Physical Abuse Prevalence In The United States

By: Lance Williams

When considering the prevalence of physical abuse in the United States, one considers a wide variety of crimes.  Generally, any deliberate action or inaction that causes physical, mental, or emotional harm is considered abuse.  As a result, even neglect is considered to be a significant strain of physical abuse in the United States.  What follows below is a summary of several government studies related to the nature, extent and consequences associated with physical abuse.  Initially we will look at the nature of physical abuse which will give us a greater understanding of what is often associated with physical abuse such as intimate partner violence and stalking.  Second, we will examine several of the behavioral factors that are associated with a higher risk for physical violence.  Third, we will look at a few statistics which will give us a clearer picture of how widespread the crime of physical abuse is.  Next, we will look at several of the often overlooked consequences of physical violence that both the victim and society continues to deal with, long after the initial abuse is committed.  Lastly, we will look at the statistics associated with the reporting of physical abuse in the United States and glean some insight into how churches and other ministries can assist in higher reporting and conviction rates.  While this resource is not extensive, it is hoped that it will serve the purpose of providing a general outline of physical abuse in the United States.

The Nature of Physical Abuse

Considering the nature of physical abuse is a complex task since it is often related to so many other areas of abuse.  In order to grasp a true understanding of the nature of physical abuse, one needs to examine the effects not only of physical violence between individuals, but also emotional abuse in the form manipulating the emotional state of vulnerable individuals with the intent of harming that individual.  In addition, one must consider neglect, and sexual abuse in a discussion of overall physical abuse.  Research also supports the overlap that exists between multiple areas of abuse with one study reporting that 68% of physically abused women also reported sexual assault.  (McFarlane and Malecha 2005)

In addition to understanding the overlap between other areas of abuse, one must understand the multiple contexts in which physical abuse is committed.  Unfortunately, victims of abuse have reported that many times the abuser is someone that they know and often someone with whom they have had an intimate relationship.  The National Violence Against Women Survey given to 8,000 men and women in the United States reported that nearly 25 percent of surveyed women and 7.6 percent of surveyed men said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000)

When we consider those in their adolescents, even though girls were at greater risk of sexual assault, boys were almost twice as likely of being physically assaulted as girls.  In addition, a high number of adolescents have been reported as being witnesses to violence (43.6 percent of boys and 35 percent of girls).  (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)  When considering the location where most physical assaults among adolescents were to occur, one study shoed that 34.2 percent occurred somewhere in the victim’s neighborhood, nearly 28 percent at their home and over 20 percent occurred at the victim’s school. (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)


Recently, more attention has been given to the phenomenon of stalking on college campuses and how it relates to physical abuse.  However, the definition is often very subjective as it requires the perpetrator to give attention to the victim in a repeated way that must create fear in a reasonable person. (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001)  Frequently, stalking can take several forms such as: being telephoned, having an offender waiting outside or inside places, being watched from afar, being followed, being sent letters, and being emailed.  A recent survey indicated that by this definition, an incidence rate of 156.5 per 1000 female students occurred on a college campus in a single year of school, with 13.1 percent of the female students in the sample being stalked since the school year began.  (Fisher, Cullen, and Turner 2001)

Behaviors Associated with Increased Risk

While it must be said that a victim of physical abuse can never be said to have deserved the received abuse, there do exist several behaviors that are associated with increased risk of physical abuse.  Summarizing a few of those behaviors will serve to enable individuals to more effectively care for those exhibiting behaviors associated with increased risk.  Those behaviors are

  • Prior sexual and physical abuse in high school is a significant predictor of future sexual abuse in college.  (Department of Justice 2004)
  • The absence of childhood sexual victimization does not preclude a woman from being sexually or physically abused as an adult.  One study showed that women who reported no childhood sexual victimization had the lowest prevalence rates for both sexual and domestic violence victimization in adulthood, but 28.3% of them reported having been sexually victimized as adults and 60% reported experiencing at least minor violence perpetrated by an intimate partner.  (Siegel and Williams 2003)
  • The presence of aggressive behavior in women was reported to be associated with an increase in severe abuse by their partners.  This does not show that women initiated the violence, as the statistics included behavior that was associated with self-defense.  However, this was mentioned as an encouragement to be observant and corrective when girls, and boys for that matter, are identified as using violence as a means of conflict resolution.  (Siegel and Williams 2003)

Prevalence and Consequences of Physical Abuse

Physical abuse continues to be the most prevalent reported form of abuse in the United States with one survey indicating that women were six times more likely to be physically assaulted than raped and three times more likely to be stalked than raped.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2006)  Another survey of college women showed that by the end of 4 years of college, 88 percent of women had experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual victimization in their lifetimes, and 64 percent had experienced both.  (Department of Justice 2004)

Consequences of physical abuse are also wide and far reaching.  The presence of physical abuse is responsible for several secondary results that are listed below.

  • Boys and girls experiencing a physical assault or physically abusive punishment experienced a higher rate of lifetime PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that was five and four times higher, respectively, than for those who had not been physically assaulted or abusively punished.  (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)
  • Adolescents experiencing physical assault or physically abusive punishment were five times more likely to report lifetime substance abuse or dependence than adolescents who did not experience physical assault or abuse. (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)

Seeking Help

While reporting rates for physical assaults are higher than those of sexual assault, one study concluded that only 27 percent of women and 14 percent of men reported intimate partner physical assault to the police.  In addition, only 52 percent of women and 36 percent of men reported incidences of intimate partner stalking to the police.  (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000)

Another study reported that of all physical assaults, 65 percent were never reported.  Of the cases that were reported, most were reported to police (16.9 percent) or school authorities (16.3 percent).  The remaining cases included reports to other authorities (3.8 percent) or child protection agencies (2.8 percent). (Saunders, Smith, Kilpatrick 2003)


This survey indicates that physical abuse is a very serious and far-reaching crime in our society.  In order for abuse rates to decrease, we need to be made aware of its nature and prevalence so we can begin working toward effective strategies to limit its existence.  A large initial step for those who counsel physical abuse victims is to be educated on the nature of physical abuse and to assist victims in reporting abuse when it occurs.  As a result, abusers will be held accountable and future abusers will be deterred from committing such violent acts.


Fisher B, Cullen F, Turner M.  The Sexual Victimization of College Women.  Washington (DC):  Department of Justice (US); 2001, Publication No. NCJ182369.  [cited 2007 December 12].  Available from:  URL:

McFarlane J, Malecha A. Sexual Assault Among Intimates: Frequency, Consequences and Treatments. Washington (DC): Department of Justice (US); 2005, Publication No. NCJ211678. [cited 2007 December 10]. Available from: URL:

Saunders B, Smith D, Kilpatrick D.  Youth Victimization:  Prevalence and Implications.  Washington (DC):  Department of Justice (US); 2003, Publication No. NCJ194972.  [cited 2007 December 12].  Available from:  URL:

Siegel J, Williams L. Risk Factors for Violent Victimization of Women:  A Prospective Study, Final Report.  Washington (DC):  Department of Justice (US); 2003, Publication No. NCJ189161.  [cited 2007 December 12].  Available from:  URL:  (Insert URL)

Tjaden P, Thoennes N.  Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence:  Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey. Washington (DC):  Department of Justice (US); 2000a, Publication No. NCJ181867. [cited 2007 December 10].  Available from: URL:

Tjaden P, Thoennes N.  Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Rape Victimization:  Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey.  Washington (DC):  Department of Justice (US); 2006, Publication No. NCJ210346. [cited 2007 December 11].  Available from:   URL:

Department of Justice.  Violence Against Women:  Identifying Risk Factors.  Washington (DC):  Department of Justice (US); 2004, Publication No. NCJ197019.  [cited 2007 December 12].  Available from:  URL: