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Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence: What’s in a Name?

How society talks about male violence against women reflects and perpetuates it.

While “domestic violence” is a widely used term, in my view, there is much wrong with it. It masks the dimensions of gender and power that typically accompany it. Women are disproportionately represented in this violence both in terms of scope and severity. For example, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner violence, compared to 1 in 9 men; 72 percent of all murder-suicides involve intimate partner violence, with women accounting for 94 percent of the murder victims. While the violence men experience should not be discounted, the pervasiveness and severity of the violence women experience need to be understood.

To accurately understand the nature of this violence, it is important to clearly identify it. Failing to specifically call out intimate male partner violence when it occurs reflects and shapes how our culture tends to view this violence. We may see this in common narratives in news and social media about love, or at least "love gone wrong." Domestic violence is certainly not a reflection of love, nor is it a private domestic squabble.

Abusive men do not "lose control," as cultural narratives often posit. They are typically in control, careful to strike out only at one person. We see this in the response of many abusers' acquaintances after a violent incident: “He seemed like such a nice guy.” Men who are abusive tend to be both in control of themselves and of the people, often women, that they abuse. They may control these women with violence, with threats of violence to pets and children, with emotional abuse, or with restricting access to friends, family, and finances.

The term "domestic violence" can also mask its true nature. So many women around the world are being hurt and killed by the men who profess to love them. Yet often the language used makes it easier to overlook and more difficult to track; globally, crime statistics don’t consistently identify when women are the victims of male violence.

Can Changing the Term Help?

There has been a longstanding, although not always successful, struggle to unmask these dimensions of gender and power in how we talk and think about this violence. This can be seen in the creation of the term "battered woman" in the 70s, which was followed quickly by "battered spouse"; then "domestic violence" and "gender-based violence"; and more recently in the online social movement #CallItFemicide.

Ultimately, excessive or inappropriate use of the term "domestic violence" may make it easier to overlook the connection between intimate partner abuse and all other types of male violence against women and girls. Each of these is intimately interconnected with underpinnings deeply embedded in our sociopolitical fabric and built on gender inequality and misogyny. These impact not only abusive men but all of us as individuals and as a society in how we respond to all types of male violence.

Responses in the media and on social media show a tendency to blame and shame women for the male violence they experience. This plays out in many ways, some more subtle than others, but many can be seen as a type of gaslighting.

One example is the common question, “Why don’t women leave?” There are in fact many compelling reasons women don’t and can’t leave abusive male partners. These include genuine fear for themselves (women are more likely to be murdered immediately upon leaving an abusive relationship), fear for their children and other loved ones, and lack of freedom and access to necessary resources. For women of color, there may also be the fear of eliciting a potentially dangerous response from the police and other agencies.

Instead of asking women why they don’t leave, it would make more sense to ask abusive men why they don’t let their female partners go. This would move people from blaming and shaming the victimized women to holding the abusive men accountable for their actions.

What Can We Do?

Given its complex nature and its deep roots of gender inequality and misogyny embedded in the very fabric of our society, male violence against women and girls may take considerable effort to end. Here are some short-term and long-term options:

  1. Use language that identifies the dimensions of gender and power, when applicable. When speaking specifically about abused women, the term "domestic violence" may be too broad to be appropriate. Call it what it is: intimate male partner abuse. The same goes for the term "gender-based violence" in the case of abused women. Call it what it is: male violence against women. Cases of women killed by their intimate male partners can be referred to as femicide.
  2. Challenge assumptions—yours and others.
  3. Challenge abusive men who engage in overt and more covert violence.
  4. Stop asking victimized women what they did. Start holding abusive men accountable for their actions.
  5. Learn more about male violence against women and girls.

What Can Be Done to Support Survivors?

  1. Be good allies to women and girl survivors of male violence.
  2. Listen. Believe.
  3. Be there. Be understanding.
  4. Be patient. Recovery and healing take time.
  5. If your help is not enough, provide them support in seeking professional assistance. As a therapist working with survivors, I have seen the incredible power of music and music therapy in the healing process. This can be done independently, with the support of a counselor, or with the support of a music therapist.

For immediate help, 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). To find a therapist near you who can provide long-term support, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

To get started, check out “Hunted” by the Cowboy Junkies, a song that powerfully highlights the connection between all types of male violence against women and girls.

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