News Volume 69, Issue 5

Definitions of Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Have Changed…or Have They?

by Katelyn To

In April of 2019, the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women changed the definition of sexual assault and domestic violence on their website, which has only recently garnered attention. The DOJ now strictly defines domestic violence as physical harm, whereas before it also included emotional and psychological abuse. Additionally, sexual assault means “any non-consensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.” Previously, the definition was “any type of sexual contact or behaviour that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” The previous definition was broader, with the wording “without the explicit consent of the recipient” being changed to “non-consensual,” for example.

Despite what it may seem like this definition change doesn’t actually change anything legally. Marium Durrani, the Director of Policy from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, clarified what was going on: “The Office of Violence Against Women had not unilaterally changed the definition of domestic violence, but has updated their website to reflect the legal definition as it stands in federal law currently. The reasons for this change on the website are unknown.” Many articles made it seem as if this would create obstacles for victims on a legal scale, such as Independent’s headline: “Trump administration ‘rolling back women’s rights by 50 years’ by changing definitions of domestic violence and sexual assault.” Durrani explained why this is occuring: “This first appeared as a Slate article about a year ago in which the author shared the website change and speculated on a variety of [reasons] behind the change. After that, several news outlets picked up the content and it has been circulated much more broadly.” 

The wording change on the website doesn’t change anything, but the reason for the change is unclear. However, if this change were to take place in the legal system, it would create setbacks for future victims. Durrani said, “Advocates and the domestic violence community would prefer a broad definition that encompasses other forms of abuse be utilized for grant making purposes.” A definition of domestic violence only including physical abuse (and not psychological and emotional abuse) would also cause problems. Junior Jennifer Notman talked about how this could contribute to stigmas surrounding non-physical abuse and even mental health: “This [definition change would] also lead to indirectly invalidating emotions or other physiological issues, such as mental health disorders, by confirming the misconceptions [that] anything inww your head isn’t as important as things that are visible.”