Does the Violence Against Women Act Combat Domestic Violence or Undermine the Best Defense Against It?

“All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.”1 One must assume that key to political life—Russell Kirk’s “principle of imperfectibility”—played no role in drafting the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) recently passed by the House of Representatives (HR1620). Its professed purpose purpose is combating domestic violence. Its method undermines the best safeguard against that evil.
Let’s look at facts. The bill2 refers to violence by “a current or former spouse or dating partner of the victim, or other person similarly situated to a spouse of the victim” or person who “is cohabitating with or has cohabitated with the victim as a spouse or dating partner.” But its supporters’ rhetoric hones in on violence committed against women by men. Statistics suggest a misplaced focus.
58% of domestic violence is mutual. Almost 30% of such cases (20% of all domestic violence cases) include incidents of severe injury. Yet severe injuries occur in just over 10% of unidirectional domestic cases (5% of all cases).3 Within heterosexual relationship, rates of domestic violence are suffered by each sex are more comparable than public rhetoric suggests—40.2% of men and 53.4% of women suffering from it at some point in their lives.4 The CDC5 reports that lesbian women are victims of domestic violence at a higher rate (44%) than heterosexuals (35%). Homosexual men, in contrast, are subjected to domestic violence at a lower rate than heterosexual ones (26% and 29%). The most common victims are bisexuals (61% of females and 37% of males).
These statistics make clear that VAWA is not a response to facts. It is grounded in the ideological presupposition that men tend to be aggressors, women to be victims. Supporters are not even content with a lopsided concern for victims of one sex regardless of who victimizes them. If violence against women was the real concern, the greater dangers faced by lesbian and bisexual women would be emphasized.
VAWA and its advocates further ignore the fact that the romantic relationships in which domestic violence is least common are stable heterosexual marriages. Non-marital romantic relationships used as a means of finding a spouse are also less likely to be marked by abuse than those treated as a permanent lifestyle. (Bisexuals are most susceptible to abuse because multiplicity of sexual partners is incompatible with monogamous stability and leads to the tensions, fights and jealousies identified as a major cause of domestic violence by the CDC.6) This means domestic violence is least common in the relationships it is hardest to get out of. More easily ended relationships are more likely to be violent. Public policy must choose between reducing the number of victims and maximizing victims’ ability to escape. In theory advocates of VAWA refuse to accept that they must choose. In practice they choose the second option, undermining the institution that (as a general rule) is the best means of averting domestic violence.
How does VAWA do this? Partly through a definition of “domestic violence” so loose as to mean whatever someone wants it to mean7—“a pattern of behavior involving the use or attempted use of physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, economic, or technological abuse or any other coercive behavior.”8 Under this definition any number of behaviors common during ordinary (if heated) marital spats can qualify as “violence.” If such spats occur frequently, such behaviors can be construed as a “pattern.” This fails to distinguish between “mistreatment” and “abuse.” It fails to take into account that most basically decent people occasionally mistreat others and that spouses going through a rough time in marriage are particularly likely to act in such ways. Categorizing this as abuse (hence as a cause for separation) doesn’t help ordinary people treat others better. It encourages them to flee from the types of correctable, minor mistreatment that most mates will occasionally be guilty of—and so to begin a cycle of the unstable and serial relationships that breed abuse. Some states even prohibit publicly funded counseling services from being used by couples who remain together after one partner has been accused of (not proven to have committed) abuse (loosely defined to include almost any mistreatment). This is not aiding victimized spouses to escape abusive mates. This is elevating separation into a default option. VAWA does the same, through the ease with which women claiming abuse under its vague terms would become eligible for financial support.
I once knew a man whose life was saved (in unusual circumstances) by not wearing a seat belt. Laws, however, must be made for situations which constitution the rule rather than the exception. To combat domestic violence this means strengthening marriage and trying to assure separation occurs only when truly necessary. This requires: 1) Strictly defining “abuse” as clearly severe specified behaviors. Ordinary failing must be clearly excluded. 2) Establishing reasonable standards of evidence to met before women claiming to be abuse victims are eligible for financial assistance. For temporary assistance during an investigation this could equate to “probable cause.” At least “preponderance of evidence,” and arguably “clear and convincing evidence,” (objectively assessed) could be a good standard for continuing such assistance in the longer term.
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