Intimate Partner Violence Legislation Essay

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Historians suggest that the temperance laws of the late 1800s may actually be the first laws created to help address intimate partner violence, known more commonly as domestic violence. Spurred on by the belief that men’s drinking of alcohol increased violence against women and girls, women activists fought to outlaw alcohol consumption and were successful with the creation of the 18th amendment in 1919. Although the amendment was ultimately repealed, calls to end wife beating were integral parts of almost every major women’s movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the end of the 20th century, women’s advocacy efforts resulted in state legislatures recognizing domestic violence as a crime and the passage of the first comprehensive national legislation to address domestic violence.

State And Local Legislation

Most laws outlawing domestic violence developed at the state and local levels. Massachusetts and Alabama were the first states to outlaw wife beating in 1871. However, it was not until a century later, in the 1970s, that domestic violence emerged as a serious issue worthy of a public response in state legislators’ minds. This shift occurred largely as a result of a strong women’s movement and a burgeoning battered women’s movement. States tended to focus their legislative efforts on outlawing types of assault, only some of which were ever actually labeled domestic violence. State efforts also focused on including intimate relationships as covered by the scope of existing laws. It is difficult to definitively catalog when every state actually passed a law outlawing domestic violence, though all states now have some criminal sanction against violence against an intimate partner.

States and localities also have passed laws creating protective or stay away orders that require abusers to stay away from their victims for a certain period of time. Focused in the civil courts typically, protective order statutes now exist in all 50 states as well as in the District of Columbia. Created in the mid-1970s largely because criminal courts were not applying existing criminal statutes to domestic situations, protective orders can be effective in preventing further victimization, and their violation is now often viewed as a criminal matter.

The early 1990s saw the recognition of stalking as a serious crime, usually involving intimate partners. California first enacted a law prohibiting stalking in 1990, and since, every other state has created a similar statute. Stalking is repeated harassment and threatening behavior and, like domestic violence, is defined differently by different states.

Although rape within the marital context was not historically recognized, marital rape was finally criminalized in all 50 states by 1993. However, marital rape statutes in many states still grant some exemptions from prosecuting husbands for rape.

Federal Legislation

Family Violence Prevention And Services Act

The first federal legislation to support services for victims of domestic violence was created in the mid-1980s. Known as the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, it was created in 1984 and remains the only federal funding source dedicated solely to the funding of domestic violence shelters and programs.

Violence Against Women Act Of 1994

In 1990, the first more comprehensive legislation to address domestic violence or intimate partner violence was introduced in the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Senate held several hearings and reported bills out of committee over the next few years. The trial of O. J. Simpson, the former football star and television announcer who was accused of killing his wife and a friend, brought new attention to the issue in 1993 and 1994. With the help of outspoken advocates across the country, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was finally signed into law in September of 1994 as a part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

Because VAWA was included as part of a crime bill, most of its provisions focused on the criminal justice response to violence against women. Specifically, it included

  • new penalties for gender-related violence;
  • new grant programs encouraging states to address domestic violence and sexual assault including law enforcement and prosecution grants (STOP grants), grants to encourage arrest, rural domestic violence and child abuse enforcement grants, creation of a national domestic violence hotline; and
  • Full Faith and Credit provisions allowing for protection orders from one state to be recognized in another state.

Although not many felt this act completely addressed the needs of victims of domestic violence, almost all involved believed it was a vital first step in the nation’s efforts to treat domestic violence as a serious problem.

Violence Against Women Act Of 2000

Because the authorization for the original VAWA provisions expired in 2000, Congress took up the reauthorization of this landmark legislation in 1998 and completed its efforts in the fall of 2000 with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 2000. The House version of the bill, known as H.R. 1248, passed on September 26 by a vote of 415–3. During the course of final negotiations, VAWA 2000 was merged with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and several smaller bills and then passed the Senate in early October by a vote of 95–0. President Clinton signed the final legislation, The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, into law on October 28, 2000.

Despite early efforts by advocates and congressional allies to create a more comprehensive bill, the final version of VAWA reauthorization included a continuation of already existing programs with a few improvements, additions, and funding increases. The following new programs were created:

Civil Legal Assistance—A separate grant program for civil legal services to give victims legal help with protection orders, family court matters, housing, immigration, and administrative matters.

Transitional Housing—A program providing grants to aid individuals who need housing as a result of fleeing a situation of domestic violence.

Supervised Visitation Centers—A pilot project to provide grants to state and local law enforcement to provide supervised visitation exchange for the children of victims of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault.

Battered Immigrant Women—Legislation addressing the needs of battered immigrant women was probably the most significant addition to the original VAWA. This section removed onerous requirements for immigrant women to receive VAWA protections, allowed battered immigrant women to obtain lawful permanent residence without leaving the country, restored access to VAWA protections for immigrants regardless of how they entered the country, and created a new type of visa for victims of serious crimes. Although many of these provisions were included in the original VAWA, immigration legislation in 1996 stripped many of them away, creating the need to add them to VAWA 2000.

Dating Violence—The definition of dating violence was changed to allow grants to go to programs that addressed intimate partner violence between people who were dating but not necessarily married.

Services for Disabled and Older Women—Funds were authorized to provide grants to train law enforcement and develop policies to address the needs of older and disabled victims of domestic and sexual violence.

The Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Of 2005

VAWA was reauthorized in 2005 and while continuing existing programs, it also expanded in four critical areas: sexual assault, children and youth, health, and prevention. In addition, a new emphasis was placed within all of the programs on addressing the needs of communities of color and Native American women living on and off tribal lands. Mainly grant programs, these new provisions were created to address areas of need beyond immediate crisis and criminal justice responses. Although most agreed that the first VAWA must address the immediate safety needs of battered women and their children, the new VAWA was able to expand to reach out to populations that were not currently being served and to reach younger victims, those both witnessing and experiencing violence. The new VAWA also saw increases in authorized spending, reaching close to $1 billion a year.

The new provisions in VAWA 2005 included the following:

Services for youth who are experiencing dating violence. Most existing programs had only served adult victims, including those with young children in shelter settings. VAWA 2005 recognized that younger women, who actually experience the highest rates of violence, were not being served because they often would not reach out to a shelter, and those who interacted with youth often were not trained to recognize the warning signs of physical and sexual abuse.

Prevention programs. New programs focused on stopping violence before it starts were also included.

Specifically, programs working with children exposed to domestic violence, new moms and young families, and boys and men addressed some of the newer thinking on how to reach those most at risk for becoming both victims and perpetrators of violence.

Health care. Reaching out to health care providers became a new priority in VAWA. Based on research demonstrating the overwhelming health effects of violence and abuse, health and behavioral health professionals became a new target audience for training. In addition, health care providers are uniquely positioned to address violence early on, before many women or their families might turn to law enforcement or shelters.

Sexual assault services. VAWA in 2005 also created for the first time a direct federal funding source for rape crisis centers throughout the nation. Previously, only rape prevention and education programs had been funded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The unanimous passage of VAWA in the winter of 2005 and the noncontroversial signing of it by President George W. Bush marked a major milestone in the movement to end violence against women. What had once been controversial or seen as only a “radical feminist issue” had now become mainstream with a truly national consensus forming. Domestic violence and sexual assault were viewed as wrong, no longer a private family matter but rather a public problem in need of public solutions.


  1. Dugan, L. (2003). Domestic violence legislation: Exploring impacts on domestic violence and the likelihood that police are informed and arrest. Criminology & Public Policy, 2(2), 283–312.
  2. Klein, A. (2004). The criminal justice response to domestic violence. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  3. Siskin, A. (2001). Violence Against Women Act: History, federal funding, and reauthorizing legislation. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

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