Terminology

Cautionary note: some people may find reading the content in chapter 3 distressing or traumatising.

Long-standing debates exist over the most appropriate terminology to use when identifying violence and abuse between spouses, partners, and family members. Terminology has become increasingly fragmented across the policing, legal and service sectors in Australian and overseas jurisdictions, and is complicated by the range and diversity of cultural, socio-economic, sexual, geographical and familial structures that are intended to be captured by any one label. Moreover, key terms (and definitions) in Australian State, Territory and Commonwealth domestic-violence related legislation lack consistency.

Descriptors such as ‘domestic violence’, ‘domestic and family violence’, ‘family violence’, ‘domestic harm’, ‘domestic abuse’, ‘domestic control’, ‘violence against women’ and ‘intimate partner violence’ have frequently been and are often interchangeably adopted in reports and by academics and commentators writing in this area. To varying degrees, each of these terms has limitations.

For example, proponents of the term ‘violence against women’ argue that the descriptors ‘domestic violence’ and ‘family violence’ mask the reality that violence in this context is gendered and, in an overwhelming majority of cases, is perpetrated by men against women. This descriptor has, however, been criticised on the basis that it excludes the reality that some violence, albeit at significantly lower rates, is perpetrated by women against men.

While acknowledging there is no widespread consensus regarding its use, the descriptor adopted in this bench book is ‘domestic and family violence’ primarily because it reflects the prevailing community understanding of the issue. There are, however, a number of important points to note.

The word ‘domestic’ may suggest that the violence is limited to conduct occurring only in the home between people living together in a relationship. The risk is that conduct occurring outside the physical confines of the home or between estranged individuals or other parties – including, parent to child or adolescent, sibling to sibling, or adolescent to parent – may be overlooked.

The inclusion of the word ‘family’ in the descriptor endeavours to address this potential limitation and aligns more closely with statutory definitions. Proponents also note that the reference to ‘family’ more accurately reflects the context and dynamic of violent behaviours occurring in certain groups within the community. For example, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, it recognises the absence of demarcation between private and public spheres; and encompasses the range of behaviours that may occur within intimate, immediate and extended family and other communal or extended kinship relationships of mutual obligation and support. Further, in culturally and linguistically diverse communities, where migrant and refugee women are more likely to move in with their husband’s family after marriage, victims may experience violence and abuse perpetrated by not only their partners, but their ‘in-laws’ and other extended family members.

Use of the term ‘violence’ may risk a focus on physical acts causing bodily injury. There may be reluctance by some victims to name their experience as one of ‘violence’ unless it involves severe and physically damaging behaviour. The majority of State, Territory and Commonwealth legislation now recognise that ‘violence’ includes physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse or injury, as well as conduct designed to exert power by restricting access to financial, familial and cultural resources and limiting social autonomy. For consistency, the term adopted in this bench book is ‘violence’.