The Importance of Language and Terminology for Anti-Intimate Partner Violence Professionals and Victims.

It is easy (or perhaps, at least, easier) for those in academia to define, conceptualize, and describe intimate partner violence (IPV, also known as domestic violence (DV)). The pedagogical definition describes “physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy,” according to the Center for Disease Control (Violence Prevention). But what about those without this pedagogical background? Considering most of the population is not in academia or in the IPV/DV fields, is thus important to ask: how do those outside of academia define IPV/DV? Domestic violence can often be hard to conceptualize when looking at one’s own personal situation and this lack of language for what is happening can allow more violence to occur and be perpetuated and be a factor in keeping victims from seeking institutional help.

A 2012 study published in the Maternal Child Health Journal outlined a clear example of what happens when victims are unable to describe their IPV in pedagogical terms. The four researchers, Caitlin Eileen Martin, Avril Melissa Houston, Kristin N. Mmari, and Michele R. Decker, interviewed 32 African American urban teens and young adults about what they described as “relationship drama” and “disrespect (Martin, This colloquial phrasing is not used by IPV professionals. The respondents defined ‘drama’ as: “a normative disagreement that occurs between partners…[and] was also described as escalating into abuse…. Drama was also described by some as ‘physical fighting’ suggesting that this term holds a range of meaning for teens” (Martin, Disrespect, similarly, had a variety of definitions that centered around forms of verbal and psychological abuse. The youth appeared to have difficulty with specifying concrete definitions of these terms and what constituted them. This can be a barrier to receiving formal help from IPV professionals, as most people will not screen for ‘drama’ and disrespect.’ Thus, it is crucial for adults to translate screening tools and interventions into the slang that teens are using, even if merely to acknowledge the potential weight of the phrases being used regardless of actual abuse happening to the teen.

Similarly, when discussing abuse in higher class relationships, it is imperative that professionals be able to understand the subtext of what a client is describing to him or her. In an article by Suzanne Weitzman in 2000, this phenomenon is explored further. Weitzman details her wealthier clients being victims of IPV, and yet often refusing to identify as such for various reasons. She concludes that “Many affluent abused wives…don’t identify with the media-generated image of the ‘battered woman.’ And since they don’t have the words or images to put to their experience, they come to perceive that their torment lack validity…it wasn’t really ‘abuse’” (Weiztman).  And yet, what these women describe their own experiences is categorically abusive behavior on the part of their spouse. These women often feel isolated, ashamed, scared of rejection and disbelief, and fear for their class standing. Their abuse is real, yet they lack the ability to describe it. This should not be a deterring factor when seeking help and talking to professionals. Professionals working with higher class victims must be able to understand the connotations of what their clients are describing to them.

This consideration must also be extended to tertiary victims of IPV, namely, children. Though children might not be the direct victims of abuse, simply witnessing a parent or sibling be abused is traumatic. One study found that “despite so many children and young people growing up in households marred by violence, opportunities for these children to talk about their experience and receive the support they need are limited” (Morris Yet professionals also know that these children very much need to be able to verbalize their experiences and have them understood and validated. There had been criticisms, though, about the ethics of conducting research on children.  Yet those in the field recognized the need for this understanding. Before, there had been mainly, “adult perceptions and adult interpretations sought [and] that researchers relied on refuge or child protection samples rather than understanding the broader group of children experiencing domestic violence” (Morris Allowing for the chance to verbalize and talk through one’s own experiences with domestic violence is crucial for children’s later well-being and relationships with violence in the future.

It is clear that communications about IPV and subsequent victimhood vary widely both across and within identities. Whether it is because a group does not know the terminology, doesn’t apply the terminology to his or her own situation, or is not given the opportunity to communicate in the first place, the absence of this communication can have lasting impacts on victims that can include prolonged violence. It must then be understood by IPV professionals that none of these obstacles should become permanent barriers to seeking help, safety, or treatment.


Works Cited

Martin, Caitlin Eileen, Avril Melissa, Houstin, Kristin N. Mmari, and Michele Decker. 2012. “Urban Teens and Young Adults Describe Drama, Disrespect, Dating Violence and Help- Seeking Preferences.” Maternal Child Health Journal 16: 957-966.

Morris, Anita , Cathy Humphreys, and Kelsey Hegarty. 2015. “Children’s Views of Safety and Adversity When Living with Domestic Violence.” In Domestic Violence and Protecting Children: New Thinking and Approaches, 18-48. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

“Violence Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 22, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017.

Weitzman, Susan. 2000. “This Doesn’t Happen to People Like Us…” In “Not to People Like Us”: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages. Pp. 17-35. New York: Basic Books.


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