March 5, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About VAWA

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T-Swift says she’s not a feminist — the Ms. Foundation turns her song into a feminist anthem just to spite her. The “22” parody video refers to the 22 Republican Senators who did not vote to renew the Violence Against Women Act, signed into effect by Pres. Bill Clinton in 1994, passed in the Senate in February and reauthorized last Thursday morning with the support of 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans in the House. What we talk about when we talk about VAWA is how ridiculously twisted the political process has become. Just hours before the vote, a Republican House alternative to the bipartisan Senate bill was also voted upon. It would eliminate almost all new protections for LGBT, Native-American and illegal immigrant victims of sexual abuse. The bill was offered as an opportunity for Republican representatives who did not want to support VAWA to save face and vote for… something.

With visions of future campaign slam-commercials dancing in their heads (“Guess who voted against protecting women from rapey stalker men? This racist lady-hater”), they could say yes to a winnowed-down and ineffectual version of the bill, and give their spinners something to work with (“He was so excited to vote to protect women, he couldn’t even wait a couple hours for Bill #2. In fact, he didn’t even read it. He heard the word rape and couldn’t bear the thought. THAT’S HOW MUCH HE HATES THE RAPE”).

How Republicans think they can afford this, when the gender gap is becoming more pronounced every Akin-infested day, is a mystery. But largely, their problem was with what they were calling violations of “due process.” They asserted that the bill renders itself unconstitutional and is destined for rupture in the Supreme Court and Rep. Jeff Sessions (R-Al) went so far as to tell the New York Times that “matters put on that bill almost seem to invite opposition. You think they might have put things in there we couldn’t support so that maybe then they could accuse [us] of not being supportive of fighting violence against women?” On their omission of added protection for gay men who are victims of sex crimes (the rate of abuse for homosexual men is comparable to that of heterosexual women), Republicans argue that it “dilutes the focus” on domestic violence.

So what we talk about when we talk about VAWA is also an apt snapshot of how far the Republican party has fallen. The right-hand side of this party is willing to turn the most vital of legal obligations to the protection of 51% of our population into a reason to talk about not liking gay people, immigrants, minorities … can the “et cetera” just be implied at this point?

The original VAWA was one of the tough crime laws included in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and encouraged states to implement mandatory arrest policies. This was a landmark in transitioning the common view of domestic violence as a private family matter to one of a serious criminal offense. But the bill isn’t universally supported by feminist theorists. What we talk about when we talk about VAWA is a complex problem. VAWA has made great strides in modifying a culture that condones domestic violence, creating a federal “rape shield law” that prevents offenders from using victims’ previous sexual conduct against them in a rape trial, mandating that victims are not forced to bear the expense of their own rape exams or protection orders, helping communities develop domestic violence dockets and establishing the National Domestic Violence Hotline. But this doesn’t mean the conversation is over.

The Department of Justice figures reflect that intimate partner violence dropped 64% after VAWA, but this decrease happened alongside a massive drop in all kinds of violent crime nationwide, making at least some of the policy effects of VAWA unclear. Beth Richie, sociology professor at the University of Illinois, says that “VAWA’s focus on law enforcement reduces the really more complicated thing of violence against women to be a problem of the law.” Mandatory arrest laws have been criticized for potentially deterring women from calling the police during domestic violence incidents — fearing that an arrest will remove their primary financial provider. And a 2007 study conducted at Harvard University showed that domestic partner homicide rates are higher in states with mandatory arrest laws. A TIME piece on the issue also says that the policies do “nothing to address the causes of intimate partner violence, which is highly correlated with unemployment and economic distress.” This compounds the problem by increasing the chances that an abused woman will be inserted into a process that makes her “financially strapped and worried that the state will take custody of her children.” Danna Coker, law professor at the University of Miami, agrees, saying that mandatory arrest policies have an “unintended consequence of increasing the potential for state control of marginalized women.”  And many critics say that the focus on law enforcement undervalues the need for non-law enforcement measures such as transitional housing, special assistance for disabled victims and victims who live in rural communities, civil legal assistance and family counseling.We can’t just make our triumphant parody videos, doodle some devil horns on a Polaroid of Marco Rubio and call it a day. There’s more to be done — the legislation’s still not perfect, nor will legislation alone ever be enough, and that’s what we talk about when we talk about VAWA.

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany