Evolving dating and sexual practices routinely confront the legal system. From dating apps to open relationships, peoples’ love lives are as colorful and unique as our society. A New Jersey Appellate Court recently took a closer look at who can be a victim of domestic violence and what is consent in the context of non-traditional relationships.
The case of T.M. v. R.M.W. involved a man and woman engaged in a non-traditional relationship. The woman, 22 years old, and the man, 25 years old, had known one another since high school. They had a consensual sexual relationship for 8 years where they would have “rough” sex, involving hair pulling and choking. Neither found this dynamic problematic until the man closed-fist punched the woman during consensual intercourse.
They continued having intercourse and he punched her again. The woman filed a complaint for domestic violence under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA), N.J.S.A. 2C:25-17 to -35 (2017), claiming that man assaulted and harassed her. The court issued a temporary restraining order.
The reviewing court first looked at the issue of their relationship. New Jersey law defines “victim of domestic violence” as including “any person who has been subjected to domestic violence by a person with whom the victim has had a dating relationship.” N.J.S.A. 2C:25-19(e). Perhaps unlike the relationships that the court is used to seeing, the man and woman’s relationship here was characterized by “little interpersonal bonding” and “sporadic and casual sexual encounters.” Neither party thought of the relationship as dating. The court concluded that other than the length of their relationship, 8 years with a three year break, it did not meet the relationship standard. The court then noted the uniqueness of their relationship. Ultimately, it decided that denying the woman’s status as a victim would be seen as moral judgment of their arrangement. Furthermore, the court opined that a “secret” relationship could lead her to be even more vulnerable than a victim in a traditional relationship.
Finally, the court looked at the issue of consent, which turned on the credibility of the man and the woman. The court initially found the woman to be credible. She was forthcoming about multiple facets of the parties’ relationship. The man became more credible than her, though, when the woman’s insistence of the man’s prior history of domestic violence was shown to be untrue. The court ultimately found that consent was a “close call” and that a Final Restraining Order was not necessary to protect the woman.
This case demonstrates the court’s understanding of modern dating practices and relationships. The woman did not squarely fit into the definition of victim, but the court extended it to her, nevertheless. It wrestled as much with “consent” as many modern commentators on modern day sex.