A History Of Domestic Violence: Has Anything Changed?
Content Warning: The following article discusses domestic violence in several contexts, including descriptions of violent acts toward women and children. If you have experienced or witnessed domestic violence and need help, the (1-800-799-7233) is available 24 hours a day.
Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, violence within families and households, especially directed toward women and children, has existed since the beginning of recorded history. Still more troubling is the fact that laws throughout history have often ignored, or even supported, this kind of violence. In fact, it was seen as a justifiable punishment by an abuser to keep their women and children under control.
Domestic violence, also called intimate partner violence, “involves the physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse of one person by another in order to intimidate, humiliate or frighten” and thereby maintain power and control. In contemporary times, we have become far less tolerant of domestic violence, in our laws as well as in our attitudes. However, as a society, we are still burdened by hundreds of years of negative precedence. Some cultural and belief systems in contemporary American culture still harbor troubling attitudes about family relations and domestic violence. Even more alarming are the statistics. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been the survivors of violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
We have seen many social and cultural changes throughout history. Is it possible that these advancements have left the pervasive problem of domestic violence behind? How much has truly changed over the centuries? The following article will explore the historical timeline of domestic violence. We will see what has changed and then discuss ways to seek help if you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence.
"An Eye For An Eye…"
The oldest written law that we have in existence is the Code of Hammurabi, a assembly of 282 rules that the ancient king Hammurabi used to govern Babylon during the years 1792 to 1750 B.C.E.
The focus of most of Hammurabi’s laws was retribution, phrased in a series of if/then statements. ("If someone does this…then that may happen to him.") The punishments in Hammurabi's Code were harsh and violent, often out of proportion to the crime. For example, if you came to help a neighbor put out a fire and looked with envy at his property, the property owner had the right to throw you into that fire as a punishment. A slave's ear could be cut off for asserting any independence from his master, and nearly every misdeed, from making a false accusation to committing incest, was punishable by death. The well-known expression "an eye for an eye" comes directly from the retributive brutality of this law code—which meant that any injury, such as the loss of an eye, was to be compensated by an equal penalty.
If you thought that life was harsh just by reading that paragraph, keep in mind that those laws were just for the men. Life for women and children was far worse. Under this code, women and children were regarded as property. They had no rights under the law, and in fact, some of the laws in Hammurabi's Code explicitly mandated that men use violence against their wives and children in certain situations. If a woman was caught committing adultery, her husband was allowed to tie her up and drown her. A wife could also legally be drowned if she left her husband without being able to prove his cruelty to her. And if a son struck his father, his hands could be cut off.
What we know of Hammurabi's Code shows that domestic violence was not just permitted in ancient civilizations but encouraged in the name of patriarchal dominance. This attitude was the result of proprietorial attitudes towards women and children, as well as the acceptance of violence as a way of life and law. In ancient times, there was no concept of healthy relationships or marriage, simply because women were seen as property whose needs did not matter. Therefore, there were also no services or resources for survivors, as women and children were seen as deserving of this cruel punishment. Unfortunately, this was the norm for what follows in human history.
The Roman Empire
The ancient Romans are remembered for the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”), a period of sustained stability and growth in civilization, approximately 27 B.C.E to 180 C.E. Some historians tend to glorify this period and ignore the harsh reality of life that many faced. However, the Roman Empire maintained its authority through a regime of violence.
According to the Roman code of law, a man was, as “pater familias” - father of the family - the unquestioned head of his household. The power given to Roman men over their wives and children was supreme and absolute. They were allowed to sell their family into slavery, abuse them, or kill them. Wives could be beaten or disowned if they offended their husbands in any way. Roman law stated that husbands could kill their wives not only for adultery, but even for walking around outside with insufficiently modest clothing. Only the male head of the household could decide whether a newborn baby would be raised and cared for as part of the family or abandoned to die.
Although in some ways more civilized than Hammurabi’s Code, the laws of the Roman Empire codified the same violent and proprietorial attitudes towards women and children, making domestic violence a simple and a legal fact of life.
The Early Catholic Church
In the year 313 C.E., the Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire, and in 380 C.E., it became the official religion of Rome.
Rome completely shifted from the full-scale persecution of Christians to become the birthplace of Christianity as it is known today.
These changes primarily occurred under the reign of Emperor Constantine, who converted to Christianity in 312 C.E. Unfortunately, the culture of the early Christians in many ways simply mirrored the violence and intrigue of those around them. Constantine himself violently persecuted non-believers and heretics and even had his wife and son put to death for plotting against him.
The rise of Christianity is a critical point in history because its dominance in Western cultures codified principles that remain widespread within legal codes today, though of course these principles are carried by many faith traditions. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, so did Biblical principles that bound wives even more closely to their husbands.
In the 15th century, the Catholic Church established its "Rules of Marriage," which proclaimed a husband was judge over his wife and recommended abusing her as an accepted form of discipline that would benefit her soul. These beliefs about the spiritual benefits of wife abusing became an established part of culture and law throughout the Christian world at the time, and the subjugation of women, both within and outside of faith traditions, has persisted for centuries.
To this day, some members and leaders in the Catholic Church will still use various Bible verses to justify abuse in marriage. Since marriage is for life, women are discouraged from divorcing or leaving home, and the concerns for their well-being as well as those of their children are dismissed. This centuries-old text can provide an abuser with enormous power to harm women and children by letting them claim that it is their Godly right.
The Puritans, early colonists who settled in North America in the 17th century, had fled Europe in search of religious freedom, but they ended up basing much of the colonial legal system upon England’s. The Puritans depended on tight social order, rooted in Christian religious beliefs, to keep them safe. For this reason, anyone who disobeyed the strict social rules was subject to brutal punishment, which the Puritans believed was the only way to ensure that God would not forsake them.
Part of this social order was an ironclad family structure. Based on the social mores of medieval England, women and children were not acknowledged in Puritan legal systems. Only white male property owners were considered to have any rights under the law. Under the Puritan legal system, excessive violence was forbidden, but men were still allowed to physically punish their wives and children… as long as the violence did not become so extreme that the neighbors were disturbed.
This provision did not offer much recourse to women in abusive living situations. If a man's abuse attracted the attention of others, he would simply continue the abuse in a less obvious manner. Wives had no rights under the law to leave home or seek a divorce and had no means at their disposal to prevent future abuse. The Puritans strictly adhered to their interpretation of Biblical commands about a wife's responsibility to obey and submit to her husband. As mentioned before, this aspect of history has not changed much, as many religious women are discouraged from leaving an abuser or saving their life or the lives of their family.
"A Relic Of Barbarism"
In succeeding centuries, family life in the United States rested on an insular unit in which a man exerted complete control over his wife, his children, and any enslaved people included in his household. His manner of maintaining authority was considered a secret family matter. If it included violence, both society and the law looked the other way.
However, the culture had begun to change. Throughout the 19th century, movements for the abolition of slavery and the expansion of suffrage, or voting rights, took hold and grew in popularity. Milestones such as the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights in 1848 and the Emancipation Proclamation enacted in 1863 indicated that American society had begun to think of women and African-Americans as individuals with rights, rather than as the property of white men.
A major turning point in perceptions towards domestic violence occurred in 1871, when the State of Alabama charged a formerly enslaved man named George Fulgham with assault of his wife. In a monumental decision, the Court ruled that "a married woman is as much under the defense of the law as any other member of the community" and that the idea that a man had the right to chastise his wife in this way was "a relic of barbarism." Although it took time for other states and courts to follow, this case was the beginning of a nationwide movement against domestic violence. For the first time in American history, the law was seeing women and children as victims of crime, not just property that needed to be punished by an abuser.
The 20th century saw more progress for women. As women gained more and more rights, society began to reckon with the dangers of domestic violence against women. However, it was not until the 1970s that there was any real progress. During this decade, the United States saw the opening of the first domestic violence shelter in New York City, and more countries and provinces were developing laws or fines for domestic violence (though the consequences were often minimal).
The 1990s was a decade that saw more progress. The United Nations finally considered domestic violence an international human rights issue and adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 1993. In the United States, the Violence Against Women Act was passed, finally acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes. In 2022, the Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized (after it expired in 2019), which expanded funding, resources, and services to help survivors of domestic abuse.
The More Things Change…
Domestic violence is no longer legal in the United States nor in many other nations around the world. Federal passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 provided significant funds for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, stepped up requirements for restitution to survivors, and made civil litigation possible where the criminal justice system fell short.
So how much have things truly changed? Yes, the act was reauthorized in 2022 to continue fighting domestic violence, funding justice programs, and developing services to help survivors, but what about when it expires again? Will history repeat itself and allow the act to disintegrate?
Although governments no longer encourage men to abuse their wives to exert authority, troubling attitudes toward domestic violence remain. Violence against women and dependents—whether through physical abuse, emotional manipulation, or other forms of abusive control—is still too often viewed as a way for men to show their strength.
People living in abusive situations often feel that they have no recourse. They may not have the financial means to leave an abuser, or they may feel pressure from society and culture to preserve the family unit at any cost. Some conservative religious organizations, in preserving the relics of earlier Puritan beliefs, may still counsel women in abusive marriages to stay with their husbands, even when life is in danger. And unfortunately, some law enforcement officials still decline to intervene in situations of domestic violence because they see it as a secret family matter. Though much of public opinion is more sympathetic towards the survivors, and there are more services available to help them, many men still believe that the only way to be manly and in control is by hurting women and children.
Common Myths And Misconceptions That Perpetuate Domestic Violence
Despite the progress made in recent decades, domestic abuse is still a prevalent issue. One of the reasons for this is because of the many myths and misconceptions about the issue that are still pervasive in society. Though more people are educating themselves, many people still dismiss this as an unimportant issue. Below we will address some of the most common misconceptions about domestic violence.
Myth #1: Women And Children Are Inferior To Men
Though women have gained more rights than ever in recent decades, there are many cultures that still perpetuate the belief that women are inferior to men and should obey them. This, unfortunately, perpetuates the idea that wives should obey their husbands, even when they are being abused, or their lives are in danger.
The same beliefs hold for children as well. Many parents who abuse their children believe that children are their property, and they can do whatever they like to them. Many children are subjected to physical discipline due to these beliefs.
Myth #2: Domestic Abuse Is Just Physical Abuse
When people hear the words “domestic abuse” or “domestic violence,” they tend to equate them only to physical abuse. However, there are many forms of domestic violence, and they are not all physical. Any acts that are used to threaten, harm, or control another are a form of abuse, intimate partner violence, or family violence. These acts include:
Myth #3: Intimate Partner Violence Only Happens To Women
Though women experience abuse far more than men do, this does not mean that men are exempt from intimate partner violence. However, the exact rate at which men experience domestic violence is difficult to determine. One reason for this is that many men do not report domestic violence as they are afraid of being perceived as weak. The few men who are brave enough to report their experiences are often shamed or ignored by society.
Myth #4: If It Were Really Bad, They Would Just Leave Home Or Get A Divorce
Domestic abusers do anything in their power to keep their spouses or children in control. That means they will take away their forms of communication or transportation so that it is harder for them to find support or leave home. Many survivors of abuse want to leave but may not have any means to do so. Therefore, just because people do not leave domestic abuse situations, or an abusive marriage does not mean that this situation is not bad. It may just mean that they physically cannot leave.
Myth #5: She Provoked Him.
This myth comes from the deeply rooted belief that men should use domestic violence to “discipline” their wives and children. Therefore, some people believe that if a wife has “acted out” or done something to anger the man, then she “deserved” to be beaten. However, the abuse of any person should never be justified. If a woman has angered a man, then the two should talk about it in a calm discussion, as seen in healthy relationships. Violence is never the fault of the victim.
Myth #6: Domestic Violence Is A Secret Family Matter, Not A Social Issue
When domestic violence goes unchecked by the law, society suffers as a result. Domestic violence situations result in high costs of hospital services, medication, court proceedings, and lawyer fees. Furthermore, many women in abusive marriages and relationships are discouraged from holding jobs or taking part in the economy. And all of this is nothing compared to the prevalent psychological toll that this has on women society-wide. Ignoring domestic violence and dismissing it as a family matter keeps hurting the economy and social progress of the country.
Myth #7: Women Often Lie About Abuse
False allegations of intimate partner violence are extremely rare. The reason people want to believe this myth is that they can’t handle the truth about domestic violence, or they want to silence the victim. Men will often accuse women of lying about abuse to maintain power and stay in control. If people believe that women lie about abuse, then fewer men will face repercussions for their violent acts. When people believe women who talk about their abusive situations, the men who conduct violent behavior lose their power and control over them.
Myth #8: Domestic Violence Is Not Common
Sadly, domestic violence is more common than you would think. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetimes. Many people do not believe this because they believe that domestic violence always leaves physical marks. However, domestic violence is not always noticeable or obvious and can go undetected by friends and family.
Myth #9: Domestic Violence Only Occurs To Heterosexual Couples
The classic example of domestic violence is a husband assaulting his wife. This may imply that other types of relationships are always healthy relationships. However, domestic violence can happen to anyone of any gender or sexual orientation. That means that abuse can happen in same-sex relationships, not just in heterosexual relationships. In fact, some research suggests that same-sex relationships experience a slightly higher rate of domestic violence than heterosexual relationships.
Myth #10: Men Can Be Good Fathers Even If They Abuse Their Wives
This myth aims to justify that abusers are still good people and that abusing their wives is just a small “defect” or personality flaw. However, domestic violence is a major issue, and unfortunately often affects the children of violent parents. About 90% of children whose mothers are abused witness the abuse themselves. This has enormous psychological ramifications that can last a lifetime. Furthermore, between 40% and 70% of those children are subjected to abuse themselves, meaning that these “good fathers” are hurting both their wives and children.
Resources And Services For Domestic Violence Survivors
Office Of Justice Programs
The Office Of Justice Programs is a federal agency that provides leadership, grants, training, and other resources to reduce crime and assist survivors. Its primary goals are to reduce crime, empower survivors and those in at-risk environments, and improve the justice system and justice programs. Though the Office Of Justice Programs works to fight and prevent all sorts of crime, it also has funding and additional services for domestic violence justice programs. This is a great resource for anyone interested in providing local justice programs against domestic violence and needs funding or training for success.
National Domestic Violence Hotline
The National Domestic Violence Hotline service exists with the core belief that everyone deserves to be safe and have healthy relationships. This hotline is a great resource for current survivors of domestic violence who need help, resources, and services, but either don’t know where to start or have little power to change their situation. The hotline is available 24/7 and can be contacted through phone calls, online chat, or text.
However, these services are not just for abuse survivors. Concerned family or loved ones can contact these services to discuss their concerns about their loved one's life and well-being.
Many states and cities have local resources and services that address domestic violence in your area. These services can include shelters, crisis intervention, and other services to help survivors find safety and a new life. Local courts can also provide defense orders and restraining orders if there is evidence that there is an abuser in one’s life.
Furthermore, there are plenty of resources and services that particularly help children who are survivors of family violence as well as sexual violence.
Check out your local government's webpage for more information on shelters, how to report abuse and domestic violence, protective services, court information, and additional resources.
How Counseling Services Help Survivors
One of the many beneficial services in recent history is the development of counseling services. Not only do these services help with various mental health conditions, but they can help people who are experiencing domestic and family violence. Counseling services can provide you with support and a safe space to talk about your experiences. They may be able to provide you with guidance on how to deal with or leave your abuser, or they may point you to services that can help you with your situation.
Furthermore, if you are a survivor of abuse, you can find healing from your trauma and experiences through counseling services. Counseling can help you to heal from your past and history of abuse and find ways to move forward so you can enjoy healthy relationships. You can also attend family counseling services if your family was affected by the violence as well.
In addition to counseling services, you can also utilize support group services as well. Support groups offer a chance to talk with other survivors of abuse. You can learn how they left their abusers, are rebuilding their lives, and are establishing healthy relationships now. You may also be able to get some help and guidance in reestablishing your family after leaving an abuser.
Seeking Help With BetterHelp
If you have experienced or witnessed domestic violence and need help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is available 24 hours a day.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please know that you are not alone. Online therapy through BetterHelp can be a safe and accessible option. Current research has shown people who attend online therapy feel they are able to trust their therapist to a greater degree and feel safer due to the inomminate nature of these visits (in contrast to in-person office visits). Rather than attending in-person therapy sessions— which can be difficult— you can connect with a therapist from the comfort and safety of your own personal space.
Online therapy is both discreet and flexible, so you can schedule sessions with a compassionate mental health professional when you have personal space and serenity. You can also choose to connect via video chat, phone call, or text messaging, so no one else needs to know about any support you choose to pursue. You deserve to feel safe and heard. If you are experiencing a living situation that feels unsafe or abusive, an online therapist through BetterHelp may provide you with the guidance and encouragement you need to make a positive change.
Here are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from users who needed help with difficult living situations.
Kristy makes me feel like the most important person in the world. She will rearrange her schedule when she can to make sure I get absolutely everything I need when I need it. I always feel as though all the weight I’ve been carrying has been lifted after talking with her.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
When was domestic violence first defined?
The term “domestic violence” was defined for the first time in history in 1973. Prior to then, the law pretty much ignored any violence that a husband committed against his wife. The first time the term was used in history was during an address to the Parliament of the UK by Jack Ashley. Before then, domestic violence was referred to as “civil unrest,” which diminished the control, violent behavior, and power that an abuser had over his family.
Throughout the mid-19th and 20th centuries, more laws were passed on domestic violence, but it was rare that the police arrested or convicted anyone guilty of the crime. It was only recently in history (~ the 1970s) that the term began to show up in laws, which was primarily influenced by the Women’s Movement of the decade. During this movement, women not only fought for equality but for family safety and the freedom to leave the control of an abuser.
Though back in that part of history, domestic violence was primarily defined as the violence of a husband against his wife, it is now a broader term for violence within the domestic or home setting. It includes violence against children and violence of women against their husbands. Furthermore, domestic violence initially referred to physical abuse. However, it now encompasses all forms of abuse and control, such as emotional abuse, sexual abuse, or verbal abuse.
Where did domestic violence originate?
The social acceptance of a husband abusing his wife can be traced far back to ancient history in the land of Babylon. We know this because there are many laws in the Code of Hammurabi regarding how a man can treat his wife. This is the first code of law in human history that we know of, and it says a lot about family conditions in ancient times.
The codes asserted that women and children were property and that a man could do as he wished to “discipline” his family. Therefore, family violence was seen as normal and not a social problem. For example, a man was free to sell his children or wife into slavery whenever he wished, and he could execute his wife if she took on a lover. But these violent acts were not seen as violent; they were just everyday life. The term “domestic violence” did not appear in official law until 1973, and it was only around that time that society began to see abuse as an act of violence, not a secret family matter.
Since so much of history has been lost to us, it is hard to pinpoint where and when domestic violence originated. Even though the Code of Hammurabi is the first known law to allow domestic violence, it is safe to say that domestic violence originated much earlier, probably from the beginning of our species. In ancient times, there was no concept of healthy relationships or a healthy family unit. At some point, the family unit became the property of a man, which allowed him to become an abuser if he pleased. It is unlikely that we will ever discover the exact moment or place in history when this phenomenon started.
Why has domestic violence become a common practice?
Throughout history, domestic violence has become common practice because laws around the world have allowed it or even encouraged it. It is only fairly recently that domestic violence has become illegal, but even then, perpetrators of this abuse are rarely arrested or convicted. There can be many reasons for this, including a lack of evidence or because the survivors are too afraid to report it. Unfortunately, many people experience domestic violence without anyone knowing. Furthermore, many cultures and countries still view the family unit as property or under the control of the man of the house, which allows them to do what they please with their family. There are also not enough services in certain parts of the world to help survivors of domestic violence, so they have few options and services to go to if they flee their abusers.
When did intimate partner violence start?
Intimate partner violence has been around almost as long as our species. However, the first known social acceptance was in ancient Babylon due to the writings in the Code of Hammurabi. Though this is one of the earliest known recordings of intimate partner violence, it can be assumed that intimate partner violence started much earlier than this, probably near the dawn of our species.
Was domestic abuse common in the 1950s?
Yes, it is believed that domestic abuse was common in the 1950s. Women had few rights back then and were still seen as inferior to men. Domestic violence and child abuse were primarily seen as a secret family matter, not legal matters. Abusing a woman was seen as normal for a man, and men were rarely arrested or convicted for their violence. Furthermore, women were not allowed to defend themselves, and if they went to the police for help, they rarely received it. In fact, many police officers would blame the woman for the abuse, insisting that they must have done something to deserve it.
What culture has the most domestic violence?
It is hard to determine which countries and cultures have the most domestic violence. However, generally, countries/cultures that do not view women as equal to men or are ruled by strict religious law tend to experience the highest domestic abuse statistics. Furthermore, regions and cultures that view the family unit as property or under the control of the man of the house tend to see higher rates of family violence. Finally, regions without services to help survivors see the highest rates of domestic violence. This makes sense because regions that don't care about the survivors will not provide services for them.
When was domestic violence most common?
It is hard to say exactly when domestic violence was most common. In fact, throughout most of history, domestic violence has been common and has only reduced in recent decades. That’s because until recently, women and children were seen as property or inferior to men, and therefore domestic violence was not seen as true violence. Family violence was a way for men to maintain power and control over the women and children in their life. They used it as a form of punishment to keep their family in line. Furthermore, women were not allowed to leave home or divorce their husbands, so they could not escape their situation.
Domestic violence remained pervasive throughout history because the legal system rarely did anything about it. Furthermore, there weren’t many services or options available for the survivors to flee to. Therefore, because it was socially accepted and pervasive in society, it is hard to say if there was a specific time point where domestic violence was most common.
How did domestic violence evolve?
The definition of domestic violence has evolved a lot over recent decades. In the beginning, it only referred to the violence against women in marriage. However, it has expanded to cover all forms of abuse against spouses or intimate partners, such as sexual violence, financial abuse, and emotional abuse.
Furthermore, it has expanded to include men and children. The definition includes child sexual abuse, family violence, or other forms of violence and abuse directed at men, children, or other family. It no longer applies to just married women. Now services and programs aim to help all survivors of domestic abuse, even though women remain the primary target.
When did domestic violence become illegal?
The history of domestic violence becoming illegal does not consist of one victorious event. It took slow progress over centuries for it to become fully illegal in many countries.
In the United States, prior to the mid-1800s, violence against women was common and socially accepted. The only exception to this was the 1641 Body Of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay. This was the only decree that stated a married woman should be free of abuse. Beyond this, there was no common law about family abuse or domestic violence until centuries later.
After this, violence against women was still fairly accepted until 1850, when Tennessee became the first state to make wife abusing illegal. Other states followed suit and wife-abusing finally became illegal across the entire country in 1920. However, it was not until 1994 that the Violence Against Women Act passed and officially made all domestic violence a crime. This act also paved the way for more services and programs to help the survivors.
How did domestic violence become a social issue?
The history of domestic violence becoming a social issue is new. Prior to the mid-20th century domestic violence was seen as a family matter and a way for a man to maintain control and power over his family. It was seen as justifiable punishment for children and women alike and therefore was not subject to scrutiny by a male-dominated society. However, things began to change in the mid-20th century with the advent of women’s rights and the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Family violence was one of the important issues pressed by this movement and so it is finally being talked about in public. Once it was discussed openly, it slowly became more of a social issue over time, especially as it became clear that domestic violence harmed society, not just discreet individuals. Soon after, the public began discussing the issues, services, and programs opened to help the survivors find safety and establish a better life.
Now, domestic violence remains a social issue because we value women and children far more than society did over 50 years ago. It is now seen as a violent crime that harms women and children and reduces medical resources. Now there are a plethora of resources and services that aim to reduce the behavior of abusers, such as counseling services, law enforcement, court proceedings, the criminal justice system, and corrections agencies.
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