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Domestic abuse
  1. Rachel Sacks
  1. Correspondence to Dr Rachel Sacks, Departing Chair of the BASHH SV Group, Specialty Doctor in Genitourinary Medicine, 56 Dean Street, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation, London W1D 6AE, UK; rachel.sacks{at}

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Societal context

Domestic abuse (DA) against women has occurred throughout the ages with evidence from religious texts,1 literature2 and legislation suggesting it was often culturally, socially and legally acceptable.

Women in the 19th century were widely seen as their husband's possessions, with a wife's legal rights and obligations being subsumed by her spouse.3 Despite a mid-1800s Act of Parliament specifying the punishment a violent husband would receive,4 in practice, domestic violence (DV) was still accepted, as evidenced by a civic regulation in London forbidding wife beating after 21:00 because of noise disturbance.5

Women's status improved considerably in the 20th century. The Sexual Offences Act, 1956 set out the first legal definition of rape making incest, sex with a girl under 16 years old, sex without consent and drug-facilitated sexual assault, illegal. In 1991, marital rape was finally criminalised.

This century has seen continued progress. In 2013, the definition of DA was revised, lowering the age to 16 and widening the scope to encompass psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional abuse, as well as coercive control, stalking and harassment, so-called ‘honour-based’ crimes, female genital mutilation and forced marriages.6 In 2014, the DV Disclosure scheme (known as Clare's Law) came into effect (whereby police can share information about previous DA history with a partner, in response to a disclosure request) and DV Protection Orders give police power to prevent a perpetrator having contact with the survivor for up to 28 days following a DA incident. In 2015, the Serious Crime Act was amended to include DA as a criminal act in its own right.

Legislation has moved forward, but inevitably it takes longer for these changes to trickle through into social norms. …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.