Trump Administration Changes to the Definition of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

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Limited Definitions Now Could Be Extremely Harmful to Survivors

by Desmond Homann, Unspoken Voices Contributor

Last April, the Trump Administration altered the legal definitions of domestic violence and sexual assault, but provided no explanations for these changes. While the changes made for the definition for sexual assault were not nearly as large and drastic as the differences between the previous and current domestic violence definitions, both changes are connected and should be noted.

The previous definition of domestic violence, penned during Barack Obama’s presidency, included a highly detailed and in-depth list of many of the various forms of power-based violence that could be considered forms of domestic violence: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, and psychological abuse.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s 2017 Domestic Violence Impact Report lists the different types of domestic violence most often discussed with the Hotline and with other groups that provide assistance to those affected by domestic violence. Within this report, there are even more types of violence listed than there are in the previous legal definition of domestic violence. One example of violence that is explicitly mentioned in this impact report that is not present in either definition is digital abuse, which is characterized by but not limited to such behaviors as close monitoring, stalking, or tracking of a partner though phones, computers, GPS, or other technology.

For the most part, the types of violence listed in The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Impact report match the Obama-era legal definitions. In the report and in the experiences of victims of domestic violence, not all violence is physical, though physical abuse is often what people think of first when discussing domestic violence or abuse. In fact, the impact report found that the most frequently discussed or reported form of domestic violence is emotional abuse, which an alarming 86% of reports involved. It should also be noted that this emotional abuse, in many cases, would often result in physical abuse after years of this violence. The definition of emotional abuse given by The National Domestic Violence Hotline covers most of the same behaviors as the legal definitions for both emotional abuse and psychological abuse, such as insults, criticism, instilling fear, isolating partners, or verbal abuse. Obviously, these are not the only ways that one can experience emotional or psychological abuse, but these points are noted in both definitions.

In the previous definition, there was an entire paragraph dedicated to acknowledging that any person can be at risk of becoming a victim of domestic violence. This definition stated that “domestic violence can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender...”

This is extremely important to include, as many victims of violence can feel too isolated or fearful to seek help, especially when they feel they don’t fit a certain description.

When people of all backgrounds are included and acknowledged in this way, it is much clearer to understand and respond to the situation a victim finds themselves in. The current definition of domestic violence does not include any mention of inclusion or differing backgrounds. While that does not erase the struggles or experiences of domestic violence victims, it can add to the feelings of isolation and confusion that there victims are trying to fight through.

One point that is found in the previous definition that the current definition seems to have done away with is the inclusion of those close to the victim, including the friends, family, coworkers, and community members that are affected by domestic violence. Along with this inclusion, it is noted that repeated exposure violence at home normalizes violence for children who grow up witnessing domestic violence.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, roughly 1 in 15 children in a year are exposed to domestic violence; additionally, the majority of these children (up to 90%) directly witness this violence. When these children are eyewitnesses to domestic violence, they do not go unaffected. Luckily, the previous definition of domestic violence made a point to address the effect that being exposed to violence can have not just on children, but on any person close to the abuser or the victim.

As far as the legal definition of sexual assault, the changes made were not quite as drastic as those for domestic violence. The most significant part of this change, however, was the shift from a broad range of non-consensual activities to a narrower, criminal justice based focus. Previously, sexual assault could include such acts as “forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.” Within the scope of the current definition, however, sexual assault is described as simply “any non-consensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.” The use of the word “any” in this definition does imply that there are a wide variety of actions that can be considered non-consensual; however, this is still much narrower a statement than what was provided in the past.

Though this change is not immediately harmful to survivors of sexual assault, it is unclear why a change was necessary in the first place.

Though there seems to be no specific reasoning behind these changes made during Donald Trump’s presidency, it may be too soon to hear from those who made the changes. For the time being, it is not certain why any changes were made all to what seemed like sufficient legal definitions for these terms. Having such limited definitions now could be extremely harmful to survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault, and the focus on physical violence and victims of reported crimes could be restricting for groups that work to help survivors.

While the legal definitions of domestic violence and sexual assault may have changed, what has not changed is the hard work of groups that support and assist survivors of power-based violence.