No One Knows Why The Trump Administration Narrowed Its Definition Of Domestic Violence

by Seth Millstein
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In April, without no announcement or explanation, the Justice Department drastically changed the official definition of "domestic violence" on the department's website. Whereas the definition used by the Obama administration encompassed not only physical violence but emotional, economic and psychological abuse as well, the Trump administration defines domestic violence as purely physical now, encompassing only violent crimes that rise to the level of felonies or misdemeanors. Bustle has reached out to the Justice Department for comment on the change.

It's unclear why the administration made the change, which it didn't announce at the time or since. In a statement to Slate, the Justice Department said that it is "strongly committed to enforcing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and combating domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, and sex trafficking, and to do so in a manner that is consistent with the law enacted by Congress." However, the department didn't address the change to its website, or the fact that the Violence Against Women Act expired in December.

Slate first reported the change, which can be seen by comparing archived and current versions of the Domestic Violence section of the DOJ's Office on Violence Against Women website. The old version defined domestic violence as "a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner," and included bullet points for five different types of domestic violence: Physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, and psychological abuse.

The new version does away with the bullet points altogether, and defines domestic violence as "felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence." A section stating that domestic violence affects people of all genders, races, sexual sexual orientations and socioeconomic status, as well as one noting that domestic violence affects family members and friends as well as survivors, have also been removed. As a result of these changes, the DOJ's new definition of domestic violence is 150 words, while the old one was over 400 and included footnotes.

It's easy to come up with examples of domestic abuse that wouldn't fit the Trump administration's new definition. For instance, somebody who controls their partner's finances, demands that they report to them throughout the day, isolates them from their friends and family and threatens physical violence against them if they leave would not, in the Justice Department's eyes, be committed domestic violence.

Slate notes that the Justice Department has also altered the definition of "sexual assault" on the same subsection of its website. The old version said that sexual assault is "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient," including "forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape," while the new version defines the term as "any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent."

The narrowing of the definition of domestic violence comes shortly after the Justice Department, under the direction of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, moved to block domestic violence survivors from seeking asylum in the U.S. That policy was largely blocked by the courts in December.