic violence that doesn’t result in bodily injury in 2017.
So much of the existing legal precedent around domestic violence in the United States happened very, very recently. It wasn’t until 1984 that Congress finally passed a law that would help women and children who are victims of abuse; it was called the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, and it helped fund shelters and other resources for victims. Stalking wasn’t identified as a crime until the early 1990s and still today is often not seen for the threat it truly is—not by law enforcement, abusers, or even by the victims actually being stalked, despite the fact that three-quarters of intimate-partner femicide victims in America have been stalked beforehand by partners or ex-partners. A national hotline for victims of domestic violence was not established in this country until 1996.
Around this time, three initiatives revolutionized how the U.S. addresses domestic violence. One was the 2003 advent of high risk teams within domestic-violence agencies that try to quantify the dangerousness of any given domestic-violence situation and then build protections around victims. Another was the 2002 opening of the country’s first family-justice center, started in San Diego by a former city attorney named Casey Gwinn; family-justice centers put victim services under one roof—police, attorneys, victim compensation, counseling, education, and dozens of others. And the third was the Lethality Assessment Program, begun in Maryland in 2005 by a former police officer named Dave Sargent, which primarily addressed how law enforcement dealt on-scene with a domestic-violence situation.
It was no mere coincidence that all three of these programs began around the same time. The women’s movement in the 1970s and ’80s had brought battered women to the attention of a nation just beginning to accept the idea of equality. The focus, in those years, was on shelters—building them, funding them, getting abused women away from perpetrators. But in the 1990s, that began to change. Advocates, attorneys, police officers, and judges across the country all told me that two primary events caused this. The first was the O. J. Simpson trial.
For many, Nicole Brown Simpson became the face of a new kind of victim. She was beautiful, wealthy, famous. If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. O. J.’s history of violence with her had been known to law enforcement. He’d been arrested, then bailed out, then sentenced to “telephone counseling” by a California judge (after which the case was dropped). Nicole’s 911 tapes allowed listeners into a rare scene: a woman under siege by a man who claimed to love her. The threats, the coercion, the terror—it was all right there. Her murder hurled into the forefront a conversation that advocates had been having for years—that domestic violence could happen anywhere, to anyone. How to reach victims who didn’t reach out to them was one of their biggest problems in those days. But when local papers ran stories about Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, for the first time nearly all of the articles included sidebars with where to go for help. Victims suddenly began to access resources in unprecedented numbers. Calls to domestic-violence hotlines, shelters, and police skyrocketed after the trial. Domestic violence edged its way into the national conversation.
Nicole Simpson’s case also became a rallying cry for victims of color who asked, rightfully, why it took a rich, white, beautiful woman to get the story of domestic-violence homicide out in public view. After all, women of color experienced private violence at the same or even higher levels as white women.
That part of the post-Simpson national conversation is slowly being addressed today in Native American, immigrant, and underprivileged communities on a larger scale than ever before, thanks in part to the second major event that changed how America treats domestic violence: the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA put intimate partner violence before lawmakers who had, until then, seen it as a private family matter, a problem for women rather than the criminal-justice system. It had first been introduced to Congress by then-Senator Joe Biden in 1990, but the bill didn’t pass until the fall of 1994, just months after O. J.’s arrest. (A jury acquitted O.J. of his wife’s murder in October 1995, a year after the bill’s passage.)
Finally, for the first time ever, cities and towns all across the country could get federal funding to address domestic violence in their communities. These funds allowed for targeted trainings of first responders, the creation of advocacy positions, shelters, transitional housing, batterer-intervention classes, and legal training; VAWA funds meant victims no longer had to pay for their own rape kits, and if an abused partner was evicted because of events related to her abuse, she could now receive compensation and assistance; victims with disabilities could find support, as could those in need of legal aid.
These and many other systems and services that address domestic violence today are a direct result of the passage of VAWA. In 1992, then-Senator Biden told the Associated Press, “[Domestic violence] is a hate crime. My objective is to give the woman every opportunity under the law to seek redress, not only criminally but civilly. I want to raise the consciousness of this country that women’s civil rights—their right to be left alone—is in jeopardy.”
VAWA requires reauthorization every five years. The 2013 reauthorization was delayed because many Republican senators and representatives didn’t want the bill to specifically mention same-sex partners, Native Americans living on reservations, or undocumented immigrants who were battered and trying to apply for temporary visas. After heated debates in both the House and Senate, the reauthorization finally passed. The next reauthorization is up for renewal as I write this. It passed the House in April, but still hasn’t passed the Senate. Advocates all across the country that I spoke with feel keenly the tenuousness of their positions and their funding in a political climate with a commander in chief who displays open hostility and sexism toward women, and who has himself been accused of groping and assault by more than a dozen women, as well as sexual assault by his first wife. (She later said she didn’t mean this in a criminal sense, but rather in a sense of having been violated.) Trump kept his staff secretary, a man accused of abuse by two ex-wives, in the White House, until media and outside pressure—and not a moral imperative—forced Rob Porter out. “The consequence of [Trump’s] words and deeds are so profound for women,” Kit Gruelle, a survivor and activist, told me. “We are leaping backwards at an obscene pace.”
I once asked Lynn Rosenthal, the first White House liaison to the Office of Violence Against Women during the Obama administration, a question: If she could do whatever she wanted with whatever money she needed, how would she solve domestic violence? She said she would take a community, study what worked, and then invest everywhere. At the same time, she says, “You can’t look at one little piece of the system and say, ‘Oh, that’s the magic bullet.’ That’s what … people want to do. If we could invest in one thing, what would it be? Well, the answer is, there’s not one thing.” And that’s the whole point: Private violence affects nearly every aspect of modern life in some way, yet the country’s collective failure to treat it as a public health issue demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding about this very pervasiveness.
This article has been adapted from Rachel Louise Snyder’s book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us.