Domestic Violence as a Public Problem

How a problem is framed

warren coppard
12 min readApr 29, 2020

“Ana Orantes was an ordinary housewife who appeared on television to talk about her experience of partner violence. A few days later, she was beaten and burned alive by her husband”


In this essay, I will be exploring how a social problem has been constructed as a public problem in Australian society. The social problem being investigated is that of domestic violence. I will look at how this problem has evolved from that of a private issue to now becoming highlighted in society as a public problem, and more importantly, the challenges in how it is framed through the media, public policy and other instruments. Although the focus is on Australian society, broader research has been undertaken into other western societies that endorse similar human rights obligations. This is required as much of the contemporary domestic violence doctrine was established in the United Kingdom and the United States. Due to the nature of domestic violence as a subject, a brief discussion on what bias may exist in the research as the framing of this social problem grows to include broader definitions in society. This essay will not look at how domestic violence in some developing countries is constructed or linked to religious beliefs and will only explore the topic in western societies. This is because only 35 countries globally provide data on females being killed by their partners.

Is There a Problem?

There can be two ways at looking domestic violence in a very broad sense as to whether a problem, private, public or social, even exists as an issue of note. In his book, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ Pinker discusses how the rates of violence against men and women has been declining over the last few decades. Pinker looks at the number of assaults and deaths by intimate partners on women in the US and notes a decline in both. The reporting on deaths shows a downward trend between 1973–2005. He asserts that other western countries would have similar trends as domestic violence has become a concern in those nations. On the other hand, the increase in domestic violence in the media could indicate that the issue is becoming increased as we are all made more aware of cases and in policy changes by governments.

Defining Domestic Violence

Firstly though, we need to define what domestic violence is. Over that last few decades, the definition of domestic violence has changed how it has been portrayed as what is deemed to be domestic violence shifts with societies attitudes. The terms associated with the behavior alone are also varied; from femicide, uxoricide, violence against women, intimate violence against women, and so forth. With the acceptance now of same sex marriages, the use of gender in describing violence in a relationship is challenging the definition further. In Australia, it is defined as violent or threatening behavior by a member of one’s family and causes the person to be fearful of assault, taunts, stalking, financial autonomy and destroying property (Australian Government 2019). These definitions are limited as they relate only to the act or fear of an act. It doesn’t take in to account many extenuating circumstances that may exist, although violence as self defense may be. It limits itself to that of the actors involved and not the broader issues that may have led up to an episode of violence or fear. The Australian definition is from the Family Law Act. This immediately frames the problem as a legal one. The wider issue around domestic violence are not acknowledged at all. Any antecedents that may be contributory to an act being committed are only ever considered once a legal violation has occurred.

From Private to Public

Domestic violence and it’s framing as a public problem are a relatively new construct in the western hemisphere. Before the 1960’s, there was no terminology to describe domestic violence towards women. Terms such as wife rape and beating simply did not exist as violence was considered something done between strangers and not within the family home. Yet it was acknowledged as a problem in some societies. For example, as the Soviet Union attempted to become more ‘cultured’ in the early part of the 20th Century, the government instructed the population to cease beating their partners. In this case, it was part of a plan to reduce drunkenness as it was viewed as a cause of the beating. Even further back in history, English law allowed a man to discipline his wife and hit her with a stick no bigger than his thumb, hence the “rule of thumb”. If under the law at the time the above behavior was accepted by both parties as a given, then who could be viewed as the deviant in this case? A man acting under the law or the wife accepting marriage and therefore foregoing recourse for the violent act?

As Gusfield discusses though, problems need to be seen in an historical context and cultural interpretations applicable to the times. This is important to note as human rights and social movements gained momentum in the 20th Century allowing for private problems to become public ones. It is through the actors that participate in discourse around the public problems to assist in framing and defining it to allow society to act. It was in this space that feminism could grow and highlight the problem of violence against women in the early 1970’s. The experience of individuals private problems being understood and used to construct a social problem allows a course of action to be taken in remedying it through broader awareness. In the early days of the problem, there were still differences in what the problem was and how appropriately it could be framed. Feminists in the US emphasized the problem as one of rape whereas their counterparts in the UK stuck more broadly to domestic violence in general.

Turning the invisible and tolerated to being visible became an arduous task that required many stakeholders to become actors and shift the focus to that of a public problem . As visibility of the problem increased in societies and become known to be a public problem, growth in organisations dealing with it and new knowledge through academia revealed the magnitude and consequences that existed because of it . It is also indicated that when domestic violence went unreported, the social costs go well beyond the immediate family. However, this didn’t mean that a light bulb went off in all parts of society and instantly the problem is now addressed. The media did very little reporting on abuse of women by partners in the early 1970’s and in fact still framed domestic violence as riots and terrorism. Agency on behalf of the victim can be a major factor. Unless enough and appropriate resources are in place to allow victims to leave a violent situation, then individual acts remain private even though the broader problem is public. What lacks from the research undertaken is the way domestic violence is viewed as an outcome of other problems. Limitations didn’t allow to explore how a possible rise in alcoholism, living conditions, work factors, societal pressures and other forms of stressors impact the level of domestic violence either occurring or being reported. Pinker discusses the world has become less violent since the Second World War, yet what was hidden as private and now becoming public anecdotally goes against this as we now record domestic violence incidences.

Governments and Policy

As the public problem of domestic violence becomes a social one, governments and legislators in Australia have acted to ensure that the rights of individuals are protected under the legal framework applicable to its citizens. It also allows support networks to be funded for victims and the different states and territories to apply their own explicit policies to deal with the problem. Despite this, there are still concerns about whether these outside organisations are effective in dealing with the problem and that their efforts do not go beyond being altruistic. Once legislation is passed, it becomes and issue for police to deal with when an incident is reported. The police and authorities will deal with the facts of any crime committed and therefore dehumanize the problem. As described by Garfinkel, this will have the effect of a degradation ceremony for the accused and public shaming of them and the act becomes a further call for more action by interest groups. Governments and police can therefore be seen to act in a very one-dimensional way. The framing of the problem at this level is difficult to encompass other factors that may contribute. For example, if domestic violence is shown to be an outcome of alcohol consumption within the home, low income, unemployment or cultural issues, is there not an onus on government to eliminate these public and social problems?


The media have an important role to play in how domestic violence is framed in Australia and overseas. Altheide writes that mass media has become a “problem generating machine” and positions itself to report on problems as entertainment. The differences in how the problem is portrayed can be varied but risks reducing the problem to isolated incidences of a private nature and not of a broader public and social problem, identified five media frames associated with domestic violence. These are behavior of the victim and can manifest as victim being blamed and the accused being excused, normalizing the problem as common, suggesting incident is an isolated occurrence, othering the victim and perpetrator as being different from the rest of society and suggesting perpetrators are deviants and easily identified. How the media reports domestic violence is also a matter of consideration in how the problem is not only framed but elevated in the minds of the public. Presenting domestic violence from the perspective of the police can conflict with the view of those that work to assist victims as they will focus on the crime only. This type of event based reporting doesn’t allow an incident or victim to be seen as a someone hurt or killed in a social context that may surround the events. It has also been shown that the use of neighbors as witnesses is of little use in understanding the problem but is more a matter of convenience. Public and private media outlets frame domestic violence differently also as public outlets have the benefit of more time to focus on wider issue being reported on versus the private outlets limited time and preference for sensationalism. The media is also where the degradation ceremony of a perpetrator and victim can take place. Any moral indignation towards the act can be reinforced if a person is framed as guilty by the media as can also be the converse if a perpetrator is found not guilty, degradation occurs when the victim is denounced for wasting the police and courts time.

Framing Problems with Domestic Violence

Since the increased focus in domestic violence since the 1970’s, there has been an even greater shift in individual rights and how society views partnerships. Problem with trying to stick to a particular view of who are victims and who are perpetrators has changed over the ensuing decades. Naming and framing take on a multitude of issues as more victims of domestic violence seek recognition. What started as private problem in a marriage must now encompass de facto partnerships, heterosexual and gay and lesbian relationships. Yet there are elements of popular culture that still see domestic violence as something a man does to a woman. Violence in non-heterosexual relationships occurs at similar rates as it does in heterosexual ones but remains hidden from much of the discourse in society. The reporting of domestic violence is a another problem as men have been shown to under report experiencing domestic violence and that women use physical violence as often as men. Who then is the deviant? If the definition includes acts other than violence, then why is it framed as women are the victims? Yates discusses how this ‘women-centred’ framing is not helpful when trying to understand how solutions can be found.


There is bias evident in some of the articles as can be the case when gender is discussed. Groups such as Women Against Sex take that stance that all sex is a means of subordinating women that has been constructed by the patriarchy. This would mean, by definition, that even if a woman feels some inclination to have sex, she is ultimately a victim of domestic violence. This removes all agency form the woman and any act of consensual sex is a degradation ceremony. Ferrand Bullock, openly states that she is writing from a feminist point of view and relies heavily on the term patriarchy in her writing. As discussed above, gendering the act of domestic violence as that only occurring against women also indicates bias.


In the last fifty years, domestic violence has gone from a private problem that occurred behind closed doors. Historically, certain laws in some countries even contributed to the acceptance of it occurring. Since the 1970’s though, the feminist movement started to frame domestic violence as a human rights issue on individuals a practice that a modern society should not tolerate. Since then, countries and various interest groups have highlighted it as a public problem and through this brought more of a focus and attention to it. It has gone through an evolution of definition as society accepts gay and lesbian partnerships, the use of social media as a form of bullying and the general broadening of terms to describe it. What is left out of a lot of the framing is the agency victims have, where applicable, and the other casual effects that can lead to domestic violence. Gender divisions exist in how the problem is reported, studied and viewed. This leaves policy makers the task of ensuring inclusion for any possible victims. Finally, how the media frame domestic violence can be flawed. Through the reporting from the crime perspective to the lack of expert comments in favor of neighbors and family can misrepresent other factors and actors involved in the drama.


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warren coppard

Interested in history, culture, business and the pursuit of knowledge