Brooklyn Law Review


Tamara Kuennen


This article argues that not all violence in intimate relationships is “domestic violence.” Domestic violence is a pattern of acts perpetrated with a motive: power and control over another. National anti-domestic violence organizations, activists and advocates, and a number of academics agree on this construct of domestic violence. Law, on the other hand, requires neither a pattern nor a motive; it defines domestic violence to include any single act of violence in a relationship, regardless of the perpetrator’s intent. Because legal intervention is the primary intervention for domestic violence today, feminist legal scholars have sought to reform the law to match the construct. This article focuses on the construct, arguing that anti-domestic violence scholars and activists have yet to be sufficiently explicit about what domestic violence is not. It is not a singular act of violence in a relationship, without the motive of power and control. But what anti-domestic violence activist wants to argue that a little bit of violence in a relationship is ok? In this article, I do not condone physical violence in relationships; rather, I argue that anti-domestic violence organizations’ public messaging about what domestic violence is and what it is not needs fine tuning. Rather than implying that all violence in a relationship is domestic violence, it should do the opposite. It should state that some types of conduct in a relationship, which may or may not rise to the level of physical violence, form a pattern designed to diminish a partner’s autonomy. This is what anti-domestic violence advocates currently call “domestic violence.” It is a particular subset of violence in relationships that social scientists call “coercive control.” It is a type that exploits gender privilege and is particularly dangerous both physically and psychologically to women and other marginalized groups. As such, this subset of relationship violence should be targeted for prevention and intervention. Drawing on social constructionism theory, the article examines carefully the content of the current construct, public messaging about the construct, and the gap between construct, messaging and law. Its original contribution to the literature is that reform of messaging about the construct of domestic violence must precede reform of the law of domestic violence.