Earlier this year, a number of journalists published pieces alerting the public to the fact that the Trump administration had changed the definition of domestic violence. If true, this news would certainly be disturbing — but this claim was not quite accurate.
In reality, the administration changed the definition that was posted on the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW) website. Under President Obama, the website defined domestic violence to include a pattern of deliberate behavior, the dynamics of power and control, and behaviors that include both physical and sexual violence as well as emotional, financial and psychological harm. In April 2018, the Trump administration seemingly narrowed this definition to include felony or misdemeanor crimes committed by a specific person against a victim. This language is significantly more limited than what was previously on the website, but it is precisely the definition of domestic violence that is contained in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
VAWA was originally passed in 1994, and has been reauthorized multiple times since its original passage. Although there have been multiple updates to this law, the definition of “domestic violence” has not changed. It reads:
The term “domestic violence” includes felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabitating with or has cohabitated with the victim as a spouse or intimate partner, by a person similarly situated to a spouse of the victim under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction receiving grant monies, or by any other person against an adult or youth victim who is protected from that person’s acts under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction.
This is the definition that is currently on the OVW website. In essence, VAWA limits domestic violence to behavior that can be charged as a criminal offense.
Experts in the field of domestic violence recognize that this type of abuse is not limited to the type of harm that could be charged as a crime. It often encompasses more subtle forms of violence, such as verbal and emotional abuse, or even the use of money to control a partner. Domestic violence is not simply about criminal actions, but about a pattern of abuse by one partner who is attempting to gain or maintain control and power over the other.
As a society, we must recognize that domestic violence is about more than criminal physical violence. Doing this involves education — and passing an updated version of VAWA that recognizes the true nature of domestic violence instead of focusing on whether the behavior is a crime. In the most current version of VAWA before Congress, the definition of domestic violence reflects this reality:
The term ‘domestic violence’ means a pattern of behavior involving the use or attempted use of physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, economic, or technological abuse or any other coercive behavior committed, enabled, or solicited to gain or maintain power and control over a victim, by a person who is cohabitating with or has cohabitated with the victim as a spouse or intimate partner, by a person similarly situated to a spouse of the victim under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction receiving grant monies, or by any other person against an adult or youth victim who is protected from that person’s acts under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction.
By addressing what domestic violence really involves — and acknowledging that it is more than just criminal activity — we can take steps as a country to work towards ending it.
This version of VAWA has not yet been reauthorized. We encourage you to contact your representative and ask them to support VAWA today!