What is domestic violence and abuse?

Domestic violence and abuse is not just about being ‘battered’ but is about being subjected to controlling and coercive behaviour (using force and threats to make someone do things they are unwilling to do). Abusive behaviour involves threats to harm the women or their families if they do not comply with their partner’s demands, as well as physical, financial, sexual and verbal abuse. It can involve having every aspect of a person’s life controlled by a partner or family member, so that they lose all confidence in themselves. The UK definition of domestic violence and abuse has recently been expanded to reflect our growing understanding of ‘coercive control’, which became a criminal offence in 2015 (see below). Anyone can experience domestic violence and abuse but the focus in this section of this section of the website is on women’s experiences.

Domestic violence and abuse:

  • Affects around 4.6m women (28.4% of the adult population) in England and Wales in their lifetime, *1 and 13.6% of men.*2.
  • Leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week in England and Wales (approximately 135 women per year), and 48 men per year. *2.
  • On average the police in England and Wales receive over 100 calls relating to domestic abuse every hour. (HMIC, 2015)*3

Nicki Norman, Deputy Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, urges women to seek help.

Women in an abusive relationship or anyone with concerns can call the free 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline run in partnership between Womens Aid and Refuge.
Professor Gene Feder is a general practitioner who leads the Domestic Violence Research Group in the School of Social and Community Medicine at Bristol University.

Professor Feder talks about the importance of doctors and other health professionals as a first port of call for women who are experiencing domestic abuse.

Dr Alison Gregory is a researcher at Bristol University, specialising in the impact of domestic violence and abuse on family and friends of victims.

Dr Gregory talks about how family members and friends may be able to help a woman who is experiencing domestic violence or abuse.

Definition of Domestic Violence and Abuse (UK Government 2013)
‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse’.

Controlling behaviour
Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour
Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

Coercive or controlling behaviour offence
A coercive or controlling behaviour offence came into force in the UK in December 2015. It carries a maximum 5 years’ imprisonment, a fine or both. Victims who experience coercive and controlling behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, can bring their perpetrators to justice.

Abbreviations and definitions used in text:

  • IAPT: Improving Access to Psychological Therapies
  • JSA: Jobseekers Allowance.
  • IDVA: Independent Domestic Violence Advocate.
  • MARAC: Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference.
  • IRIS: Identification and Referral to Improve Safety (IRIS): a general practice training and support programme.
  • Stockholm Syndrome: a psychological process in which hostages develop feelings of empathy and sympathy for their captors. Temporary lack of abuse can be interpreted as kindness and the person entrapped may become dependent on the person entrapping them. A similar process is thought to occur amongst women experiencing domestic abuse.

*1. These figures are from the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) which offers the best data available (Women’s Aid). Also according to these data, in the year ending March 2019, an estimated 7.5% of women (1.6 million) and 3.8% of men (786,000) between the ages of 16 to 74 experienced domestic abuse in the last year.

*2. Data from the Home Office Homicide Index for the year ending March 2016 to the year ending March 2018 show that there were 270 female victims of domestic homicide and 96 male victims of domestic homicide in the same timeframe.

*3. Women’s Aid (2015) ‘How common is domestic abuse?’
(Accessed February 2020).