Drop VAWA’s Distorted Feminist Ideology
May 1, 2012
The congressional battle over the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which briefly pitted Republicans against Democrats in yet another skirmish in this political season’s gender wars, seems largely over. The Senate voted last week to approve the VAWA reauthorization; the House is expected to vote on it next week. Republican objections to the current legislation have crumbled under the threat of the party being seen as anti-woman.
But does VAWA truly advance the interests of women — or advance a divisive and paternalistic form of feminist ideology?
Obviously, no sane person is “for” violence against women. But VAWA, originally passed in 1994, has always been about more than preventing violence and helping victims. Sponsored by then-Sen. Joseph Biden, the law was crafted largely by feminist groups and activists who viewed domestic violence and sexual assault as a male “war against women,” an instrument for enforcing patriarchal oppression. While these activists are no doubt sincerely concerned with the welfare of women, this is a blinkered ideology that often creates more problems than solutions.
Most research finds that substance abuse, mental illness and dysfunctional family dynamics are major factors in domestic violence — far more so than male dominance or sexist attitudes. Abuse is no less common among same-sex couples than among heterosexual ones. Moreover, abusive relationships are often characterized by mutual violence, and in male-female relationships women are sole or primary aggressors much more often than is commonly believed.
The 1996 National Violence Against Women Survey, co-sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Justice, found that 38 percent of the approximately 2.3 million Americans who experience partner violence every year are men. While the risk to men is generally lower because of gender differences in size and strength, male victims do exist, and they often have a very hard time being taken seriously by the authorities.
Many VAWA-sponsored initiatives undoubtedly have benefited victims of violence. But some of the legislation’s consequences have been highly problematic. Thus, domestic violence programs eligible for VAWA grants cannot incorporate drug and alcohol abuse issues into their counseling; instead, they must focus on “power and control” issues and on sexism, despite scant evidence that this model works.
Also disqualified is joint counseling for abusive couples. Such counseling is certainly inappropriate for severe and one-sided violence, but it can be effective in many other cases.
VAWA-funded training for police and prosecutors encourages the presumption that the man is always the sole or primary aggressor in domestic violence cases. Among past recipients of federal grants for such training are psychologists Dee Graham and Edna Rawlings of the University of Cincinnati, authors of a 1994 book, Loving to Survive , which argues that women’s relationships with men are akin to the “Stockholm syndrome” in which hostages bond with their terrorist captors.
VAWA has also created a symbiotic relationship between the federal government and feminist advocacy groups — the state coalitions against sexual assault and domestic violence, which play a vital role in implementing programs and policies based on the law. Unfortunately, most of these groups espouse an ideology that reduces complex issues of violence and abuse to “women good, men bad.” Since a previous reauthorization in 2005, the text of VAWA has explicitly stated that services for men are not excluded from funding. Nonetheless, in practice, they often are.
Unfortunately, none of the attempted challenges to VAWA would have addressed these problems; indeed, one of the Republican objections was to language specifying the inclusion of gay and lesbian victims in VAWA-funded services, which at least partly reduces the narrow focus on male perpetrators and female victims.
The VAWA model of feminism is not one of equality; rather, it is a mix of gender polarization and paternalism that treats violence against women as more worthy of concern. The best solution would be to replace the law with gender-neutral family violence and sexual assault legislation and the current Justice Department programs with ones based on diverse perspectives on domestic violence. Perhaps someone will find the political courage to champion such reforms the next time the law comes up for renewal.