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In Defense of VAWA

Posted by pocochina on November 18, 2009

In Defense of VAWA.  Because now we have to fucking defend VAWA.  From feminists.  Alternative title:  IN WHICH I GIVE THE FUCK UP AND DIE.

If you wanted to go out and look for a paradigm example of a piece of legislation which made a swift, real, on-the-ground difference in a lot of women’s lives in a very short amount of time, you couldn’t get a better example than VAWA.  Therefore, Ms. Ann Friedman (of Feministing and the American Prospect) has taken it upon herself to explain to all of us Why VAWA Is Made of Wrong.  Its main crimes are (1) inventing the idea of prosecuting crimes in the criminal justice system, (2) all but excluding every other method of approaching the problem, even the ones it has explicitly embraced for fifteen years now, and (3) being for nerds and old ladies.  While the article sometimes ambles towards valid criticisms of a policy-heavy approach to ending VAW, it fails to engage appropriately with VAWA and frequently falls into anti-feminist language and framing.

Onto the article!

The Polanski Paradox

LOL YOUR SHAMELESS HEADLINE SENSATIONALISM.  “The Polanski case is prominent right now and will get me lots of hits!  But I want to hate on VAWA!  Maybe my readers will not notice that the Polanski shit went down FIFTEEN FUCKING YEARS BEFORE ANYONE THOUGHT OF VAWA!”  Unfortunately for the Prospect, its readers can, you know, read.  (Also, as it turns out, the Prospect’s definition of “paradox” turns out to be something like “irritating but necessary policy decisions, which sometimes end up being non-optimal.”  That’s cool, our language is alive and vibrant!)

[two relatively harmless paragraphs omitted]

VAWA is also controversial among some liberals but for a very different reason. While overall the legislation has been incredibly successful at increasing privacy protections for survivors and funding the organizations that serve them, VAWA also injects our flawed criminal-justice system into personal relationships. In doing so, it poses a deep quandary for those of us who are critical of that system but believe strongly that rapists and domestic abusers should be accountable for their actions.

The argument that VAWA is what “injects our flawed criminal justice system into personal relationships” is patently ridiculous.  The criminal justice system has a long and storied history of getting involved in personal relationships.  It’s a crime to hit or kidnap YOUR OWN CHILD.   That’s government all up in our personal relationships for you!  Plenty of states (where most criminal justice goes down) would have DV and SA laws independent of VAWA, and had them long before the bill was written.  THE GOVERNMENT GETS BETWEEN YOU AND YOUR DEALER EVERY DAMN DAY.  Law enforcement meddling in relationships is not some wild-eyed innovation created by cold-hearted ladies in power suits and foisted on an unwilling population.  Setting aside VAW as something “personal,” something which is primarily about relationships rather than about a cultural, historical, and yes Virginia legal framework which oppresses women does more to support those who would argue that government should get out of the woman-protecting business altogether than to support the argument (which in my infinite charity I assume the author is trying to make) that personalized victim services are of grave importance.

Originally, the legislation required states receiving VAWA funds to implement “mandatory arrest” policies if police were called to a home on reports of domestic violence. As Elizabeth M. Schneider writes in her book Battered Women and Feminist Lawmaking , the provision was lawmakers’ answer to the fact that many police officers are reluctant to arrest batterers — and that many survivors of abuse are reluctant to charge their abusers with a crime. This policy, which was ratcheted down from “mandatory arrest” to “pro-arrest” when VAWA was reauthorized in 2005, disregarded the fact that not all women interact with the criminal-justice system in the same way. An upper-middle-class white woman may conclude that involving the police (getting a restraining order, perhaps) against her abusive husband will make her safer, but will a woman of color in a low-income neighborhood come to the same conclusion? When your community has a contentious history with law enforcement, involving police might not seem like such a good idea.

Hey!  Wow!  And, recognizing that it wasn’t working, they fucking changed it!  It’s like VAWA is almost, wait for it, sustained and improved by people who actually want to make the legislation better in order to make women’s lives safer!  But!  But!  That doesn’t fit with my too-hip-for-school worldview!  I know, I’ll just judge the program by its past mistakes rather than its work to rectify those mistakes, which is not self-serving or misleading at all!

This particular use of criticism of the criminal justice system is, in a huge way, a double-edged sword.  I doubt Friedman and I have many significant political disagreements on how we’d like to see the criminal justice system change.  Less racism!  Better prosecutorial ethics!  More treatment, less incarceration!  Now that I’ve established I am a Good Liberal, there’s a significant however. HOWEVER, the fact remains that (a) the criminal justice system is the strongest means our society has to say that some action is wrong and must not be tolerated, (b) there are a significant number of people, who hold way more power and privilege than victims of violence against women, who do not believe that this violence is worthy of punishment or indeed believe that it should be tolerated, and (c) that moving violence against women out of the criminal realm, should Good Liberals ™ succeed in killing such initiatives by sheer power of disdain, will be taken and read as a victory for those who think violence against women should be permitted by the government.  Flawed as the criminal justice system is, it is what there is.  This is an argument that should be made very, very carefully, with depth of thought and painstakingly careful language – and it’s not one that is ever likely to fully persuade me.  But it’s a reasonable argument that has been made respectfully and persuasively many times over, and has influenced policy and society for the better, including in this very specific VAWA example, which shows both an early error in judgment and a commendable flexibility and ability to act on criticism on the part of Congress and the DOJVAW office.

It’s understandable, given the prevalence of violence against women in this country, to want to push for big, systemic solutions to the problem. That is the premise on which VAWA was based.  But the deeply personal nature of this crime is what makes such a broad response inherently problematic. Many observers were shocked when Rihanna chose not to press charges against Brown. The woman who, as a child, was raped by Polanski later said that she wished prosecutors would drop the case. This may be hard to accept for those of us who saw the photos of Rihanna’s bruised face or read the damning testimony from Polanski’s trial, but these women have a right to decline to get involved with the justice system. Violence against women is a public scourge, but respecting survivors’ wishes must be paramount.

Anyone else notice the fuzzy fee-fee language of the first sentence?  “Understandable.”  “Want.”  As if there aren’t objectively brilliant minds which have spent decades intellectually grappling with the most effective, ethical, pain-free way to help victims and prevent victimizations.  SPOILER ALERT:  THERE ARE.  The use of this language, deliberately stripped of the rational reasoning behind approaching VAW using systemic solutions as one of many tools (1.  NOTHING ELSE HAS WORKED.  2.  THIS SEEMS TO KIND OF WORK, EVEN IF NOT AS WELL AS WE WANT IT TO.  3.  BEATING THE SHIT OUT OF A DUDE IS A CRIME, MAYBE LADIES SHOULD BE MORE THAN JUST RAPEABLE PUNCHING BAGS IN THE EYES OF THE LAW.  And so on) reflects the cherished anti-feminist tactic of making the person arguing for women’s rights seem driven by emotions rather than reason.  Dear fellow feminists:  just because our stance is moral and deeply-felt does not mean it is any less rational or intellectually based.

In her haste to paint the Mean Haters as emotion-driven, she conveniently skates over a significant issue with her suggestions which is both practical and ethical.  Our problems are huge and indomitable, but our resources are tiny and dwindling.  A personalized, sensitive, victim-specific response to every crime is indeed preferable, but it’s simply not realistic when women’s rights advocates are begging for the scraps they need to keep their websites afloat.  It is the job of the legislature to come up with systemic solutions to systemic problems.  That doesn’t mean nobody should do individual and community focused work (and in fact such work is supported by VAWA) but that a systemic approach is one part of the solutions we need.  I realize the women’s movement is, as ever, an easy punching bag, but it’s tough to justify blaming it for the nature of state resources (namely:  that there aren’t enough).  The philosophical questions of the needs of the many and the few is a terrible one, and one that you have to shut yourself down a bit if you’re going to engage with it appropriately.  If Polanski isn’t prosecuted, respecting the victim’s wishes, and wealthy rapists all start raping with even greater impunity and fleeing to France, thus creating more victims (here and in France) without the criminal recourse some of those victims would want (funny, how women who inconveniently do gain some measure of peace or closure by following through with prosecution are so easily erased in this discussion) would it have been worthwhile?  If VAWA’s criminal provisions have had some effect on the not-steep-enough fall in rapes, and removing them leads to a slow in the decline of rape but brings less people into contact with the Evil Law, would that be worth it?  Because remember, if you think that every victim matters – not just the famous ones who entice people to read your article! – then every individual that could be or has been helped by an admittedly harsh systemic solution matters equally, and exposing them to further harm should be equally (or more) difficult.  The question has launched a million iritating ethics seminars because nobody knows the answer or where to draw the line, which makes Friedman’s presumption that everyone does or should fall on her side a bit questionable.

I wonder, do Good Liberals make this argument about people who are afraid to testify against violent mobsters – we don’t want to traumatize that wounded mob informant any more, after all, clearly his pain trumps the interests of justice!  Or is it that the patriarchy syndicate deserves special protection from the legal system?  We’re unlikely ever to demand that victims of sexual or intimate partner violence receive the same protections as people who testify against criminals who are dangerous to, you know, people, but it’s not a bad idea – and not unlike what VAWA actually does – to consider how we may make participation in the criminal justice system as safe and trauma-free as possible.  This assumption that women must be put through the worst trials of the crucible of the current criminal justice system, or else opt out of it entirely, ensures that women will continue to avoid the system rather than making it safer for them to engage in it.   I am not arguing that there is no valid critique to be made, or that all rape victims are about to storm the gate of a magically reformed judicial process.  However, sulking at the imperfection of VAWA, which is an ongoing and admirable project which has helped us to make great strides towards this particular reform, does absolutely nothing to help anything but the Prospect’s hits.

As a member of the press, it’s possible that Friedman is contractually unable to plainly state what seems to be one major, if not the major, reason for Polanski victim’s dread at the idea of another trial, which may well be true for Rihanna as well – they don’t want it revisited everywhere they turn in the press.  They don’t want to keep hearing about how “some think” they had it coming, or their victimizers are upstanding gentlemen who have been unfairly maligned.  Mass media is at least as deeply seeped in rape culture as everything else around us.  The craven, profit-driven, misogynistic behavior of the mainstream media is a tool of rape culture, and when it becomes a factor in an eventual failure to prosecute, rape culture scores off of that victim again.  Respecting the wishes of a victim and the interests of justice is a difficult balance to begin with, but it’s made exponentially more difficult by the woeful behavior of the press, and for a member of the press to skate blithely over this reality while critiquing another failing prong of our society is laughable.

Again, I’m really concerned about Friedman’s use of antifeminist tropes to support her argument that the criminalization of violence against women isn’t particularly important.   The victimization of women, as I am absolutely sure Friedman well knows, has been justified for centuries on the idea that for some reason or another, it isn’t the place of an outside authority to meddle between a man and his horrified victim, and the oppression of women in general is excused on the grounds that we require protection from the harsh vagaries of the public world.  For the umpteen thousandth time (and isn’t this manipulation so well-crafted that I have to keep repeating myself on this point?), I’m not saying that the wishes of the victims shouldn’t be taken into account, but that this argument doesn’t happen within a vacuum.  It happens against a pro-rape, anti-woman backdrop, where exactly these arguments are made against women’s equality.

If our goal is to keep women safe from violence and, failing that, help those who have experienced it to heal and move on, a more personal response may be warranted. Of course, VAWA does fund many programs that do just that. It has funneled grant money to organizations, advocates, and shelters that do critical work within communities to reduce the incidence of violence against women and to support survivors. When it comes time to reauthorize the legislation next year, that’s where we should put the focus – on educating men and empowering women.

Hey!  I agree!  EXCEPT THAT IS WHAT VAWA ALREADY DOES.  The vast majority of this article rests on some serious false dichotomy action – Friedman all but outright claims that it’s either The (Wo)Man, with those big swaggering laws, or Caring About Victims.  You’re with her, and therefore With It, or against her, you heartless hater.  This is crap, of course, as encapsulated not just in VAWA, which takes a multi-pronged approach including not just criminal justice but also civil law, education, culture, and victim services, among other things, but in the context of broader movements fighting violence against women.

Look, I don’t have a problem with Friedman or anyone else not wanting to sign up and work for the DOJ.  More positions for those of us who do, say I.  Nor do I have a problem with people who prefer to work outside of the political system, or who criticize a social justice strategy which focuses exclusively on political and legal solutions to social problems.  But this sloppy, sensationalist article does not do those things.   It lumps together a fact-dump of stories and statistics, most of which are never referred to again, blasts the entire Violence Against Women Act for parts of the legislation the author disagrees with, some of which are no longer even in force, and then as a postscript nods to the enormous work done by the bulk of the different incarnations of VAWA, which if the author were honest about them, would completely defeat her argument about how VAWA doesn’t do exactly what they do.

My argument is not that anyone needs to toe a particular party line, but I am pointing out that breezy contrarianism is just as stupid, and in this case also deeply incorrect and harmful.  Perhaps a useful tool for feminist writers would be not to make arguments against women’s wildly insufficient legal protections using the language and tactics of anti-feminists, as this is sometimes unhelpful and unpersuasive?  Could that be a thing?

Now, imagining the article without the crap I’ve pointed out, it’s possible that Friedman could have made a decent point, even several!  Groups focusing on victim services deserve more support, and victims themselves deserve respect and support, not further victimization.  Evolution of such critical legislation is important and necessary.  Criminal law alone will not solve our problems.  That post would get a resounding amen from me!  But this is not that article.  Not by a long shot.

3 Responses to “In Defense of VAWA”

  1. Thanks for this — even more important for the status of women globally (not to be bought, sold, or held as slaves) is the IVAWA — don’t even get me started on what i think of feminists in POWER including the goddess of the still fooled set, in regard to this legislation.

  2. Also, on the VAWA it is important to analyze the Supreme Ct decision that crippled it in terms of what the next nominee to the court has written about that decision.

  3. Also, education, real feminist education, changed Rihanna’s mind. She left him and said she could not be responsible for giving bad example to women who might die because of her return. If we follow Friedman, we go back to the 50’s when women stayed because leaving was not valued or encouraged and supported. This attitude impacted women as a caste and our status in society. THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL. Do you hear that Friedman? Rihanna cares about the example she is giving other women, what about you?

    Similarly, the status of women as slaves globally and the attitude of feminists toward that fact impacts the status of free women.

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