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Chapter 12: Marriage and Families

12.5 Family Violence

graphic showing the following: 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime; 1 in 5 women and 1 in 12 men have experienced contact sexual violence by an intimate partner; and 10% of women and 2% of men report having been stalked by an intimate partner.

Many people have experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). Note that while data like this are important to consider and hopefully build awareness around IPV, there are gaps in both reporting and information gathering. For example, less information is known about IPV against transgender people, but analysis of various sources indicate that it is 1.7 times more likely to be committed against transgender people than against cisgender people, as described below. (Centers for Disease Control 2021; Conerly, et. al., 2021).

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 there were 1.6 million violent victimizations (excluding simple assaults) in 2020 (Morgan and Thompson, 2021). According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 11 million women and 5 million men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime (CDC, 2021). 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.

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.

IPV against LGBTQ people is generally higher than it is against non-LGBTQ people. Gay men report experiencing IPV in their lifetimes less often (26 percent) than straight men (29 percent) or bisexual men (37 percent). Forty-four percent of lesbian women report experiencing some type of IPV in their lifetime, compared to 35 percent of straight women. Sixty-one percent of bisexual women report experiencing IPV, a much higher rate than any other sexual orientation frequently studied.

Studies regarding intimate partner violence against transgender people are relatively limited, but several are ongoing. A meta-analysis of available information indicated that physical IPV had occurred in the lifetimes of 38% of transgender people, and 25% of transgender people had experienced sexual IPV in their lifetimes. Compared with cisgender individuals, transgender individuals were 1.7 times more likely to experience any IPV (Peitzmeier, et. al., 2020).

Many college students encounter IPV, as well. Overall, psychological violence seems to be the type of IPV college students face most frequently, followed by physical and/or sexual violence (Cho & Huang, 2017). Of high schoolers who report being in a dating relationship, 10% experience physical violence by a boyfriend or girlfriend, 7% experience forced sexual intercourse, and 11% experience sexual dating violence. Seven percent of women and 4% of men who experience IPV are victimized before age 18 (NCJRS 2017). IPV victimization during young adulthood, including the college years, is likely to lead to continuous victimization in adulthood, possibly throughout a lifetime (Greenman & Matsuda, 2016; Conerly, et. al, 2021).

Image of a part of an art installation dedicated to victims of interpersonal violence. The sculpture shows a mouth and hand and reads, "I will be heard."

Dr. Michael C. Irving’s monument for child abuse survivors is composed of handprints and messages of people who have been victims of abuse. Harvey K – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) – Flickr

Child Abuse

One of the hardest behaviors to understand is , which can be 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 too 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 (2021) found in 2019, that over 656,000 children were victims of child abuse and neglect, or 8.9 per every 1000 children. Victimization falls primarily into the category of neglect, with 74.9% of child victims experiencing neglect. Of the remaining child victims, 17.9% were physically abused, 9.3% were sexually abused and 15.5% were victims of two or more types of maltreatment (US Dept of Health and Human Services, 2021). The youngest children are the most vulnerable, as shown below in Table 12.11 “Victims of Child Abuse by Age, 2019.”

Figure 12.11 Victims of Child Abuse by Age, 2019

Bar chart showing Victims of Child Abuse by Age, 2019, with 25.7 per 1,000 children less than 1 years old being victims and 11.5 per 1,000 chidlren age 1. The number declines from there, with 9.3 for 1,000 five year olds, 7.9 for 1,000 10 year olds, 6.4 per 1,000 15 year olds and 3.7 per 1,0000 17 year olds.Source: Data from U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2021). Child Maltreatment 2019. 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, stepparents, and other people the children know, not by strangers. In 2019, 91.4% of victims were maltreated by one or both parents (U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2021).

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.  are what the US Department of Health and Human Services define as “characteristics of a child or caregiver that may increase the likelihood of child maltreatment” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2021: 23).  For instance, in 2019, 15.9% of child victims of maltreatment were reported with the alcohol abuse child risk factor and 29.4% were reported with the drug abuse child risk factor (U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, 2021).


Using Your Sociological Imagination

U.S. map showing states in which corporal punishment is not banned, banned at home but not at school or banned at school and not at home. The following states have no ban in either locale: Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Missouri, Arizona, Louisiana, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina. The only state that bans corporal punishment at home but not at school is Delaware. All of the rest of the states, mostly in the west, upper midwest and northeast ban corporal punishment at school, but not at home.

Frenzie23 – CC BY-SA 3.0 – Wikimedia Commons

Physical abuse in children may come in the form of beating, kicking, throwing, choking, hitting with objects, burning, or other methods. Injury inflicted by such behavior is considered abuse even if the parent or caregiver did not intend to harm the child. Other types of physical contact that are characterized as discipline (spanking, for example) are not considered abuse as long as no injury results (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2008).

This issue is rather controversial today in the United States. While some parents feel that physical discipline, or , is an effective way to respond to bad behavior, others feel that it is a form of abuse. According to a poll conducted by ABC News, 65% of respondents approve of spanking and 50% said that they sometimes spank their child.

Tendency toward physical punishment may be affected by culture and education. Those who live in the South are more likely than those who live in other regions to spank their child. Those who do not have a college education are also more likely to spank their child (Crandall, 2011). Currently, 23 states officially allow spanking in the school system; however, many parents may object, and school officials must follow a set of clear guidelines when administering this type of punishment (Crandall, 2011). Studies have shown that spanking is not an effective form of punishment and may lead to aggression by the victim, particularly in those who are spanked at a young age (Berlin, 2009; Conerly, et. al., 2021).

Were you surprised by the fact that almost half the states (still) allow corporal punishment in schools?

Of course, in Michigan, it’s strictly forbidden. From your sociological perspective, explain how corporal punishment might help or hurt a child?


Test Yourself


Section 12.5 References

Berlin, L. (2009). Correlates and Consequences of Spanking and Verbal Punishment for Low-Income White, African American, and Mexican American Toddlers. Child Development, 80(5), 1403–1420.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Preventing Sexual Violence.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/fastfact.html.

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2008). What Is Child Abuse and Neglect. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/whatiscan.cfm.

Cho, H., and L. Huang. (2017). Aspects of Help Seeking among Collegiate Victims of Dating Violence. Journal of Family Violence, 32, 409–417. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10896-016-9813-3.

Crandall, J. (2011, November 8). Support for Spanking: Most Americans Think Corporal Punishment is OK. ABCNews.com, Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/dailynews/ spanking_poll021108.html.

Garbarino, J. (1989). The incidence and prevalence of child maltreatment. In L. Ohlin & M. Tonry (Eds.), Family violence (Vol. 11, pp. 219–261). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 

Gosselin, D. K. (2010). Heavy hands: An introduction to the crimes of family violence (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

Greenman, S. and M. Matsuda. (2016). From early dating violence to adult intimate partner violence: Continuity and sources of resilience in adulthood. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 26, 293-303.  Retrieved from  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cbm.2012.               

Kim, J. and K. A. Gray. (2008). Leave or stay? Battered women’s decision after intimate partner violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 23(10), 1465–1482. 

Moore, D. W. (1994, May). One in seven Americans victim of child abuse. The Gallup Poll Monthly, 18–22. 

Morgan, R. and A. Thompson. (2021, October). Criminal Victimization, 2020. NCJ Number 301775. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/criminal-victimization-2020.

Peitzmeier, S. M., M. Malik, S. K. Kattari, E. Marrow, R. Stephenson, R., M. Agénor and S. L. Reisner. (2020).  Intimate Partner Violence in Transgender Populations: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Prevalence and Correlates. American Journal of Public Health 110(9), e1-e14.

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2021). Child Maltreatment 2019. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment.

Wauchope, B. and M. A. Straus. (1990). Physical punishment and physical abuse of American children: Incidence rates by age, gender, and occupational class. In M. A. Straus & R. J. Gelles (Eds.), Physical violence in American families: Risk factors and adaptations to violence in 8,145 families (pp. 133–148). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

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