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Chapter 12: Marriage and Families

12.5 Family Violence

Although family violence has received much attention since the 1970s, families were violent long before scholars began studying family violence and the public began hearing about it. We can divide family violence into two types: violence against intimates (spouses, live-in partners, boyfriends, or girlfriends) and violence against children.

Intimate Partner Violence

– or violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner – is a pervasive issue in the United states that shows little sign of abating. Intimates commit violence against each other in many ways: they can hit with their fists, slap with an open hand, throw an object, push or shove, or use or threaten to use a weapon. When all of these acts and others are combined, we find that much intimate violence occurs. While we can never be certain of the exact number of intimates who are attacked, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates from its National Crime Victimization Survey that almost 600,000 acts of violence (2016 data) are committed annually by one intimate against another intimate; 85% of these acts are committed by men against women (Rand, 2009). According the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 27% of women and 11% of men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime (2018). These figures indicate that intimate partner violence is very common and affects millions of people.

Some observers claim that men are just as likely as women to be beaten by a spouse, and there is evidence that mutual violence does occur. Yet this “gender equivalence” argument has been roundly criticized. Although women do commit violence against men, their violence is typically less serious (e.g., a slap compared to using a fist) and often used in self-defense.

Why do men hit their partners? As with rape, sociologists answer this question by citing both structural and cultural factors. Structurally, women are the subordinate gender in a patriarchal society and, as such, are more likely to be victims of violence, whether it is rape or intimate violence. Intimate violence is more common in poor families. Economic inequality may lead men to take out their frustration over their poverty on their partners (Martin, Vieraitis, & Britto, 2006).

Cultural myths also help explain why men hit their wives and girlfriends (Gosselin, 2010). Many men continue to believe that their wives should not only love and honor them but also obey them. If they view their wives in this way, it becomes that much easier to hit them. In another myth many people ask why women do not leave a violent household. The implication is that the violence cannot be that bad because they do not leave home. This reasoning ignores the fact that many women do try to leave home, which often angers their partners and ironically puts the women more at risk for being hit, or they do not leave home because they have nowhere to go (Kim & Gray, 2008). Battered women’s shelters are still few in number and can accommodate a woman and her children for only 2 or 3 weeks. Many battered women also have little money of their own and simply cannot afford to leave home. The belief that battering cannot be that bad if women hit by their husbands do not leave home ignores all of these factors and is thus a myth that reinforces spousal violence against women.

Dating Violence on Campus

Because intimate partner violence is so common, it is no surprise that much of it occurs among college students. Some studies suggest that one-fifth of intimate relationships on campus involve at least some violence. Young people (aged 16–24) report the highest rates of domestic and dating violence in government surveys. As one advocate of programs to end dating violence observes, “It’s incredibly common both at the high school and college levels” (Kinzie, 2010, A9).

Child Abuse

One of the hardest behaviors to understand is , which can be both physical, psychological, or sexual in nature. Children can also suffer from emotional abuse and neglect. It is especially difficult to know how much child abuse occurs. Infants obviously cannot talk, and toddlers and older children who are abused usually do not tell anyone about the abuse. They might not define it as abuse, they might be scared to tell on their parents, they might blame themselves for being abused, or they might not know whom they could talk to about their abuse. Whatever the reason, they often remain silent, making it very difficult to know the rate of abuse.

Using information from child protective agencies throughout the country, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found in 2015, that over 680,000 children were victims of child abuse and neglect, or 9.2 per every 1000 children (2017). Victimization falls primarily into the category of neglect, with 75.3% of child victims experiencing neglect. Of the remaining child victims, 17.2% were physically abused, 8.4% were sexually abused and 6.9% experienced other forms of maltreatment (U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2017). The youngest children are the most vulnerable, as shown below in Table 12.9 “Victims by Age, 2015.”

Table 12.9 Victims by Age, 2015


Source: Data from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau (2017). Child Maltreatment 2015. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment

Obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg, as many cases of child abuse never become known. A 1994 Gallup Poll asked adult respondents about physical abuse they suffered as children. Twelve percent said they had been abused (punched, kicked, or choked), yielding an estimate of 23 million adults in the United States who were physically abused as children (Moore, 1994). Some studies estimate that about 25% of girls and 10% of boys are sexually abused at least once before turning 18 (Garbarino, 1989). Whatever the true figure is, most child abuse is committed by parents, step-parents, and other people the children know, not by strangers. In 2015, 91.6% of victims were maltreated by one or both parents (U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2017).

Why does child abuse occur? Structurally speaking, children are another powerless group and, as such, are easy targets of violence. Moreover, the best evidence indicates that child abuse is more common in poorer families. The stress these families suffer from their poverty is thought to be a major reason for the child abuse occurring within them (Gosselin, 2010). As with spousal violence, then, economic inequality is partly to blame for child abuse. Cultural values and practices also matter. In a nation where many people think spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline a child, it is inevitable that physical child abuse will occur, because there is a very thin line between a hard spanking and physical abuse. As two family violence scholars once noted, “Although most physical punishment [of children] does not turn into physical abuse, most physical abuse begins as ordinary physical punishment” (Wauchope & Straus, 1990, p. 147). In addition, alcohol and drug abuse by parents are significant risk factors for children. For instance, of child victims less than a year old, 2.5% were reported with the alcohol abuse child risk factor and 9.8% were reported with the drug abuse risk factor (U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2017).

Addressing Family Issues: What Sociology Suggests

As perhaps our most important and also most controversial social institution, the family seems to arouse strong passions from almost everyone. Sociological theory and research, along with research from the other social sciences, have important implications for how our society should address the various family issues discussed in this chapter.

One set of implications concerns the many children and families living in poverty. The households in which they live are mostly headed by women, and the majority of these households are the result of divorce. We encourage efforts to assuage the deleterious effects of poverty which include, but are not limited to, increased government financial support, vocational training and financial aid for schooling for women who wish to return to the labor force or to increase their wages, early childhood visitation and intervention programs, and increases in programs providing nutrition and medical care to poor women and their children (Cherlin, 2009); as well as focusing attention of fathers and encouraging more involvement, and increased financial and emotional responsibility. In all of these efforts, the United States has much to learn from the nations of Western Europe.

Another issue and set of implications concern family violence. To the extent that much violence against intimates and children is rooted in the frustration and stress accompanying poverty, efforts that reduce poverty will also reduce family violence. And to the extent that gender inequality helps explain violence against women, continuing and strengthening efforts to reduce gender inequality should also reduce violence against intimates, as most of this violence is directed by men against women. Further, if, as many scholars believe, the violent nature of masculinity helps account for violence men commit against their wives and girlfriends, then efforts to change male gender-role socialization should also help. Turning to child abuse, because so much child abuse remains unknown to child protective authorities, it is difficult to reduce its seriousness and extent. However, certain steps might still help. Because child abuse seems more common among poorer families, then efforts that reduce poverty should also reduce child abuse. The home visitation programs mentioned earlier to help poor children also help reduce child abuse. Although, as noted earlier, approval of spanking is deeply rooted in our culture, a national educational campaign to warn about the dangers of spanking, including its promotion of children’s misbehavior, may eventually reduce the use of spanking and thus the incidence of child physical abuse.

A final issue for which research by sociologists and other scholars is relevant is divorce. There is much evidence to suggest that divorce has very negative consequences for spouses and children, and there is also much evidence to suggest that these consequences arise not from the divorce itself but rather from the conflict preceding the divorce and the poverty into which many newly single-parent households are plunged. There is also evidence that spouses and children fare better after a divorce from a highly contentious marriage. Efforts to help preserve marriages should certainly continue, but these efforts should proceed cautiously or not proceed at all for the marriages that are highly contentious. To the extent that marital conflict partly arises from financial difficulties, once again government efforts that help reduce poverty should also help preserve marriages.


Key Terms

Child abuse — physical, psychological, or sexual mistreatment of a child, which can include harming a child through neglect.

Intimate partner violence – violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner.


Continue to 12.6 End-of-Chapter Material


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez; Rudy Hernandez; Aliza Robison; Pamela Smith; and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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