The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) will expire this September if it is not reauthorized by Congress. Largely viewed as an anti-domestic violence measure, VAWA has become a flashpoint for the men's rights advocates who see it instead as the living symbol of anti-male bias in law.
Although a significant number of domestic violence victims are male, VAWA defines victims as female. As one result, tax-funded domestic violence shelters and services assist women and routinely turn away men, often including older male children.
Estimates vary on the prevalence of male victims. Professor Martin Fiebert of California State University at Long Beach offers a bibliography that "summarizes 170 scholarly investigations, 134 empirical studies and 36 reviews."
It indicates that men and women are victimized at much the same rate. A lower-bound figure is provided by a recent DOJ study: Men constituted 27 percent of the victims of family violence between 1998 and 2002.
Accordingly, men's rights activists not only accuse the VAWA of not merely being unconstitutional for excluding men but also of dismissing the existence of one-quarter to one-half of domestic violence victims.
The criticism should go deeper. In many ways, VAWA typifies the legislative approach to social problems, which arose over the past few decades and peaked during the Clinton years.
The legislative approach follows a pattern: public furor stirs over a social problem; Congress is pressured to "do something"; remedial bureaucracy arises, often with scant planning; the problem remains; more money and bureaucracy is demanded; those who object are called hostile to "victims."
VAWA arose largely from the concern stirred by feminists in the '80s. They quite properly focused on domestic violence as a neglected and misunderstood social problem. But their analysis went to extremes and seemed tailor-made to create public furor.
As an example, consider a widely circulated claim: "a woman is beaten every 15 seconds." The statistic is sometimes attributed to the FBI, other times to a 1983 report by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics. But neither the FBI nor the DOJ sites seems to include that statement or a similar one.
Men's rights activists contend that the elusive statistic derives from the book "Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family" (1980) by Murray Straus, Richard J. Gelles and Suzanne K. Steinmetz. The book was based on the first National Family Violence Survey (1975), from which the FBI and other federal agencies drew.
The survey does support the claim that a woman is battered every 15 seconds but also indicates men are also victims. By omitting male victims from their efforts, however, domestic violence activists create the impression of a national epidemic that uniquely victimizes women who require unique protection.
In response to public outcry, Congress was pressured to "do something." It passed VAWA 1994, granting $1.6 billion to create a bureaucracy of researchers, advocates, experts, and victim assistants, which some collectively call "the domestic violence industry."
Voices like the National Organization for Women insist that "the problem" remains. To argue for the "growing problem of gender-based violence," however, NOW reaches beyond traditionally defined violence against women and seeks to protect high school girls from abusive dating experiences. NOW states, "Nearly one in three high-school-age women experience some type of abuse — whether physical, sexual or psychological — in their dating relationships."
Without expanding the definition in such a manner, it would be difficult to argue for more funding.
Data indicates that traditionally defined violence against women has declined sharply. The rate of family violence reportedly "fell from about 5.4 victims per 1,000 to 2.1 victims per 1,000 people 12 and older," according to DOJ statistics.
VAWA 2005 faces much more opposition than its earlier incarnations. One reason is that men's rights activists have been presenting counter-data and arguments for over 10 years.
Advocates of VAWA 2005 have responded with pre-emptive accusations that paint opponents as anti-victim: for example, "If Congress does not act quickly to reauthorize the legislation, they are putting women's and children's lives at risk."
But most of the anti-VAWA arguments are not anti-victim. Many are anti-bureaucracy and could apply to any of the so-called "industries" created by the legislative approach to social problems. (The Child Protective Services is another example.)
Some anti-bureaucracy objections focus on the billions of dollars transferred into programs, often with little oversight or accountability attached.
Other objections point to those dollars being used for political purposes rather than clear and immediate assistance to victims. The misuse of tax dollars is most often alleged on the grassroots level, where men's rights activists often face VAWA-funded opposition to political measures, especially on father's rights issues.
One incident in New Hampshire illustrates the point. Earlier this year, The Presumption of Shared Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act was defeated by vehement opposition from the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. The coalition both wrote to and spoke before the Legislature. Accordingly, father's rights advocates in New Hampshire are seeking language in VAWA 2005 to prohibit any VAWA-funded agency from "legislative lobbying, advertising, or otherwise supporting the endorsement of, or opposition to, any state proposed legislation" which is not explicitly related to the prevention of domestic violence.
I think they should seek to kill the act entirely. I believe VAWA is not only ideologically inspired and discriminatory, it is also an example of why bureaucracy-driven solutions to human problems do not work.
I hope VAWA becomes the Titanic of the legislative approach to social problems. I hope it sinks spectacularly.
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.