Time for a rethink – why the current government definition of domestic violence is a problem. 6
Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland consider the consequences of changing definitions of domestic violence which have progressively disguised, diluted and distorted the reality of gender based violence.
On March 8th the government announced the national roll out of ‘Clare’s law’ – the right to ask (and for agencies to tell) if a partner has a history of being abusive – and with much less publicity but more potential of Domestic Violence Protection Orders which give police the power to remove an abuser from the home, which if confirmed by a magistrate can last for 14-28 days. This government, like the previous one, has made domestic violence a legislative priority, whilst at the same time failing to secure specialist support services, but there is a critical problem with how domestic violence is defined.
The term ‘domestic violence’ emerged in the mid 1970s in the UK to describe violence and abuse within intimate relationships (‘battering’ in the US). It was not always defined in a specific way, but most women’s groups providing support would note that it was a variable combination of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and it was widely understood to be ongoing: what in law is termed a ‘course of conduct’.
When domestic violence forums and specialist police units began to proliferate in the 1990s, a variety of definitions emerged. In the early 2000s, central government began to develop policy but there was no cross government definition. This coincided with demand from women’s groups for an integrated strategy to deal with violence against women. An existing definition of domestic violence was expanded in 2005 to include FGM, honour based violence and forced marriage. For some BME women’s organisations this was progress as it brought these forms of violence into the mainstream, others saw it as a sleight of hand: a way of avoiding developing an integrated approach to violence against women. This cross-government definition, in Box 1 below, was also studiedly gender neutral.
Box 1: 2005 Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence
Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality. This includes issues of concern to black and minority ethnic (BME) communities such as so called ‘honour based violence’, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage.
(HM Government, 2005)
In March 2013, the government expanded this definition even further, including more information about the tactics that underpin partner violence, but not limiting the definition to this (see Box 2).
Box 2: Westminster cross government definition of domestic violence 2013
| Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:
(HM Government, 2013)
The three key changes introduced here are a) reducing the age from 18 to 16; b) including coercive and controlling behaviour within the definition; and c) adding the ‘pattern’ to the existing ‘any incident’ approach. It is not these specific changes that we have a problem with, more that a set of problems that were evident in 2005 have been made worse, because the changes have brought confusion and conflation rather than clarity.
It obscures at best, and denies at worst, a gendered analysis of male violence against women. While we do not deny that violence also occurs against men (by women or by other men in same sex relationships), it is now well established that gender-based violence is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality (United Nations, 1993). To pretend this is not the case to avoid a more complex analysis is a backwards step. This definition is entirely disconnected from that in the government violence against women and girls strategy, which uses the UN definition of violence: violence that takes place ‘because she is a woman or happens disproportionately to women’.
In addition there is a conflation between family violence and intimate partner violence. Since all agencies and local coordination forums (many of which now take a violence against women approach) are encouraged to adopt this definition, this conflation means that data they use, including that from the police, will not allow us to identify the most basic component of a gender analysis: who is doing what to whom.
The new definition downgrades forms of violence disproportionately experienced by minority women. The 2005 definition included FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence in the main text, but the new definition makes it a footnote. The gender neutrality of the definition is especially bizarre with respect to FGM. Everything else in the new definition about tactics of coercion and control is drawn from work on partner violence. This plays into the ‘othering’ of forms of violence that mainly affect minority women, which many women’s organisations have struggled to challenge and overcome. It may also play a part in a development that some black women have noticed, that many cases of partner violence are now being recorded as honour crimes.
It assumes that the dynamics in intimate partner violence (IPV) are the same as those of violence by family members (e.g. between siblings, between parents and children). We were amongst those who argued for the inclusion of coercive control, but in relation to violence by intimate partners, where this has been researched and documented. This definition suggests that these tactics are equally relevant to violence between family members (which we doubt), FGM, forced marriage and honour based violence (which may or may not be the case, but we have not analysed or researched these forms of abuse in this way). Coercive control is a concept developed to make sense of the many subtle and not so subtle ways in which men impose their will in heterosexual relationships, and it draws on cultural norms about both masculinity and femininity. This cannot be simply read across into other relationships which are often generational, in which the issues of gender and sexuality play out differently.
The inclusion of ‘incident’ or ‘pattern’ continues to obscure the reality of intimate partner violence. We now have the option of ‘any incident’ or ‘a pattern’ – made necessary by the inclusion of forms of violence which are usually single incidents (FGM and forced marriage), but which fails to address the critique that IPV is a pattern of coercive control. It is precisely the repetition and the web of forms of power and control which make it so harmful – the whole is so much more than the sum of its individual parts. This fudge means that prevalence data from the Crime Survey England and Wales – our only national level domestic violence self-report victimisation study – will remain confusing and misleading. The ‘any incident’ definition means that a single push, slap, or incident of emotional or psychological abuse such as name calling will be given the same weight in the survey as repeated, and arguably more dangerous acts, such as strangulation and threats to kill. It is this ‘any incident’ definition, and the analysis that follows from it, which produces the finding that women are almost as violent in interpersonal relationships as men. Jeff Hearn has argued persuasively that what he calls ‘incidentalism’ reproduces how men talk about their violence: it was a ‘one off’; not that ‘serious’; not ‘really violence’. Defining and analysing IPV as a pattern would mean that the gendered distribution of victimisation and perpetration, which all services including the police see in their data, would reappear.
The definition continues to marginalise rape and sexual violence. Here it is limited to violence experienced by people over the age of 16, committed by a current/ex partner, or potentially a family member. But the majority of sexual violence against girls in the family occurs before they are 16. This is yet another example of how government definitions continue to fail to get to grips with the sexual violence and the many contexts in which it occurs.
The list of forms of violence and abuse is vague and arguably out-dated. It is not clear how emotional and psychological abuse differ or overlap, nor how these differ from the acts constituting coercion and control. It may have been worth making more visible the frequent use by abusive men of online and mobile technology for surveillance and threats.
The conflations and confusions in the current government definition of domestic violence mean it has become a hindrance rather than a help. It is a lazy effort at inclusion of a range of forms of VAW in response to prior criticisms – symbolic recognition of an ‘integrated approach’ at the cost of accuracy. We suggest a new discussion is needed. Whilst we both support the integrated approach to violence against women as an equalities and human rights issue, within this we also need recognition and definition of each specific form of violence and the contexts in which they occur.