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National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or (TTY) 1-800-787-3224

Learn about Abuse

UPDATED April 16, 2013

What is domestic violence?
Who does domestic violence happen to?
What are the laws against domestic violence and can they help me?


What is domestic violence?

Domestic violence is about one person getting and keeping power and control over another person in an intimate relationship.  It is a pattern of behavior in which one intimate partner uses physical violence, coercion, threats, intimidation, isolation and emotional, sexual or economic abuse to control and change the behavior of the other partner.  The abusive person might be your current or former spouse, live-in lover or dating partner.  To better understand all of the ways that an abuser can use power and control over a victim, you can check out what is called the "Power and Control Wheel."

Domestic violence happens to people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and religions.  It occurs in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships.  A person's gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation does not determine whether s/he can be a victim of domestic violence or an abuser. Economic or professional status does not affect whether someone can commit domestic violence or be the victim of domestic violence - abusers and victims can be laborers or college professors, judges or janitors, doctors or orderlies, teachers, truck drivers, homemakers or store clerks. Domestic violence occurs in the poorest neighborhoods, the fanciest mansions and white-picket-fence neighborhoods.

Here are some examples of the different forms of abuse, as explained by The Network La Red:

PHYSICAL ABUSE: Grabbing, pinching, shoving, slapping, hitting, hair pulling, biting, etc.; denying medical care or forcing alcohol and/or drug use.

SEXUAL ABUSE: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact without consent, e.g., marital rape; forcing sex after physical beating; attacks on sexual parts of the body or treating another in a sexually demeaning manner; forcing the victim to perform sexual acts on another person, on the Internet or forcing the victim to pose for sexually explicit photographs against his/her will.

ECONOMIC ABUSE: Making or attempting to make a person financially dependent, e.g., maintaining total control over financial resources, withholding access to money, forbidding attendance at school or employment.  For more information, see our Financial Abuse page.

EMOTIONAL ABUSE: Undermining a person's sense of self-worth, e.g., constant criticism, belittling one's abilities, name calling, damaging a partner's relationship with the children.  See WomensLaw.org's Emotional Abuse page for more information. An abuser may also use his/her or your HIV-positive status or sexual orientation as a means to control you.  For example, an abuser may threaten to reveal your HIV status or your sexual identity.  For more information, go to HIV/AIDS-related abuse or Same-Sex Abuse.

PSYCHOLOGICAL ABUSE: Causing fear by intimidation, threatening physical harm to himself/herself, you, your family member, or your children; destruction of pets and property; stalking you or cyberstalking you, playing "mind games" to make you doubt your sanity; forcing isolation from friends, family, school and/or work. 

SEXUAL COERCION AND REPRODUCTIVE CONTROL:  When a partner sabotages your birth control efforts by demanding unprotected sex, lying about "pulling out," hiding or destroying birth control (i.e., flushing pills down the toilet or poking a hole in a condom), preventing you from getting an abortion or forcing you to get an abortion.

CULTURAL AND IDENTITY ABUSE: Threatening to "out" your sexual orientation or gender identity, your participation in S & M or polyamory, your HIV status, your immigration status, or any other personal information to family, friends, co-workers, landlords, law enforcement, etc. Using your race, class, age, immigration status, religion, size, physical ability, language, and/or ethnicity against you in some way.

The Am I Being Abused? checklist has more specific examples of what kinds of behavior can be considered abuse.

Who does domestic violence happen to?

About 95% of victims of domestic violence are women. Over 50% of all women will experience physical violence in an intimate relationship, and for 24% - 30% of those women, the battering will be regular and on-going.  Every 15 seconds the crime of battering occurs.*  Most abusers are men. They may seem gentle, mean, quiet or loud, and may be big or small. There is some evidence that shows that boys who grow up with domestic violence in the home may become abusers as adults; however, many abusers are from non-violent homes, and many boys from violent homes do not grow up to be abusive.

* See National Coalition Against Domestic Violence General Information Packet (statistics as of 2007)

What are the laws against domestic violence and can they help me?

The law defines domestic violence in very specific ways.  Every state and U.S. territory has laws that allow its courts to issue protection orders, as do many Indian tribes.  Each state, territory or tribe decides for itself how to define domestic violence and how its laws will help and protect victims, so the laws are different from one state to another.  Although you may be a victim of domestic violence, the laws in your state may be written in a way that does not include or protect you (for example, emotional or psychological abuse may not qualify you for a protection order and may not be illegal under your state's criminal laws). This does not mean that you are not a victim, and it does not mean that you should not seek help.

The law is a useful and important tool for increasing safety and independence, but it is not the only tool.  In addition to help from a lawyer, you might benefit from safety planning, medical care, counseling, economic assistance and planning, job placement, childcare, eldercare or pet care assistance, or many other types of practical help and advice. You can seek assistance from advocates, shelters, support groups, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE (7233)) and perhaps even your religious leader or doctor.

Thank you to Valerie Despres for her help in writing this page.

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