Accurate estimation of the prevalence of domestic abuse or intimate partner violence (IPV) has been an issue from the time it was “discovered” in the 1970s and continues to be debated today. Having accurate estimates is important for several reasons, including allocation of societal resources to address the problem and assessment of whether progress is being made to ameliorate IPV. Estimating its incidence (rate during a defined period of time such as the past year) and prevalence (rate of its occurrence ever in one’s lifetime) has been challenging due to continuing stigma associated with being battered or abused. This stigma makes it difficult to get accurate reports of just how common it is for women to be abused by a partner. Central to the issue of accurately measuring the extent of woman battering or IPV is how it is defined.
Over time, researchers and advocates for battered women have tended to define battering or IPV more comprehensively. Initially, domestic violence tended to be defined as physical aggression or violence by a male partner toward a female partner. But as our understanding of domestic abuse deepened, we learned that women who were physically abused also tended to be emotionally or psychologically abused and often sexually abused as well. Thus, the extent of woman battering or IPV tends to be related in part to how broadly or narrowly it is defined. The more types of abuse that are encompassed in the definition, the higher the estimates will be.
There are other methodological issues that affect measurement of the extent of IPV that include the following:
- Sampling (the size of the group studied and how well it represents the population of people it is supposed to represent in terms of important characteristics such as age, ethnicity, education, and income)
- Data collection methods (e.g., whether people are interviewed in person or by telephone or are asked to complete a paper-and-pencil survey on their own, as well as the exact wording of questions asked; in general, more behaviorally specific questions yield higher and more accurate estimates of abuse)
- Time at risk (the past year versus over the course of a lifetime and whether estimates cover adolescence as well as adulthood or just adulthood)
- Whether threats or attempts at violence are included or only actual acts of violence
- Whether estimates are based on reports from only the female member of the couple or are based on couple agreement (this is important in that women tend to report higher rates of victimization than men report perpetrating)
Prevalence Studies Of IPV
There have been several national prevalence studies of physical abuse, beginning in the 1970s: the National Family Violence Surveys of 1975, 1985, and 1992; the National Violence Against Women Survey (NVAWS) conducted jointly by the National Institute of Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which asks about criminal victimization in U.S. households; the National Survey of Families and Households; and a study of IPV conducted as part of the National Alcohol Survey.
As a group these studies yield widely varied prevalence estimates as a result of several methodological differences among them. At the high end, two studies suggest that as few as 8% and as many as 21% of American couples, married or cohabiting, had experienced an act of physical violence during the previous year. Regarding individual rates, the NVAWS reported a lifetime physical assault rate for women of 25%. Past year rates of individual physical victimization in the NVAWS and NCVS were 1.3% and .9%, respectively. In contrast, two other recent national surveys have reported somewhat higher rates of 1-year female victimization by male partners: 3.4% and 5.4%.
However, these studies concur that acts of less severe violence such as pushing, grabbing, or shoving occur with much greater frequency than more serious acts such as hitting with an object, choking, punching, beating up, or using a weapon. At least half of IPV victims have reported that they were abused on multiple occasions. Female victims of IPV are more likely to be injured; rates of injury are reported to be in the 25% to 50% range. According to the NCVS, about three quarters of intimate partner homicide victims are women.
Rates of IPV do not vary randomly across all women. Virtually all the national studies find similar patterns in who is most at risk of being physically abused or battered by an intimate partner. Those at higher risk tend to be younger, with the peak risk being in the late adolescence to early adulthood range; have less formal education; are poor; are separated, divorced, dating, or cohabiting versus married; live in urban areas; and are American Indian or African American. Regarding sexual orientation, few methodologically strong studies have been conducted. It appears that gay men and lesbians are as likely or more likely to be physically abused by an intimate partner than are heterosexuals.
Trends In Violence Against Women By Intimates
Criminal victimization of women by intimate partners declined between 1992 and 2001 by almost 50%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In 1993, about 1% of women experienced a nonfatal victimization by an intimate partner, compared to .5% in 2001. In contrast, female homicide by an intimate partner dropped after 1993 by about 21% after a two-decade period of relative stability. The NCVS reported that in 1998 about three quarters of intimate partner murder victims were women, up from about half in 1976.
Emotional abuse (EA) or psychological abuse has not been as well researched as physical or sexual abuse, in part because there is no consensus on how it should be defined. Unlike physical or sexual abuse, definitions of EA often focus more on intent than specific behaviors. EA is defined here as a pattern of (recurrent) behaviors or communications that are intended to harm a woman’s well-being. It appears that the most common types experienced are ridicule and other forms of verbal abuse, restriction of freedom, and jealousy. Prevalence of EA is said to be extremely high in intimate relationships, with some studies showing that a majority of those in relationships report acts of emotional or psychological abuse. However, studies of battered women have found EA to be virtually universal in such women, who report it to be extremely harmful to well-being.
Women are more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner, friend, or acquaintance than by a stranger. The NVAWS reported a rate of 7.7% for lifetime rape by an intimate partner, and .2% of women reported being raped by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months. About half of these women reported the sexual assault to have occurred on multiple occasions. In the NVAWS, about a third of rape victims sustained injury.
Marital rape is a serious crime and is as “real” as rape by a stranger; in fact, it is estimated to be the most prevalent type of rape and is at least as harmful to well-being as stranger rape. Small-scale studies have reported that 9% to 14% of married women have reported rape or attempted rape by their husbands. Most of these sexually assaulted women are also physically and/or emotionally abused by their husbands. Studies of battered women have found that a third to a half reported having been raped by their husbands, oftentimes on more than one occasion.
Rates Of Abuse
We are closer to being able to accurately measure the extent of abuse in intimate relationships, although there is still not a consensus on all aspects of the problem, in particular the most effective ways to measure extent of abuse and what should be considered emotional or psychological abuse. There is significant variation in rates of physical violence by male partners across well-designed national studies. However, we can conclude that substantial numbers of women are being abused by intimate partners—physically, emotionally, and sexually. As many as one in five women report having been physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, and at least 1% to 5% of women are physically assaulted each year. A substantial proportion of these physical and sexual assaults result in injury. Women who are young, poor, from certain ethnic minority groups, poorly educated, separated from their partner, and who live in urban areas are more vulnerable to being abused by a male partner. Although these forms of abuse can occur by themselves, oftentimes they co-occur.
However, recent national data suggest that rates of physical abuse may be dropping, perhaps in response to decades of research, programming, and prevention work to make the public aware of what constitutes abuse, that women do not deserved to be abused, and that assistance is available to help women escape from abusive relationships.
- Bennice, J. A., & Resick, P. A. (2003). Marital rape: History, research, and practice. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 4, 228–246.
- Rennison, C. (2003). Intimate partner violence, 1993–2001 [National Crime Victimization Survey]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
- Schaefer, J., Caetano, R., & Clark, C. L. (1998). Rates of intimate partner violence in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 88, 1702–1704.
- Tjaden, P., & Thoennes, N. (2000). Extent, nature, and consequences of intimate partner violence (NCJ 181867) [National Violence Against Women Survey]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.
- Zlotnick, C., Johnson, D. M., & Kohn, R. (2006). Intimate partner violence and long-term psychosocial functioning in a national sample of American women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13, 156–166.