In Philadelphia, intimate partner violence more likely in dating relationships

Federal regulations designed to keep guns away from abusive partners do not currently apply to dating relationships. However, according to new research published in Preventive Medicine from Susan B. Sorenson, a professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice, and Devan Spear, a recent Penn graduate, the majority of intimate partner violence—more than 80 percent of incidents in one study population—occurs in dating relationships. 

“In Philadelphia, current boyfriends and girlfriends were more likely than current spouses to injure their victims,” says Sorenson, director of Penn’s Ortner Center on Family Violence. “They were more likely to push and shove, to grab, to punch. They were more likely to strangle—some pretty awful behaviors toward a partner.”

For this research, Sorenson returned to a collaboration with the Philadelphia Police Department that began in 2011. At that time, she helped the city create a more comprehensive form to document domestic violence. Today, the Philadelphia Police requires an officer responding to a domestic violence call to record a narrative description of the event, as well as information such as victim-offender relationship and behavior, regardless of whether an arrest occurs.

Analyzing 31,206 of these forms from the year 2013, the Penn researchers found that 82.1 percent of domestic violence reported included current or former dating partners (44.3 percent and 37.8 percent, respectively). Current and ex-spouses accounted for about 15 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively. For comparison, nationally, victims report about half of intimate partner violence incidents to police, and 54 percent involve current or former dating partners.

Sorenson offers several hypotheses for these conclusions. For one, of the 10 most-populous cities in the United States, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of adults who have never been married. Other large cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles are not far behind, and cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, and Milwaukee have even higher percentages of never-married adults.

Furthermore, Sorenson surmises that married and unmarried couples might experience intimate partner violence to the same degree, but those in the latter group may be quicker or more likely to call the police. Or, perhaps someone in a dating relationship who experiences abuse opts not to marry the abuser.

Regardless of the reasons for the results, the research shows that protections against such violent behaviors should expand to include broader definitions, Sorenson says, particularly given the changing nature of relationships: From 1970 to 2009, the median age of first marriage rose from 22 to 28 for men and from 20 to 25 for women. Divorce rates also doubled during the same period for those age 35 and older.

“Federal policy about abusers with firearms—authored in 1994 by then-Senator Joe Biden—focuses on people who are married, live together, or have a child in common. We know that abuse occurs in other relationships as well,” Sorenson says. “Unfortunately, the federal policy doesn’t address that reality. It might be time to revisit.”

That could happen soon: The Violence Against Women Act, enacted nearly a generation ago, is up for reauthorization in 2018.