The Historical and Cultural Legacies of Family and Intimate Violence

violence between intimates and toward children is not new. The Bible, while not a truly historical document, provides numerous examples of violence between family members. In Genesis, the Bible begins with sibling violence— Cain killing Abel. The book of Genesis also describes God’s commandment that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac—which of course was not carried out. Later, in the New Testament, Jesus was presumably saved from Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents.”

If intimate violence and abuse is not a modern phenomenon, perhaps it is more common today than decades or centuries earlier. Many contemporary social commentators and some social scientists point to an “epidemic of family violence” as yet another sign of the disintegration of both the modern family and society in general. The question of whether we are more violent today than during previous times in history is difficult to answer. The selective inattention to the problem of intimate violence and child abuse and neglect means that few nations or societies kept official records of the occurrence of violence in homes. Anecdotal evidence exists in letters, diaries, and newspaper reports, but we have no way on knowing exactly the historical extent of intimate violence and child maltreatment. Similarly, until rather recently—the 1970s—researchers were reluctant to conduct surveys and ask questions about domestic violence or abuse. The first national surveys of partner violence and child maltreatment were carried out in the 1970s. Until follow-up surveys were carried out in the 1980s, we had no way of assessing the changing rates of violence towards children or between intimate partners.

The first section of this chapter examines the historical legacy of intimate violence and child abuse and neglect. Modern Americans are neither the first families to use violence on loved ones, nor are we the only society in the world to be violent towards intimates. The next section explores the social transformation of violence and traces the evolution of the issue of partner violence and child maltreatment from selective inattention, when nearly all that was written on violence in the home appeared on the front pages of tabloids such as the National Enquirer, to the present, when relationship violence is discussed and analyzed on social media, television and radio talk shows, television dramas, national magazines, among legislative bodies, and by government task forces.

We take it for granted that today’s children have the right to live and to grow in order to develop fully. Women have struggled for centuries to achieve equal rights with men, and many take it for granted that they have a right to equality. The history of the subordination of women and children is closely connected to the history and causes of violence and abuse.

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