Girls Against Boys
Ending bias in domestic assault law
Last week, with international terrorism still the center of attention, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on a different kind of domestic security issue: the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The legislation, which funds programs aiding victims of sexual assault and family violence, is the kind of measure no one wants to oppose for fear of appearing insensitive or even antiwoman. But maybe now, 11 years after the passage of the original measure, is a good time to reevaluate some of its premises and policies.
The act, first introduced by Democratic Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) and later championed by some leading conservatives such as Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), could be seen an example of positive and mainstream feminist accomplishment. But underneath its mainstream trappings, the 1994 bill was steeped in a radical feminism of the "men bad, women good" variety—an ideology which regards domestic abuse and rape as part of a collective male war against women. Ironically, the law's political success was partly due to the fact this kind of feminism dovetails easily with a traditional, putting-women-on-a-pedestal paternalism.
Despite its ideological origins and its reliance on inflated statistics (such as the long-debunked claim that "battering is the single largest cause of injury to women in the US"), the act has undoubtedly done some good. Reauthorized in 2000, it contained many beneficial practical measures in the area of victim services and criminal justice: For instance, making restraining orders issued in one state enforceable in another and subjecting abusers to federal charges if they cross state lines to stalk or assault victims. It also encouraged some solid research on domestic violence, sexual assault, and related issues.
Unfortunately, it also helped enshrine a dogmatic and one-sided approach to family violence. For one, while the legislation is ostensibly gender-neutral, its very title reflects the notion that partner abuse is a "women's issue"—leading, in some cases, to confusion over whether programs serving male victims are even eligible for grant money. At last week's hearings, the issue of abused men was explicitly acknowledged. According to Dave Burroughs, a Maryland-based activist on behalf of male victims who did not testify but attended the session, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) specifically questioned a witness on the availability of services for men and noted that according to federal crime surveys, 12 percent of domestic assault victims are male. (In other studies that do not focus on whether the respondent regards the attack as a crime, that figure goes up to about 40 percent.)
In fact, some aspects of the act promote covert gender bias. For instance, the legislation requires states and jurisdictions eligible for federal domestic violence grants not only to encourage arrests in domestic assault cases, but also to discourage dual arrest of the offender and the victim. This provision is based on the false belief that in cases of mutual violence, one can nearly always draw a clear line between the aggressor and the victim striking back in self-defense. While the language is ostensibly gender-neutral, the assumption is that the aggressor is male; the feminist groups which pushed for this clause made no secret of the fact that its goal was to curb arrests of women.
The law has also created a symbiotic relationship between the federal government and the battered women's advocacy movement, which is heavily permeated by radical feminist ideology. The state coalitions against domestic violence, which formally require member organizations to embrace the feminist analysis of abuse as patriarchal coercion, play a vital role in the allocation of federal grants and in overseeing the implementation of programs and policies. Among other things, these groups frown on any batterer intervention programs that focus on drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness as causes of domestic violence.
Here are two modest proposals for reauthorizing the measure. First, give the legislation a gender-neutral title such as "The Family Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Act." Second, abolish the special role of feminist-dominated domestic violence coalitions in shaping federally funded domestic violence programs. The bill should direct each state to create a domestic violence board on which no more than a quarter or a third of the seats can be filled by members of battered women's advocacy groups. The rest should be filled by scholars, mental health professionals, and community activists. Over the past decades, our understanding of domestic violence has expanded beyond feminist orthodoxy to a more complex view. Our federal policies should reflect this ideological diversity.
Cathy Young is a Reason contributing editor. This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe