How the Department of Justice’s New Definition of Intimate Partner Violence Could Leave Victims at Risk

These changes send a clear message to survivors: You are not valued.

[Photo: A scared, young Asian woman with a scared expression sits on the floor.]
Individuals who experience both psychological and physical (or psychological and sexual) violence report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder than those who only experience physical or sexual violence. Shutterstock.com

In January, Slate published an article revealing that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had dramatically limited its definitions of intimate partner violence and sexual assault last April.

An archived version of the DOJ’s Domestic Violence page from 2017 shows comprehensive, nuanced definitions for intimate partner violence. These definitions reflected the conclusions of scholars, activists, nonprofits, and community organizations that intimate partner violence and sexual assault are, at their core, about power and control. The current definitions, updated as recently as January 3, include only “felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence.” Because the DOJ is directly responsible for allocating funding and resources toward criminal, legal, and penal violence interventions, this change could have far-reaching implications.

This is just the newest “quiet” change to policies, programs, initiatives, and information under the Trump administration, which also includes removing references to climate change and LGBTQ content, and the rolling back, delaying, or suspending of more than 90 other regulations many considered essential to protecting human rights in the United States. These changes coincide with other, more obvious oppositions to human rights: In December, the United States was the only country that opposed nonbinding language in a draft UN resolution designed to better address physical violence and sexual harassment against girls and women. Statements from representatives indicate that the U.S. delegation was concerned about the “conflation” of sexual harassment with physical violence.

Limiting our understanding of violence to physical or sexual criminal conduct is incredibly detrimental to survivors. You might have heard that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience intimate partner violence under the criminal legal definitions in their lifetime. These rates are much higher when we use broader definitions that include coercive control, emotional and psychological abuse, and other forms of noncriminal violence, with nearly half of women and one-third of men reporting this victimization. And what most people don’t know is that these “noncriminal” forms of violence are equally and sometimes more traumatizing and detrimental to overall mental health. Indeed, individuals who experience both psychological and physical (or psychological and sexual) violence report higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder than those who only experience physical or sexual violence.

What’s more, rates of intimate partner violence victimization are also much higher when we examine abuse at the intersections of identity. For instance, studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), and other scholarly researchers show that LGBTQ people are disproportionately at risk for all forms of violence. In my own analyses of the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey—a CDC survey completed in 2010, with a representative sample of individuals in the United States—I find that rates of coercive control and emotional violence from a romantic, co-habitive, dating, or sexual partner are as high as 86 percent for bisexual men and women.

People of color, particularly Black and indigenous girls and women, are also more likely to experience victimization. Indigenous women are killed at more than ten times the national average on some reservations and more than half had experienced physical violence from a romantic partner. Similarly, researchers and activists have noted that the average life expectancy of Black trans women is approximately 35 years old—in part due to intimate partner-related homicides. In 2017, 71 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color and 40 percent were trans women of color, and a majority of these were committed by current or former partners.

Disabled individuals are also disproportionately impacted by IPV and sexual assault. In fact, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that women with intellectual disabilities are about 12 times more likely to be sexually assaulted. Recent research and news events have shown the complicated intersections of these targeted experiences. For instance, one of my own studies shows that bisexual women are significantly more likely than straight women to have a disability at the time they experience intimate partner violence and sexual assault; NCAVP also found that in 2017, 44 percent of IPV survivors had a disability.

Although cases like these would technically fall under the stricter, criminal-legal definitions, the reality is that physical and sexual violence almost always exist simultaneously with emotional and psychological violence and coercive control. That is to say, it is rare for a person to experience only criminal-legal assault. One study with urban youth of color found that physical abuse and threats of physical violence never occurred without verbal or emotional violence. What’s more, emotional abuse, coercive control, and the other forms of violence that the DOJ no longer lists on its site are often a precursor to physical and sexual violence. Thus, some have argued it is essential that we target these forms of violence directly and strategically if we want to intervene before it escalates to physical violence or sexual assault.

In an attempt to reassure the general public that the changes to these definitions were not reflective of any practical or applied changes to how they would move forward, the Department of Justice has stated that:

Domestic violence is clearly defined in [the Violence Against Women Act], and [the Office on Violence Against Women] has always used the statutory definition in carrying out its mission. By following the statute, the Department ensures the funds made available by Congress are employed in the most effective manner possible to reduce violence and to assist crime victims.

This is technically true. The passage of the original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) stemmed from growing public concern for violence against women, as a smaller part of the larger “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994,” the purpose of which was to increase “the number of cops on the beat.” One of its main purposes was to increase the number of people within the criminal legal system tasked with seeking out violent offenders. It makes sense, then, that the DOJ would default to using it as a framework when addressing issues of intimate partner violence.

But this is also perhaps one of its biggest problems. Research, work in communities, and individual accounts have consistently shown that not only are LGBTQ people, people of color, and individuals with a disability hesitant to interact with the criminal legal system, the criminal legal system is hesitant to treat these individuals as human beings with inherent rights. Many individuals refuse to report their victimization to the police. They may not want to further victimize themselves or their community, they might wish to avoid solutions that lean heavily on incarcerating more people, or they may fear deportation and not want to get immigration involved. It is also true that police interaction with targeted communities can and often does lead to death. For instance, an estimated 63 percent of all unarmed people killed by police are people of color, with Black people the most targeted.

What’s more, in 2017, nearly half of LGBTQ IPV survivors reported indifference from law enforcement when they reported their victimization. About 10 percent reported outright hostility. A 2015 report revealed that nearly half of all people killed by the police have a disability, and recent news stories shed light on just how little training—or follow through—police officers have when it comes to disability. In fact, a recent killing in Richmond, Virginia, has community members and advocates calling into question why police officers are the first line of defense for crisis intervention. Command and control culture is fatal, after all.

Still, despite so much funding under VAWA going toward criminal legal interventions, a substantial portion of funding is also earmarked for service provision (shelters, mental health care, clinics) and research on intervention and prevention. The most recent extension on the act’s renewal only goes through February 15. Many organizations are panicked about how soon the effects of VAWA’s expiration will be felt. If funding isn’t renewed, organizations that provide critical mental health care services at reduced cost or free, that link survivors with attorneys pro bono, or that create space for survivors to get away from their abusive partners and homes, are left unable to pay employees, run programs, and in some cases, keep the lights on and doors open.

While the Trump administration’s budget request proposes to fund the Office of Violence Against Women (which determines how a large part of the funding is allocated) at $485.5 million for FY2019, the Violence Against Women Act itself has no current Republican support. This is not just unfortunate. As Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reminded Republicans, it’s unprecedented in its 25-year history. Indeed, VAWA has always been a bipartisan effort.

When all is said and done, limiting our understanding of intimate partner violence and sexual assault and disregarding the need for long-term, bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has detrimental impacts on survivors’ mental and physical health and severely limits their access to post-traumatic survivors’ services. Even more devastating, these changes send a clear message to all of us who are survivors at the intersections of other targeted identities: You are not valued, violence against you is not a serious issue, and your safety is not important to us. When combined with the desire to end asylum protections for survivors of violence, the current administration has participated in the active and continued marginalization, discrimination, and dehumanization of LGBTQ people, Black and Indigenous people of color, immigrants, and disabled people.