This Christmas, domestic violence shelters across North America are asking for donations of money, clothing, shampoo, soap and the other niceties that a suddenly homeless victim of violence needs.
I intend to give generously ... but with discretion. The amount I can donate is limited and many domestic violence shelters promote policies I don't support. These are the questions I will politely ask.
Do you receive government or private funding?
I prefer privately funded shelters, largely in a belief that they are more fiscally responsible and more responsive to community feedback.
Moreover, privately funded shelters can openly target specific sub-communities for assistance: for example, the elderly who are often abused by caregivers, including spouses, but who receive little attention. Publicly funded shelters are legally required to not discriminate -- at least, in theory. Nevertheless, groups like Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE) observe that many people "fall between the cracks of domestic violence services. These groups include men, gays and lesbians, teens, the elderly, and immigrants."
Do you accept male victims of domestic violence into your shelter? (A similar question could be asked of any frequently excluded group.)
According to a 1998 National Institute of Justice/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, "approximately 1.5 million women and 834,700 men are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States."(p.2) When the focus is narrowed to assault alone, the rate of victimization is evenly spread between men and women.
Yet most publicly funded shelters maintain a "women only" policy despite the fact that agencies receiving tax money are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race or gender. Despite the fact that men are taxpayers. "Women only" shelters claim to be afraid to mingle the sexes but those few that accept both men and women -- such as the Valley Oasis shelter in Lancaster, California -- don't report a higher rate of disturbances.
Especially at Christmas, which invokes images of a mother with child, displaced men tend to be ignored. That's why Deborah Watkins of the National Coalition of Free Men launched The Homeless Shelter Project for men, which operates in parallel with the Mask Project. This "is a moving display of masks that are designed and created by male victims of domestic violence (DV)." Symbolically, the masks have no mouths.
Do you offer counseling services for abused spouses who wish to preserve their marriages?
The policies of many domestic violence shelters are based on PC feminist assumptions: just as men are always portrayed as perpetrators, marriages in which violence occurs, even once, are always viewed as properly terminated. A growing trend among Latinas, for whom family and children are often paramount, is for couples to work out their relationships, often with the aid of a priest or counselor. Domestic violence is seen as a complex phenomenon that sometimes springs from alcoholism or drug abuse and, so, can be sometimes "treated" by eliminating those factors rather than dissolving the family. Such women are effectively disenfranchised by current domestic violence dogma.
A new book from Princeton University, "Insult to Injury: Rethinking our Responses to Intimate Abuse" by Linda G. Mills, expresses a growing skepticism about the PC approach. Mills observes that as many as half of the women who are in abusive relationships stay in them for strong cultural, economic, religious, or emotional reasons. Rather than assisting these women, domestic violence counselors often re-victimize them by refusing to respect their decision to stay or go.
Criminal defense attorney Janeice T. Martin describes the impact of such domestic violence "specialists": ”They can stand by and tell that victim that she doesn't really know what's best for her and her family. She is a victim — how can she possibly know what's best after what she's been through? ... Many of these people know exactly what is best for them and their families, and yet are revictimized by the powerlessness imposed upon them by a system of people who know better."
Does your shelter support pressing charges against male perpetrators of DV if the victims do not wish to do so?
Mills writes: "The assumptions underpinning mainstream feminist advocacy efforts are ... that all violence warrants a state response, and that women want to leave rather than stay in their abusive relationships. It is on this basis that mainstream feminists advocated for interventions that called for the state to arrest and prosecute batterers regardless of the woman's wishes."
Domestic violence shelters should not be arms of the state that take a legal position on what a victim should do regardless of her/his desires. They should be what their name promises -- places of shelter.
(A shorthand way of asking the last three questions is, "Do you believe DV is a gender issue?")
The flow of charity should not be hampered but those who give should do so in an informed manner so that they never feel their goodwill has been abused.
As you make these polite inquiries be prepared for an impolite response; many who specialize in domestic violence are not used to being questioned. A rude response immediately tells you to move on to a worthier cause.
You may have no choice in whom your tax dollars finance. But those you support from the goodness of your heart should, in turn, support the goodness of your personal values.
Wendy McElroy 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). She lives with her husband in Canada.