Jewish World ReviewJan. 21, 2000/ 14 Shevat, 5760
Its very name suggests a noble goal--specifically, in the disputed provision, to allow federal civil-rights suits by victims of rape and domestic violence. But aside from constitutional issues of federal versus state powers, VAWA has little to do with civil rights or justice. It's an odd mix of radical feminist ideology, which holds that men in America are waging a "war against women," and old-fashioned paternalism, which holds that violence to women is more worthy of concern than violence to men.
VAWA's civil-rights provision creates federal remedies for "gender-motivated violence," like the ones available for racial attacks. But while interracial violence is not automatically labeled racist, VAWA supporters regard virtually all rapes and spousal assaults as anti-female hate crimes. At a 1998 conference, Julie Goldscheid of NOW Legal Defense Fund--one of the lawyers who argued for VAWA before the Supreme Court earlier this month--praised judges who have recognized that "domestic violence and sexual assault are gender-motivated crimes" rooted in women's oppression.
But is this view rooted in reality? Forensic psychology does not support the belief that rapists are driven primarily by hatred toward women rather than sexual compulsion or anger at the whole world. The interpretation of rape as inherently gender-motivated cannot explain sexual assaults on boys or sexual coercion among gays and lesbians. The claim that "women are raped because they are women" may ring true, but in a biological rather than political sense: When a man's sexual urges are directed toward women, his sexual aggression will be too.
As for domestic violence, most studies find that it has much more to do with emotional disorders than with patriarchal attitudes; drugs and alcohol are major factors too. Aside from the much-debated issue of female aggression toward male partners, it is no longer in dispute that physical abuse is at least as common in gay and lesbian couples as in heterosexual ones. It is also worth remembering that in three-quarters of homicides in America, and nearly two-thirds of all violent crimes, the victims are men.
Besides feminist theories about violence, arguments for VAWA are based on the premise that violence against women 1) takes a uniquely horrible toll and 2) is not taken seriously by state courts and law enforcement because of sexism. Both these claims, however, are supported by distorted or false statistics.
Thus, the congressional findings accompanying the 1994 bill assert that women suffer more injuries from abuse by male partners than from "automobile accidents, muggings and cancer deaths combined"; yet data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that car accidents cause three times as many injuries to women as all violence. The U.S. government's pro-VAWA brief states that "as many as 20 percent of hospital emergency cases are related to wife battering"; according to a 1997 Justice Department report, it's less than 1 percent. (The 20 percent figure comes from a survey in which emergency-room patients were asked if they had ever experienced violence by a partner; similar numbers of women and men said "yes.")
Another claim--"homicide is the leading cause of death for women at work"--is technically true, but only because women, who rarely work in hazardous occupations, are at very low risk for accidental death at work. Men account for 92 percent of all workplace fatalities and are five times more likely than women to be murdered on the job.
Of course violent crimes against women affect the national economy--which ostensibly gives Congress authority to legislate on the matter under the interstate commerce clause. By that logic, however, virtually all crime should be federalized.
There is no question that historically, family violence was often shamefully neglected (though never condoned to the extent that many feminists claim) and that victims of rape were treated in a discriminatory manner. But today, claims of bias in the treatment of violent crimes which predominantly affect women have little factual basis.
When feminist criminologist Kathleen Ferraro analyzed 1987-88 data from Arizona, she was surprised to find that assaults on wives or girlfriends were treated no more leniently than other assaults. Other studies confirm this pattern. Justice Department data show that men accused of sexual assault are slightly more likely to be prosecuted and convicted than those accused of aggravated assault (usually on other men). To be sure, even today, some victims of rape and domestic violence endure outrageous mistreatment by police and the courts. But so do victims of other crimes.
Some women's advocates seem to see bias whenever a man accused of rape or battering is acquitted. In the case currently before the high court, Brzonkala vs. Morrison, Christy Brzonkala's claim that she was raped by two fellow students at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Antonio Morrison and Jim Crawford, was rejected by a campus judicial committee (which found Morrison guilty only of using "offensive and demeaning language") and by a Virginia grand jury, which reviewed the results of an extensive police investigation.
Even without VAWA, Brzonkala had the option of filing a civil suit against the alleged assailants at the state level. Instead of pursuing these claims, she and her attorneys have chosen to use the federal courts to send a political message.
If upheld, VAWA's civil-rights provision is unlikely to benefit many women: For most victims of rape or domestic violence, civil litigation makes little sense since the perpetrators have no assets to go after. For the same reason, the law is unlikely to impose a serious burden on the federal court.
But VAWA does send a message--that American women live under a regime of brutal male oppression, and that assaults on women are not the despicable acts of individuals but part of a concerted effort by men to keep women down.
It is this message that the court should resolutely