Changing Course in the Anti-Domestic Violence Legal Movement: From Safety to Security

59 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2015 Last revised: 14 Oct 2015

See all articles by Margaret E. Johnson

Margaret E. Johnson

University of Baltimore - School of Law

Date Written: March 17, 2015


This Article examines how the pursuit of domestic violence policy’s limited goal of safety, primarily focused on short-term physical separation to decrease physical intimate partner violence, is both too broad and too narrow a goal. Although being safe and free from violent harm is important, there is a difference between the woman subjected to abuse choosing to employ actions to be free of harm, and the state requiring the woman to physically separate from her abusive partner. In addition, there is a difference between the many ways she may act in order to reduce harm to herself -- such as having control over her own finances -- and the almost one-size-fits-all way in which the state says she should act to create safety -- physically separating from her partner. As a result, a woman’s own agency and dignity can be undermined in pursuit of what is deemed safe by others. This is despite the research that shows supporting a woman's agency is one of the best ways to decrease domestic violence. In addition, the focus on safety has excluded the expenditure of resources in support of addressing abuse other than physical violence, addressing short-term harms caused by abuse other than physical violence and long-term harms caused by all forms of abuse, and providing options beyond short-term responses to the immediate crisis. With too few short- and long-term options, women subjected to abuse are left with very little choice about how to address the violence in their relationship during and after a crisis has passed. This Article argues for domestic violence policy, which shapes the civil legal system and government funding criteria through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and other sources, to focus on security instead of safety. Security incorporates all forms of abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional, psychological and economic, focuses on all harms that result from these varying forms of abuse, identifies short and long-term responses that enhance the economic, housing, health and relationship security of the person subjected to abuse and ensures that such the person subjected to the abuse is the decision-maker as to the appropriate responses to the abuse.

Keywords: domestic violence, intimate partner abuse, women, feminist legal theory, policy, funding, VAWA, Violence Against Women Act, safety, criminal justice system, security, economic, housing, relationship, physical health, mental health, abuse, emotional, physical, psychological, agency, dignity, autonomy

Suggested Citation

Johnson, Margaret E., Changing Course in the Anti-Domestic Violence Legal Movement: From Safety to Security (March 17, 2015). Villanova Law Review, Vol. 60, No. 1, 2015, University of Baltimore School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2015-19, Available at SSRN: or

Margaret E. Johnson (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States

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