The Trump administration quietly changed the definition of both domestic violence and sexual assault back in April but the move has only just surfaced.
The change could have significant repercussions for millions of victims of gender-based violence.
The Trump Justice Department’s definition only considers physical harm that constitutes a felony or misdemeanour to be domestic violence – meaning other forms of domestic violence such as psychological abuse, coercive control and manipulation no longer fall under the department’s definition.
Under the Obama administration, the definition was drastically more expansive and was assessed by domestic violence organisations.
The Office on Violence against Women (OVW), part of the Department of Justice, has amended its definition of sexual assault to also focus on criminal justice aspects.
Holly Taylor-Dunn, a senior lecturer at the University of Worcester who has been working in the field of domestic and sexual violence for 17 years, said she was shocked by the move.
The academic, who has worked in frontline roles in the domestic violence sector and used to be a domestic abuse officer for the police, argued the Trump administration’s decision turned the clock back 50 years.
“I was massively surprised and really shocked," she said. "It is quite scary how quietly it has happened. It is a massive step backwards. We have literally gone back to the 70s. We have worked so hard since the 60s and 70s to get domestic abuse and sexual violence understood as being about more than physical violence. Changing the definition to take it back to being about physical harm completely undermines what domestic abuse is about”.
“Narrowing the definition will stop victims being able to access the services they need. Prosecutions for domestic and sexual violence will also fall because they are limiting it to the most severe forms of abuse so fewer victims are likely to come forward and seek help."