Domestic Violence Is Coming Out of the Closet

Ray Rice. Jana Rice. Adrian Peterson. Rihanna. Chris Brown. Tina Turner. LaToya Jackson. Halle Berry. Charlize Theron. Madonna. Sean Penn. Whitney Houston. Bobby Brown. Nicole Brown. O.J. Simpson. Robin Givens. Mike Tyson.

The list of sports and entertainment celebrities who have been victims or perpetrators of domestic violence, and sometimes both, seems endless. The reality is even worse. It’s time to talk openly about the problem.

More than one woman in three and more than one man in four in the United States is a victim of domestic violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Until now, the magnitude of this problem was unknown. The consequences, however, are very serious. A man who beats his pregnant partner may be an extremely dangerous individual.
Dr. Stella Martin de las Heras, professo r, University of Granada.

A recent Spanish study also found that nearly 23 percent of pregnant women suffer violence at the hand of a domestic partner. More than a third of victims who reported physical violence reported that it happened “very often” or “daily,” and a fifth received severe bruises, burns, and/or broken bones.

“Until now, the magnitude of this problem was unknown,” said senior study author Stella Martin de las Heras, Ph.D., professor of forensic medicine and forensic dentistry at the University of Granada in Granada, Spain. “The consequences, however, are very serious. A man who beats his pregnant partner may be an extremely dangerous individual.”

But public awareness of the problem can help bring change.

“The only good news about domestic violence is that it is no longer happening behind closed doors,” Brian Pinero, director of digital services for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told Healthline. “As a society, we are finally starting to admit that it can happen to anyone. Every time a celebrity comes forward and admits it happened, the door opens a little wider. Admitting that domestic violence is real is the first step in stopping it.”

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What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence is traditionally described as violence between family members. That has usually meant violence between husband and wife, or parent and children. As families change to include domestic partners, same-sex unions, and other less traditional relationships, the definition of domestic violence has changed. Violence between partners in a dating relationship is also included.

Domestic violence also has many forms. Violence may be physical, emotional, financial, sexual, or some combination of these. Violence can be directed by one partner or spouse against another, by a parent against a child, by a child against a parent, sibling against sibling, or by anyone in a relationship against anyone else in the relationship.

As a society, we are finally starting to admit that it can happen to anyone. Every time a celebrity comes forward and admits it happened, the door opens a little wider.
Brian Pinero, National Domestic Violence Hotline

The CDC began the regular National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) in 2010. The survey looks at intimate partner violence (IPV), sexual violence, and stalking among adult men and women in the United States.

If domestic violence were a contagious disease like the flu or measles, it would be called an epidemic. On average, 20 people are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner every minute of every day in the United States. That equals more than ten million men and women every year.

IPV includes five different kinds of violent behavior:

  • Sexual violence includes rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and unwanted sexual experience that may not include contact.
  • Physical violence ranges from relatively mild behaviors such as slapping, pushing, or shoving, to severe, possibly fatal acts such as beating, burning, or choking.
  • Stalking is a pattern of harassing or threatening tactics that causes fear or safety concerns by the victim.
  • Psychological aggression includes expressive tactics, such as name-calling, insulting, or humiliating an intimate partner. It can also include coercive behaviors that are intended to monitor, control, or threaten.
  • Control of reproductive or sexual health includes the refusal to use a condom. For a woman, it includes times a partner tries to get her pregnant against her will. For a man, it includes times a partner tries to get pregnant when he does not want to father a child.

“Domestic violence and intimate partner violence is all about power and control in a relationship,” Pinero said. “It is all about pushing someone to do what you want them to do no matter what.”

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‘I’m in Charge’

The kind of relationship does not matter, said James Keim, director of the Oppositional and Conduct Disorder Clinic at the  Institute for the Advancement of Psychotherapy. Perception is one of the biggest problems in dealing with domestic violence. Say “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence,” and most people think of a violent man beating his wife and or his children.

“Domestic violence is much more than the stereotype of a bad man and a weak woman,” Keim told Healthline. “You can’t fit it into that tiny frame.”

IPV occurs at very similar rates in heterosexual families, heterosexual partnerships, gay and lesbian relationships, and every other type of intimate relationship that has been studied, Keim said. Men and women are equally likely to be the victims of IPV and to be the perpetrators.

“Violence is a choice,” Maureen Curtis, associate vice president for Criminal Justice Programs at Safe Horizon, told Healthline. “Stresses like money, alcohol, or substance abuse can make domestic problems worse, but using violence is a choice the perpetrator makes. Violence hurts the perpetrator, it hurts the victim, and it hurts children who are part of the relationship.”

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From One Generation to the Next

pregnant woman

It has long been observed that children who are part of a violent relationship are more likely to suffer violence themselves as teens and adults. Whether they become victims or perpetrators depends largely on whom they identify with as children, Keim said.

Children who identify more strongly with the violent partner tend to become violent themselves. Kids who identify more with the victim tend to become victims later in life. But while children exposed to violence are more likely to find themselves in violent situations, the progression is not automatic.

“I’m always amazed at the number of kids who turn out very well despite being exposed to domestic violence,” said Keim, who is also a former Child Protective Services worker in the Washington, D.C., area. “It is always easier to copy the behavior you grew up with, but kids have a choice. Just because they grew up with an adult who chose violence doesn’t mean they will make the same poor choices in their own lives.”

Taking the First Step

For someone who is a victim of IPV, the real question is, what do I do now? Some victims fight back, some leave, some stay, some try to minimize risk while staying, some make plans to leave “just in case” things get worse.

The automatic reaction is to tell the victim to leave, Keim said. But pushing a victim to leave a violent relationship can make matters worse.

Signs Your Relationship Might Be Abusive:
  • Is your partner critical and jealous?
  • Does he or she control your access to finances, work, or your friends?
  • Does he or she threaten, intimidate, or embarrass you?
  • Does he or she pressure you to have sex or consume drugs or alcohol?

“People tend to do best when you respect their own decision-making,” Keim said. “If someone wants to stay in a relationship, we should respect that. Pushing them to leave appeals to our societal preference for rescue rather than prevention, but it may not be the best choice.”

The first step is to recognize that you might be the victim or the perpetrator of IPV, Curtis said. Whether the violence leaves physical evidence, such as black eyes and broken bones, or lifelong emotional damage, it is all about exercising control over someone else.

“So much of intimate partner violence is emotional and controlling, not physical,” she said. “You can live in terror for your life or your child’s life and never be physically bullied or battered.”

Here are a few behaviors that suggest your partner (or you) could be abusive:

  • Saying you can never do anything right.
  • Showing jealousy of your friends and time you spend away.
  • Discouraging you — or keeping you — from seeing friends and family.
  • Embarrassing you or shaming you.
  • Controlling every penny the household spends.
  • Looking at you or acting in ways that make you scared.
  • Preventing you from making your own decisions.
  • Saying you are a bad parent or threatening to harm your kids.
  • Preventing you from going to work or to school.
  • Destroying your property or threatening to hurt or kill your pets.
  • Intimidating you with guns, knives, or other weapons.
  • Pressuring your to have sex.
  • Pressuring you to use drugs or alcohol.

The next step is to talk with someone about the problem. Depending on how much freedom you have, talk with a trusted friend, a relative, even someone from protective services. If you are being watched, you might have to call to a domestic violence hotline while at work, or while the perpetrator is out of the house.

Many local organizations have hotlines. There is also the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) and the Safe Horizon Hotline at 1-800-621-4673 (HOPE). Both can offer direct help and referrals to local resources.

“We have a client-centered process that starts with an assessment of your personal safety,” Curtis explained. “Every IPV situation is different. You are the expert in your own life, but we can help you think about ways to make your life safer.”

For some victims, leaving is a solution. But it is important to talk with your local domestic violence agency before leaving. They can help you find shelter space and help keep you safer while you get ready to leave. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has tips on safety planning for victims who are planning to leave, victims who are planning to stay, and for families and friends of victims.

“Having a safety plan laid out in advance can help you protect yourself,” Curtis said. “The most important thing is to know that help is available. You are not alone.”

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