Young: Rethink violence law from the center
March 1, 2012
By CATHY YOUNG
The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, is up for its third reauthorization in Congress this spring. The legislation, which promotes stronger state policies combating domestic violence and sexual assault and secures federal funds for related programs, has always enjoyed bipartisan support. But no longer. While the 2012 bill is co-sponsored by Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho, the Senate Judiciary committee approved it last month on a 10-8 partisan vote, with not one Republican voting for it.
Republicans have lately been accused of waging a “war on women,” which puts them in a bad position to demand a critical review of the law. And that’s unfortunate, because it needs one.
Helping victims of rape and abuse is a noble cause. But VAWA has always been about more than that. The original bill, sponsored by then-Sen. Joseph Biden, was crafted primarily by feminist groups which, however genuine their commitment to helping women, are also committed to a narrow ideological approach to complex issues.
The activists tend to view violence against women entirely through the lens of gender oppression — men terrorizing women to enforce patriarchal supremacy. Yet domestic violence research paints a far more nuanced picture. Mental illness, substance abuse and dysfunctional family dynamics are major factors. Many violent relationships are characterized by mutual abuse, and while women are at higher risk, female aggression is fairly common (and is not, as advocates claim, only a form of self-defense).
Under VAWA, the feminist advocacy network of state coalitions against domestic and sexual violence is explicitly given a major role in implementing federal policies and programs in this area. This results in troubling, often damaging biases.
Thus, domestic violence counseling programs eligible for funds must avoid incorporating drug and alcohol treatment; instead, the focus is on sexist attitudes. Joint counseling for couples in abusive relationships — certainly inappropriate for severe and one-sided violence, but effective in many other cases — is disqualified from assistance. Training programs for police and prosecutors encourage the presumption that the man is always the sole aggressor. Recipients of federal grants for this purpose have included psychologists Dee Graham and Edna Rawlings, whose 1994 book, “Loving to Survive,” argues that all female attachment to men is akin to hostages’ bonding with their terrorist captors.
While the language in VAWA was amended in 2005 to specify that programs serving male victims are not excluded, in practice they often are. The Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, for instance, has denied membership to the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women, which has a strong focus on battered men.
VAWA-driven sexual assault programs have their own problematic aspects. Especially on college campuses, they encourage a redefinition of rape that labels any woman who has sex while intoxicated a victim.
This rigid dogma — more paternalistic than feminist, since it is not about equality but female victimhood — fails both sexes. Everyone would benefit from a more inclusive approach. Ideally, both VAWA and the Justice Department Office on Violence Against Women (which administers VAWA programs) should be revamped with a gender-neutral name such as “family violence and sexual assault prevention.” A wider range of scholars and practitioners, including those who don’t subscribe to the “gender oppression” model, should be given a role in these initiatives.
Regrettably, if the call for such reforms comes from conservative Republicans, it will inevitably be seen as another move against women’s rights. If change is to happen — and it should — it will have to come from centrists and fair-minded liberals.