Does The Way We Talk About Domestic Violence Need To Change?

Does The Way We Talk About Domestic Violence Need To Change?

The language we use to discuss one of Australia’s most pressing issues is shaping the national conversation. But is it a help or a hindrance? How is it affecting our chances of meaningful change to attitudes and behaviour? Claire examines the vernacular of violence.

If the subject of domestic violence raises any concerns for you, please contact the relevant support services listed at the bottom of this article. 

Domestic violence occurs when one member of a family acts in a way that causes another member of that family to experience fear and a feeling of being controlled. This is not limited to physical violence and sexual assault; the term domestic violence can also refer to emotional abuse, financial abuse, social abuse and technology-facilitated abuse.

Domestic violence is prevalent in Australia, with 2017 ABS data suggesting that one in four women have experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15. While it was traditionally seen as a private, family issue, with both the law and society being somewhat reluctant to intervene in domestic violence situations, over the past decade the issue has woven itself into public discourse, which is a great thing.

Although, there’s been consistent debate over the words we use to describe violent family dynamics. It can completely shape our understandings and biases surrounding the issue. If the public doesn’t possess an accurate understanding of domestic violence, the issue cannot be effectively combatted.

Domestic violence can manifest in many different ways, particularly across the diverse range of family and socio-cultural structures in the Australian community. This makes it difficult to place one label over violence that reflects all situations.

From the common usage of ‘domestic violence’ and ‘family violence’, to newer suggestions such as ‘romantic terrorism’ and ‘intimate partner violence’, let’s examine some of the terminology surrounding domestic violence.

Domestic Violence vs. Family Violence

‘Domestic violence’ is one of the more prevalent terms, but also one of the most highly criticised. Namely, critics of the term argue that it fails to capture the complexity of the issue. It doesn’t speak to family violence dynamics which occur outside of people who are married or living together in a relationship.

Domestic violence can occur between a parent and child, between siblings, or across extended families who live under the same roof. The term also limits the capacity for abusive family relationships to operate outside the home.

‘Family violence’ is often suggested as an alternative. I’d argue it’s an improvement, but not a strong one. It captures a clearer image of family dynamics in domestic violence situations beyond romantic partnerships such as parent/child, inter-sibling or extended families. It also more effectively captures the family violence experiences of Indigenous people and migrant families who may live with extended family post-marriage yet it breeds similar concerns to ‘domestic violence’.

The most common criticism is that both ‘domestic violence’ and ‘family violence’ suggest physical violence alone. Substituting ‘violence’ for ‘abuse’ is a slight improvement perhaps, but similarly ‘abuse’ implies physical contact. Coercion and control techniques, and emotional and psychological abuse are often left out of the conversation. This means that victims of domestic violence may be less likely to speak out unless, or until, emotional violence becomes physical.

Although the legal definitions of violence across Australia include emotional and psychological abuse, this knowledge isn’t strongly cemented in social attitudes. One reason ‘domestic violence’ works, however, is that it provides the general public, the legal system and the media with an umbrella term for navigating and understanding the issue.

In our digital world, where the internet is driven by keywords and SEO tactics for attention, having ‘domestic violence’ as an umbrella term improves access to information and help for victims of violence. However, if we are going to effectively combat the issue and lobby for more effective legislation, it’s imperative that emotional abuse is widely understood in society as part of the definition of domestic violence.

What about ‘Battered Woman’?

Similarly, the use of the terms ‘batterer’ for ‘perpetrator’, and ‘battered woman’ for ‘victim’ are problematic. 

Battered woman syndrome refers to when serious domestic abuse over an extended period of time results in the development of what psychotherapist Lenore Walker refers to as a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Again, this term quietly ignores the effects of emotional violence. Despite PTSD symptoms being reasonably similar to how battered woman syndrome can occur as a result of long-standing emotional violence, the imagery connotated by those terms is severely limiting; it focuses on physical violence and ignores emotional violence.

Although statistically women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men, domestic violence can occur with female perpetrators and male victims. This language fails victims through assigning a gendered lens to victims of domestic violence who are not female.

Romantic Terrorism and Intimate Partner Violence

Romantic terrorism was coined by two researchers who undertook an autoethnographic (where an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore personal experience and connect this to wider cultural, political, and social meanings) study on the way in which “romantic love is employed and distorted by abusers”.

It’s described as an ‘innovative’ gaze on domestic violence, with a focus on the way abusers develop control over their victims. It also seriously considers emotional abuse and its many effects on an abused person. However, the word ‘romantic’ excludes broader family violence dynamics, such as cross-generational violence.

Intimate partner violence possesses the same problems, and again the word ‘violence’ raises imagery of physical violence, failing to capture the intricacies of emotional abuse.

So what’s the answer?

Domestic violence can manifest in many forms so it’s difficult to nail down one term which effectively talks to all the nuances. Ultimately, there’s no perfect phrase.

After examining the variety of terms suggested as alternatives for ‘domestic violence’, I think that a suitable term must fit two criteria:

1. It should acknowledge that domestic violence can occur outside of marriage or romantic partnerships; and
2. It must capture and acknowledge the potential for emotional abuse to occur.

I believe the term ‘family terrorism’, a combination of several of the terms mentioned here, is a suitable alternative.

But knowing that the term domestic violence is widely recognised, perhaps best practice is to embrace this as key terminology and focus on ensuring society understands emotional violence is included in its definition. We cannot effectively respond to domestic violence until we’re all broadly educated on its characteristics.

If anything in this article raises any concerns or issues for you, please contact a relevant support service: 1800 RESPECT, Lifeline (Ph: 13 11 14) or Headspace (Ph: 1800 650 890). If your life is in immediate danger, please call 000.