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Does Language Matter When Describing Abuse?

The language used in advocacy and awareness around domestic violence is complicated and initiated significant reflection on my part. The word violence in domestic violence may trigger images of bruises or physical injuries, which doesn’t take into account the emotional and psychological abuse many women face. While the word domestic in domestic violence may not apply to women who do not live with their partners, women who are dating, or for abuse that takes place at work. It is important to lay out these differences sooner rather than later, which is why I chose this topic for the first Selene Center Blog post.



In the state of Ohio, “knowingly or recklessly causing harm to a family or household member" is a 1st degree misdemeanor.

The legal definition of domestic violence vs. the social definition of domestic abuse


The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Model Code on Domestic and Family Violence defines domestic violence as “the occurrence of one or more of the following acts by a family or household member, but does not include acts of self defense:


- Attempting to cause or causing physical harm to another family or household member

- Placing a family or household member in fear of physical harm or

- Causing a family or household member to engage involuntarily in sexual activity by force, threat of force or duress”


The American BAR Association Commission on Domestic Violence, however, developed a broader definition of domestic abuse and is defined as a "pattern of abusive and controlling behaviors that one current or former intimate partner or spouse exerts over another as a means of control, generally resulting in the other partner changing his or her behavior in response."


This definition of abuse goes a step further than the legal definition of domestic violence because it includes other means of abuse and takes into account power and control exerted over another person. Relatively recently, the term Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) has begun to be used by professional researchers and advocates as a way to include a broader definition relationships that are not domestic in nature, meaning partners may not be living together in order for abuse to take place. The Center for Disease Control includes the following behaviors in their definition of Intimate Partner Violence;


- Physical violence is when a person hurts or tries to hurt a partner by hitting, kicking, or using another type of physical force.


- Sexual violence is forcing or attempting to force a partner to take part in a sex act, sexual touching, or a non-physical sexual event (e.g., sexting) when the partner does not or cannot consent.


- Stalking is a pattern of repeated, unwanted attention and contact by a partner that causes fear or concern for one’s own safety or the safety of someone close to the victim.


- Psychological aggression is the use of verbal and non-verbal communication with the intent to harm another person mentally or emotionally and/or exert control over another person.


Although these may seem like small differences in semantics, I thought it was important to be clear that when we use the term domestic violence, domestic abuse, or intimate partner abuse on our website, printed materials, or social media, we are including the broader definitions as outlined by the CDC and the ABA, and not solely the domestic violence legal definition.

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