Intimate Partner Violence Essay

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Intimate partner violence (IPV), also called domestic violence or wife abuse, was first identified as a social problem by feminist advocates and scholars in the 1970s. Before that time, abuse of women in the context of intimate relationships and families was a largely hidden problem, although there is much evidence that it is not a new problem. Since that time much has been learned about the complex nature of IPV, although it is still not a well-understood problem. In the beginning, it was married women who were the target of concern, based on the assumption that there was something about the institution of marriage itself that led some men to feel entitled to assert control over their wives through physical violence. Over time, however, both researchers and advocates for women have learned that women in all types of intimate relationships—dating, cohabiting, married, as well as separated and divorced—experience violence at the hands of their partners.


IPV is predominantly violence against women by men and consists of physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological abuse or violence committed by intimate partners or acquaintances, including persons who are current or former spouses, cohabiting partners, boyfriends, and dates. Regardless of how it is socially or legally defined, women’s experiences of violent victimization are dominated by victimization by people they know, generally men they know well.

Physical Violence

Physical violence is defined to include fatal and nonfatal physical assault, such as acts of physical aggression intended to harm an intimate partner, including pushing, grabbing, and shoving; kicking, biting, and hitting (with fists or objects); beating up and choking; and threatening or using a knife or gun.

Sexual Assault

Legal definitions of rape and sexual assault differ from state to state, although their common element is the lack of victim consent to sexual acts. Although many states have ceased to use the term rape in their criminal codes, rape is generally understood to mean forced or coerced vaginal, anal, or oral penetration; sexual abuse involves either less serious threats or engaging in other sexual acts with a person who cannot give consent.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse, also referred to as psychological abuse or maltreatment, can be defined as acts intended to denigrate, isolate, or dominate an intimate partner. Emotional abuse might include verbal attacks (including harassment, insults, criticism, ridicule, name calling, discounting and discrediting); isolating the victim from social ties or controlling contact with others; denying access to resources, including finances and transportation; extreme jealousy and possessiveness, monitoring of behavior, and accusations of infidelity; threats to harm the victim’s family, children, or friends; threats of abandonment or infidelity; or damage or destruction of possessions. Common to many definitions of emotional abuse are attempts to control victims by limiting resources and social contacts, creation of emotional dependence, and attempts to make the victim doubt her self-worth, competence, and value.


Estimating rates of partner violence is difficult for many reasons, including historical stigma, victim underreporting due to fear of retaliation from their perpetrators and other safety concerns, and lack of agreement about definitions. There have been several major national survey studies of IPV. The 1985

National Family Violence survey found that partner violence was reported by 116 of every 1,000 women. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), an ongoing general victimization survey begun in 1972, concluded that around 5 million victimizations are experienced by females over age 12 each year; of the victimizations involving single offenders, 29% were perpetrated by intimates, 9% by other relatives, 40% by someone known to the victims but not an intimate or relative, and only 24% by strangers. The National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) conducted during 1995 and 1996 examined IPV rates in a sample of 8,000 U.S. women 18 years and older. This study concluded that 1.3% of women experienced violence by an intimate partner in the preceding year, with 22% reporting physical assaults by an intimate partner at some time over the course of their lives. The differences in these studies’ results are likely due to differences in the contexts in which victimization questions were asked, populations sampled, and number and type of screening questions asked. Despite differences in the overall rate estimates, the results of these studies indicate that partner violence is a prevalent problem and that women are at higher risk of assault from someone known to them than by strangers. It should also be noted that IPV is estimated to occur at approximately the same rates among gay men and lesbians in intimate relationships.

Risk Factors

There is a strong consensus among experts that there is no single cause or risk factor for IPV. Instead, there are numerous risk factors that affect perpetrators and victims, in relationships and family systems, and within communities and society.


Individual risk factors affecting perpetrators have been studied extensively. Age is among the best documented risk factors for physical and sexual violence for both victims and perpetrators; younger men are at greater risk of perpetrating IPV. Substance abuse, especially alcohol use and abuse, has also been found to be associated with both partner violence and sexual assault. One third to two thirds of sexual assaults are said to be alcohol related. Low income is a risk factor for both occurrence and continuation of IPV; the lower the income, the more likely men are to perpetrate IPV. Unemployment of the abusive male partner has also been found to elevate risk for IPV.

Numerous perpetrator personality characteristics or traits have been studied as antecedents of physical or sexual abuse, although it is clear that there is not a single male personality type that is prone to sexual or physical violence. A 1998 review of research concluded that the following are personality risk markers for male partner abuse: emotional dependence and insecurity; low self-esteem, empathy, and impulse control; poor communication and social skills; aggressive, narcissistic, and antisocial personality types; and anxiety and depression. Some researchers have attempted to identify different types of batterers. These studies have concluded that while there may be several different types of abusive men, there are at least two types (one type that is violent only toward intimates and another that is more generally violent toward others) that may require different interventions. Because emotional or psychological abuse typically precedes as well as accompanies physical abuse, emotional abuse should also be considered a risk factor for physical abuse. A history of violence in the family of origin has been extensively researched, with most researchers concluding that exposure to violence between one’s parents or being the recipient of violent punishment is a risk factor for violence toward intimates as an adult, although not all studies have supported this conclusion.


Numerous experts have found that earlier victimization, especially childhood physical and sexual abuse and witnessing violence between parents, increases risk for sexual assault and partner violence. Many of the same risk factors for male perpetration of IPV also apply to female victimization. For example, younger women are more likely to be abused, and alcohol and drug abuse have been found to increase the risk of becoming a victim of IPV, and especially of sexual assault. One study concluded that substance abuse appears to be both a cause and an effect of IPV, affecting young women and women of color in particular. Abuse of alcohol or drugs, which may have origins in childhood victimization and the ongoing distress it causes, appears to be associated with the kind of lifestyle and male relationships that increase women’s risks for victimization, also making it more difficult for women to terminate abusive relationships. Poverty status is also a risk factor for victimization, and economic dependency on the abuser can be a barrier to a woman’s being able to terminate an abusive relationship.

Social isolation is associated with IPV. Although it can be a consequence of abuse, it may also serve as a risk factor for women’s victimization. It is plausible that women with greater social support are less likely to be physically or sexually assaulted, and thus social support may be protective. Some research suggests that social isolation both precedes and follows partner violence. Much anecdotal information suggests that abusive men often attempt to control their partners by cutting them off from meaningful social contact. In addition, isolated women and families may be less closely monitored by others, allowing abuse to occur more easily.

Relationship Type

Relationship status is a risk factor. Among intimates, separated and cohabiting couples are at higher risk for partner violence than are married or dating couples.


Two factors at the community level have been found to increase risk for IPV. First, rates of IPV are highest in urban areas. In addition, a lack of services for victims or perpetrators increases the risk of staying in abusive relationships and/or being unable to address the consequences of physical or sexual abuse. Although services for abuse have increased over the past three decades, some victims are dissatisfied with the help they have received from community agencies, and research continues to be conducted on how to provide services to victims and offenders that are effective in ameliorating abuse and its effects.

Culture and Society

Sociocultural risk factors establish a broad context that has made many forms of IPV socially acceptable in the context of historical patriarchy. Many agree that sexism in American society and gender-role stereotyping are risk factors for victimization of women. For example, rates of marital violence are highest in states where there is the most economic, educational, political, and legal inequality. In addition, there is still stigma associated with identifying oneself as an abused woman or rape victim. Although victims may be less likely to be held responsible for being abused, many feel criticized and misunderstood for not leaving abusive relationships sooner than they do.

Race and ethnicity have been studied as possible risk factors for IPV, although research findings are inconclusive. Some studies show that, compared with White women, African American women experience higher rates of physical violence, whereas others find higher rates for Whites compared with Hispanic women or find no racial/ethnic differences. Many of these studies have not taken into consideration the effects of socioeconomic status, which is correlated with race and ethnicity, so they may overestimate the effect of race on violent victimization. The highest rates of rape have been found among Native American women, with Latinas reporting the lowest rates. As is the case with domestic violence, however, most research on race and sexual assault has not controlled for the effects of socioeconomic factors such as income that may help to explain ethnic differences in sexual assault rates.


A wide variety of different types of consequences of IPV can occur. Offenders and children in families where abuse is occurring experience adverse consequences as well as victims. Victims of IPV may experience consequences in several domains. One obvious effect is physical injury. The NVAWS found that 36% of rape victims and 42% of physical assault victims reported injuries, most commonly scratches, welts, and bruises. However, injuries are not the most common type of health effect to occur. A large body of research in health care has documented that abused women tend to have poorer health and report more symptoms of all kinds compared to nonabused women. These include gastrointestinal disorders, chronic pain, fatigue, dizziness, appetite problems, and gynecological problems such as sexually transmitted diseases. Emotional distress is also common in the aftermath of IPV, including depression, suicide attempts, posttraumatic stress, fear and anxiety, and, in some studies, drug and alcohol abuse. The likelihood of symptoms is related to abuse severity. Many victims also blame themselves for the abuse and experience guilt or shame. Although for some women psychological symptoms subside when the abuse stops, others continue to experience emotional distress long after the abuse has ended.

A question often asked is why abused women remain in abusive relationships. Although many women do leave—as many as two out of five within 2 to 5 years according to some research—others remain in abusive relationships due to practical barriers to leaving such as the inability to economically support oneself and one’s children or lack of safe, affordable housing. Emotional attachments and dependency on the abusive partner and lack of social support also entrap some victims.

Perpetrators, too, can experience adverse consequences of abusing their partners. These include, increasingly, criminal justice sanctions such as arrest and incarceration and either temporary or permanent loss of their female partner and children. This, in turn, can lead to loss of self-esteem and self-respect. Finally, injuries or even death can occur at the hands of the victim.

Children can also be affected in negative ways, manifesting problems of various types and in all areas of development. These include fear, insecurity, and confusion; “externalizing behavior problems” such as anger, aggression and other acting-out behavior problems, and noncompliance; learning violence as a way of approaching problems; withdrawal, passivity, depression, and other “internalizing problems”; and injury, as they attempt to intervene in a violent argument to protect their mother.


Although concerns about intervention initially focused on victims, it was quickly realized that offenders need services to stop their abuse. Most communities now have domestic violence programs as well as services for perpetrators. In contrast to the common stereotype of abused women as helpless, two large-scale studies have shown most abused women as seeking help and doing so repeatedly before seeking shelter, which for many survivors may be a last resort. Most abused women who seek help go first to family and friends and are quite satisfied with the substantial assistance they receive from such supporters.

The most commonly used formal services tend to be criminal justice (law enforcement, lawyers), social service agencies, medical services, crisis counseling, mental health services, clergy, and support and women’s groups. Women’s programs are generally evaluated highly, despite not being used as frequently as many other types of services. Counselors who are knowledgeable about abuse and understand the situation in which abused women find themselves have been perceived as most helpful. Other helpful responses include listening and taking the woman seriously, believing her story, and helping her see her strengths.

Also important is prevention education targeted at young people. Such work is often organized by domestic violence programs and other types of social agencies or educational institutions committed to educating students about IPV in the hopes of preventing future generations of victims and perpetrators.

IPV has been recognized as a serious and complex social problem for which communities have a responsibility to intervene and ameliorate. As a result of work by advocates and researchers, women are less likely to be blamed for their victimization and more likely to be perceived as deserving assistance. At the same time, abusers are increasingly likely to be held accountable for their abusive behaviors while also being perceived as needing assistance to change their problematic behaviors.


  1. Barnett, O. W. (2001). Why battered women do not leave. Part 1: External inhibiting factors within society. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1, 343–372.
  2. Barnett, O. W. (2001). Why battered women do not leave. Part 2: External inhibiting factors—social support and internal inhibiting factors. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2, 3–35.
  3. Jasinski, J. L., & Williams, L. M. (Eds.). (1998). Partner violence: A comprehensive review of 20 years of research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2000). Extent, nature, and consequences of intimate partner violence. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

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