by Wendy McElroy by Wendy McElroy
Last week, my column argued against renewing the Violence Against Women Act because it was the wrong approach to issues such as domestic violence.
I ended by stating that a different solution was needed. This week’s column responds to questions from readers who asked for elaboration.
But, first, to recap my objections to VAWA: it promotes vicious myths, such as the belief that men are perpetrators and not also victims of domestic violence; it creates a “domestic violence industry,” with thick layers of tax-funded bureaucracy; and, it attempts to socially engineer cultural attitudes toward gender.
One repeatedly asked question was whether I had experienced domestic violence. The implication? If not, then I shouldn’t talk about it.
I was once beaten so badly by a boyfriend that I am now legally blind in my right eye. To some, this means I have the proper credentials to address domestic violence. But standing on the wrong end of a fist doesn’t make me an expert nor does it give me a special “right” to speak out on a social problem of general concern.
Underlying the demand for such a credential is the assumption that only someone who lives an experience can possibly understand it and, so, have any business talking about it.
The assumption may contain some truth, but that truth is being badly used. Instead of using first-hand knowledge as a tool to increase communication and discussion of social problems that impact everyone, it is often wielded as a weapon to gag certain groups. If you are not a woman, then you should not speak on “women’s issues.” If you are not a battered woman, then you should be silent on domestic violence.
Even battered women who express skepticism with the standard answers to domestic violence, as embodied in VAWA, tend to be heckled into silence. They are accused of "re-victimizing" women simply because they have a different opinion of the problem and of its possible solution.
What is the solution?
First of all, there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution to a complex and varied phenomenon like domestic violence. Answers will vary depending on specific situations.
A wife who strikes out once in anger cannot reasonably be compared to a sadist who systematically brutalizes her husband over the course of years. The solution for her may be a course on anger management. A wife whose alcoholic husband wants desperately to become sober and non-violent might well support rehab rather than call the police. For some women and men, the only solution will be to leave and go to a shelter.
Only general principles can be applied across the board.
One of those principles is that domestic violence victims are individuals, not classes of people, and any solution must address them as such. The law and its application must make no distinction between men and women, gays and heterosexuals, whites and minorities.
Instead of socially engineering new protected classes of people, all people should be protected equally from violence. Rather than introducing class distinctions into the law, those distinctions should be stripped away.
Moreover, if applied evenly, there are enough laws against violence on the books already.
Another general principle: long-term victims of domestic violence must assume some responsibility for their victimization.
Responsibility is not blame. No one deserves a fist in the face; the person to blame for violence is the one who commits it. But when a fist hits repeatedly over time, then the person who stands in place to receive the same blow must ask, “why am I accepting this?”
The victim is one-half of any domestic violence dynamic. To be effective, solutions must include an understanding of the diverse reasons a victim might decide to stay. The simplistic, pre-packaged explanation offered by the VAWA-style approach – namely, that battered women have lost the ability to choose – does not apply to many victims. It did not apply to me, for example.
Removing responsibility from victims is not a kindness; it is patronizing and perpetuates the problem.
Another principle: prevention is better than a cure. The two most important methods by which people can avoid becoming or remaining victims of violence are their attitudes and skills.
“Attitude” does not refer to socially engineering other people’s view of gender through massive tax-funded programs: that’s social control and Big Government. It means encouraging individuals to assume primary responsibility for their own self-defense: that’s individual freedom.
Nor does self-defense mean not calling the police when attacked or never asking for help. Both of those acts can be examples of taking responsibility.
The ideal is to control your own self-defense, which often devolves into an issue of skill. In some circumstances, self-defense could mean a gun in the hands of a trained and conscientious owner. Of course, gun ownership may not be an appropriate solution for domestic violence, which may be better answered by assertiveness training or other forms of self-defense, including the act of leaving.
Nevertheless, the point remains: a willingness to defend yourself and acquiring that ability is the responsibility of every individual.
Oddly, advocates of VAWA who tend to also embrace NOW-style feminism generally oppose gun ownership despite its clear advantages for women.
It is not possible to solve domestic violence within the constraints of a brief weekly column. It is possible only to touch upon new answers. The old ones aren’t working.
Those who value the safety of domestic violence victims will applaud open, free discussion of how to achieve that goal.
Wendy McElroy [send her mail] is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).