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:

  • psychological
  • physical
  • sexual
  • financial
  • emotional
  • Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
  • Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
    * This definition, which is not a legal definition, includes so called ‘honour’ based violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage, and is clear that victims are not confined to one gender or ethnic group.

(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.

6 thoughts on “Time for a rethink – why the current government definition of domestic violence is a problem.

  • Laila khan

    Since the word ‘gender’ infiltrated feminist discourse
    In the early 1990’s it has become ever more convenient to
    Generalise womons experienced under ‘gender ‘! The effect has
    Been devastating in progressing womons issues , specially
    Violence against us. The failure to name the majority
    perpetrators as male and hide that behind ‘gender’ needs exposing
    and the word gender removed from the debate and any clarifications for the future
    that attempt to improve knowledge and womon/girls legal protection from all forms of sex based VAW .
    From my own observation ‘gender’ has replaced ‘sex’ and from that action womon/girls the main recipients
    Are made invisible making accurate stats about all forms of sex based VAW impossible
    to disaggregate along with jumbled up definitions as stated in your article.
    When women’s studies were changed to ‘gender studies’ way back when
    that was po mo neo liberalism reigning in womons identity to exist and
    articulate their experience of the world it has made remorseless progress
    and seeks to preserve in a perverse way womons invisibility in the state!

  • Hecuba

    Agreed with you Laila Khan that male created term ‘gender’ is/has been successfully applied by men to ensure pandemic and systemic male violence against women and girls is once more rendered invisible.

    Likewise applying that term ‘gender based violence’ neatly erases which sex are the ones continuing to commit violence against women and girls. ‘Gender’is the active agent not males because naming males as the perpetrators is taboo since it upsets the men in political power and also their other UK based brothers!

    The above article collapses the real issue of pandemic male violence against women and girls into one of supposedly ‘gender based violence.’

    Naming the male perpetrators’ sex and specifically stating it is men who are the ones enacting coercion and psychological control over women and girls denies men their opportunity to promote more lies.

    I do not see any UK government claiming ‘racism’ happens whereby the perpetrators are as usual missing and focus is always on the non-white males! No UK government states it is whites (overwhelmingly white males) who are the ones inciting racial hatred of non-white males. (Non-white females as usual are erased from white male polticians’ discourse!).

    Likewise the issue of mens’ pandemic violence against women and girls does not occur ‘within an equal playing field.’ Men continue to accord themselves socio-economic power/control over women and girls which is why male violence against women/girls is a pandemic because males have to maintain their male domination/male control over women and girls by using violence in all its forms.

    This is why our current misogynistic government goes to great lengths to hide exactly which sex is subjecting which sex to ‘violence.’ A gender neutral approach is not ‘gender neutral’ it is a White Male Supremacist ideology whereby the dynamics of which sex is subjecting which sex to systemic and institutionally condoned/justified violence is always hidden.

    Women and girls continue not to be accorded their fundamental human rights and the UK is not a country wherein ‘sex’ is considered irrelevant because Male Supremacist System continues to be upheld by men. This means men continue to be the ones deciding what defines ‘violence’ and their definitions always hide the male perpetrators’ socio-political reasons for enacting male violence against women and girls. Violence is not an individual issue it is a way men maintain their male pseudo sex right to oppress and control women and girls.

    We can start by naming which sex is committing violence against which sex instead of constantly pandering to the men by claiming ‘it is gender based violence!’ Does this mean racism is something which just happens to individuals and we cannot possibly know who are the perpetrators? I think not but then racism affects men so therefore it is real and important to men, whereas mens’ pandemic violence against women and girls only affects females and therefore it is trivial and men must not be named as the perpetrators!

  • Lil Z

    I agree with Laila. For the love of women’s liberation, please stop using the weasel phrase ‘gender-based violence’, which is deliberately designed to obscure the perpetrator, and implies that violence is something that just happens to women, like a natural disaster. What else do we expect, being the ‘gender’ we are? Call it what it is: male violence, or men’s violence against women and girls.

  • catherine veitch

    Hi Laila Khan
    Thank you for your comments in response to the article about the current government definition of domestic violence. I agree with what you say.

    In the 1980’s Robin Morgan talks about how having figures in your hand on the extent & frequency of male violence is crucial. Morgan also talks about ‘the policy of not having figures’ (on male violence) which represents a political choice and one of the means of hiding it ( male violence)

    Yes language is a powerful tool, the term gender based violence is meaningless. This male euphemistic term is passive, without locus and contains no active agent. The results of this linguistic avoidence are resounding : men disappear from the discourse on violence by men against women & children. Yes where have ‘Women’s Studies’ gone, apparently ‘exclusivity’ or some such dictates the change to ‘Gender Studies’ –what does this mean?

    The issue of domestic violence-another meaningless definition, the point of avoidence language is to obscure by any means available, exactly who is doing what to whom and why.

    The purpose of the term, (gender based violence) as used by the government, is to hide the sex of the perpetrator.
    You know, I know, that it is males who continue to subject women & girls to violence on a global scale, hidden in plain sight.

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