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Jewish World Review March 12, 1999 /24 Adar 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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EXTRA! EXTRA! Va. court rules violence is an equal-opportunity offender

( THE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT (VAWA), passed as part of the 1994 omnibus crime bill, is often cited as an important feminist victory. Last week, though, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia struck down the most controversial portion of the law, which allows federal civil rights suits for "gender-motivated violence," as an unconstitutional expansion of the power of the federal government. But is this a defeat for women --- or for radical feminism?

The case in which the court has issued its ruling is Brzonkala v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute, a suit filed by former VPI student Christine Brzonkala over her claim of sexual assault by two members of the college's football team. She is suing both the alleged attackers and the college --- not just for personal injury, which would be a matter for state courts, but for the violation of her civil rights.

Supporters of VAWA argue that Congress has the authority to deal with "crimes of violence motivated by gender" because they adversely affect interstate commerce --- through the victims' medical costs, diminished productivity, and even the fear that deters potential victims from job-related travel. But in that case, why not federalize all crime?

Virtually every criminal offense has an impact on the economy. And two-thirds of victims of violent crime, let's not forget, are men.

The law is extremely vague as to what constitutes "gender-motivated violence." While it seems to require some gender-based hostility, the interpretation can be elastic enough to apply to any claim of rape or abuse. And that's just what the advocates want. At a symposium on VAWA last year, NOW Legal Defense Fund attorney Julie Goldscheid praised courts which have upheld VAWA for recognizing that "domestic violence and sexual assault are gender-motivated crimes rooted in the history of discrimination against women."

(Where does that leave sex crimes against men, or domestic assaults by women?)

In Brzonkala v. VPI, the claim of bias rested on the fact that the alleged attack had no motive other than rape and that, according to Brzonkala, one of the defendants allegedly told her she'd better not have diseases. (By the way, after hearing the evidence, a Virginia grand jury had refused to indict the two men, who said the sex was consensual.) In other VAWA cases, courts have ruled that acts of sexual or domestic violence by themselves satisfy a claim of gender motivation.

Another argument for VAWA is that crimes mainly affecting women are not taken seriously by state courts and law enforcement agencies because of sexism, effectively denying women equal protection.

But the facts don't support this.

Even ten years ago, data analyzed by feminist criminologist Kathleen Ferraro showed -- contrary to her expectations -- that men who assaulted their wives or girlfriends were treated no more leniently than those who attacked anyone else. Sexual assault charges, official statistics show, result in conviction about as often as robbery charges, and more often than charges of aggravated assault.

VAWA is an attempt to breathe new life into claims that, like Brzonkala's, are too weak to go forward in criminal courts. Not that it benefits many women.

For most victims of rape or domestic violence, civil litigation makes little sense since the perpetrators have no assets. VAWA cases that have come before the courts so far involve either deep-pocket entities such as colleges, or wealthy defendants: rich husbands in divorce cases, basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman (the target of a suit by a casino employee who accuses him of picking her up and lifting her).

Rape and domestic violence deserve to be treated the same as any other crime. There is, however, no constitutional basis for creating a special class of crimes defined by ideology. VAWA is not about equal rights for women. It's about creating special privileges and legitimizing a radical ideology that treats rape and battering as part of a terrorist campaign by men against women.

Let's hope the Supreme Court sees that when it gets the case.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.


03/04/99:Do even known-liars deserve the presumption of innocence?

©1999, Cathy Young