The conversation on domestic violence has changed in the 30 years since the O.J. Simpson trial

Published on
May 15, 2024

Nearly 30 years ago, the O.J. Simpson trial cast a bright spotlight on the issue of domestic violence as court proceedings garnered unprecedented levels of coverage. 

“It was good, on one hand, because people were talking about it,” said Stephanie Love-Patterson, a consultant for Connections for Abused Women and their Children. “There was more funding — more funding that was given to domestic violence organizations, which was really good and really needed.”

Topics that once had been considered a private matter was thrust into the public sphere, a shift that paved the way for broader policy changes.

Love-Patterson joined law professor Emily Sack and policy expert Krista Colón to discuss how the domestic violence landscape has transformed over the past decades and the challenges that remain at the Center for Health Journalism’s 2024 Domestic Violence Symposium. The conversation, moderated by Los Angeles Times reporter Sonja Sharp, also explored how reporters can connect domestic violence with other timely and newsy topics, from abortion access to technology. 

From acceptance to action

In the 1980s and early 90s, police often did not intervene in domestic violence incidents, said Sack, a professor at Roger Williams University.

“At most, they would tell the abuser to take a walk around the block,” she said. “They would often kind of collude with the abuser and sort of joke around and ask the victim: What have you done to provoke him or why are you still here? ... Because if it were really that bad, you would have left.”

As a criminal defense lawyer in the early 1990s, Sack represented a severely abused woman who killed her husband. Despite her efforts to seek law enforcement help, the police “really did nothing,” she said. Other than a few grassroots-funded shelters, there were no resources available. 

“The society at the time really didn’t pay much attention to this either,” Sack said. 

That landscape started to shift by the early 1990s, when the Violence Against Women Act was introduced by then-Senator Joe Biden. After an uphill battle, the bill’s eventual passage marked a watershed moment: the first comprehensive federal legislation designed to prevent violence against women, with funding for investigations and prosecution. 

“It definitely was a major shift in our conception of domestic violence,” Sack said.  

Amid progress, missed opportunities persist 

Before the O.J. Simpson trial, there was a sense that domestic violence was a private matter. Changing that assumption was important, though the discussions too often blamed the victim, Love-Patterson said. 

A common question arose: “Well, why didn’t she leave?” 

In the decades that followed, more funding and efforts poured into domestic violence organizations and programs. Even so, similar victim-blaming questions persist today, Love-Patterson said. She’s seen firsthand how women delay accessing services as a result. 

“There was this fear that they were going to be blamed and also that they weren’t going to believed,” she said. 

Love-Patterson would like to see the conversation on domestic violence center on how we can prevent abuse before it gets started. She’d also like to see expanded options for people who need help, beyond calling the police. Amid tensions between communities of color and police, some individuals might prefer timely information on shelter and counseling services, she said. 

Crime victims’ funding at risk 

Domestic violence services and supports are currently facing a funding crisis, explained Krista Colón, senior director of public policy strategies for the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence.

The Victims of Crimes Act, which was passed in 1984, established a fund for victims of violence crimes, including domestic violence. The fund is generated through fines collected from federal prosecutions, which means the amount available can fluctuate by year. Today, declining numbers of prosecutions have left the fund balance “precariously low,” she said.  As a result, organizations that receive this funding will experience program cuts, impacting everything from emergency shelters to crisis hotlines and domestic violence housing. 

“What’s at stake is everything,” Colón said. “This is the funding that underpins every piece of our response to survivors.” 

The far-reaching impacts of these cuts should provide coverage ideas for reporters across the country. For example, the reductions could shutter clinics that provide free or low-cost legal services for people impacted by domestic violence, leading some rural regions to become “legal services deserts.”

Domestic violence intersects with timely topics

When it comes to reporting on domestic violence, LA Times reporter Sonja Sharp noted that editors tend to be most interested in high-profile cases that are clearly labeled as domestic violence. But she urged journalists to go beyond that narrow framing and explore how domestic violence relates to other current topics such as mass shootings, homelessness, policing, and reproductive rights. 

Reporters might examine how more restrictive abortion laws impact people seeking those services following abuse or rape. For example, what does it mean to have to wait longer or travel farther if you’re experiencing domestic violence? Journalists could also look at mass shootings and ask whether the perpetrator has a history of domestic violence. 

There are ample technology-related angles to explore, too, such as the control that comes from tracking someone’s location or reviewing their browsing history. Stalking, too, has taken on new forms as people can alter video doorbells or home thermostats, creating a sense that they’re present and watching their victims.

Finance reporters might explore how an abuser uses financial tactics to control their victim. For instance, after they are coerced to take out credit cards or loans, survivors may be left with debt collection and ruined credit. 

Children also may be used as a way of controlling a mother, keeping her in an abusive relationship or convincing her to return, speakers said. Those dynamics are even more complex when you add housing into the equation.

“If there’s no housing to go to, you’re facing an impossible choice of: Do I stay in a home that is unsafe for me but keeps my children fed and a roof over their heads?” Colón said. 

People who work in the domestic violence community are eager to expand on these and other topics for reporters, Love-Patterson said. 

“We’re more than happy to talk about those threads and to help create a very clear picture and correlation.”