The Women's Freedom Network Newsletter
May/June July/August, 1998, Vol. 5, Numbers 3 & 4.
The Institutionalization of
by Dr. Susan Sarnoff
T he sweeping proposal to revise the Violence Against Women Act, which will provide nearly $5 billion in funding over five years "to prevent violence against women, and for other purposes," is dangerous legislation based on faulty information. While some critics claim that it is Bill Clinton's payoff to "gender feminists" for finally coming to his defense regarding the Paula Jones case, it clearly serves as a means of providing services to some of the women and children who have lost income due to welfare cuts through a surreptitious back door. That back door requires that applicants claim that they and/or their children were victims of some form of domestic violence or sexual assault, but it offers abundant rewards for doing so - including the "rights" to refuse custody and even visitation to accused fathers with virtually no requirements of proof; no means of detecting false claims and not even means of verifying real ones. However, the real beneficiaries of VAWA II are not battered women or their children at all. Instead, it is the providers of services to battered women who will benefit if it is enacted. If VAWA II was really meant to help battered women and their children then some form of jobs, job training or income replacement, or long-term, low-income housing would have been written into the bill. Instead, the only one of the above supported by VAWA II is the creation of a handful of jobs providing assistance to battered women - jobs that depend on the perpetuation of the false statistics and faulty beliefs on which VAWA II is based for their continuation.
The original VAWA at least tried to create the appearance of balancing efforts to address crimes against women by equally funding law enforcement, prosecution and victim services (although a fourth share was available for discretionary purposes.) But VAWA II is clearly skewed toward victim services, although those services are loosely defined, nearly as much money is allocated to "technical and training initiatives" as to direct services to victims. It appears that these initiatives, then, are less focussed on informing victims about services or the public about the needs of victims, than on misinforming both groups about the nature and incidence of violence against women. The bill's definition of domestic violence, for instance, is so broad that it does not even require that the violence be physical. There is no doubt that verbal "abuse" can be upsetting, but it is neither lifethreatening (unless the abuse specifically consists of threats of physical violence) nor equivalent to physical abuse. And this is not to suggest that victims of verbal abuse should not be afforded some level of service - only that to provide equal services to both groups over services some, under services others and fails to consider that different forms of abuse may not be responsive to the same types of services. (For instance, restraining orders, which have proven very effective for victims of "mild" abuse, often increase the danger of women subject to extremely dangerous violence.)
"Technical and training initiatives" further increase the perception that domestic violence is widespread not only by reaching real victims, by encouraging service providers, attorneys and others with vested interests in gaining clients to broadly define female victimization; and by informing impressionable high school and college women that virtually any unpleasant interaction with a male can be construed as sexual or domestic violence, absolving the "victim" of any responsibility by implying that women have no control over their bodies or their lives. Of course, it is also easier to provide assistance to non-victims or hardly victims than it is to assist seriously endangered ones, and serving the former groups not only inflates service statistics (and purported incidence rates) but makes service providers feel more successful than when working with victims whose problems are more intractable. That this ie the intention of the bill is reflected by the fact that VAWA accepts as proof that a woman is a victim virtually any form of "evidence," including the word of any counselor, shelter worker or other service provider (whose payment depends upon that proof.) Even a victim's statement alone is considered adequate proof unless an agency has an "independent, reasonable basis to find the individual not credible," which is unlikely because these rules clearly preclude investigation from verifying credibility. The clearest proof the VAWA II is designed to institutionalize misinformation is that it "views as authoritative on matters of domestic violence and child custody and visitation" a 1996 American Psychological Association report titled "Violence and the Family". Yet that 142 page document is replete with lies, distortions and unsubstantiated claims. In fact, unlike previous attempts by gender feminists to misinform by quoting poor or irrelevant studies, "Violence in the Family" includes not a single reference, citation or other allusion to any specific study of the "information" it purports to provide. (This is particularly laughable in light of the fact that social scientists almost universally use the APA format to document references, and shows how far the APA has fallen from its once respectable position.)
Therefore, it is particularly disturbing that the legislation accepts the APA's statement that "the documented rate of any child abuse allegations in custody cases is approximately 2 percent, and there is no evidence that false accusations are more common in the context of custody litigation" when numerous studies refute this statement. Worse, the legislation provides funds to evaluate "expert testimony in custody and visitation" and "determinations involving child sexual assault, including the scientifically-accepted and empirically valid research on child sexual assault." Yet the "authoritative" APA study specifically refutes such research, supporting the existence of "organized sadistic abuse" despite no documentation of such activity after years of costly FBI investigation, and stating that it is possible for long-forgotten memories to be remembered" despite the fact that "scientifically accepted and empirically valid research" consistently disproves the possibility of doing so.
Finally, while expanding the benefits women can become entitled to merely by claiming victim status, VAWA II is a serious setback to women's rights workers. This may not be apparent at first glance, because the proposed legislation expands the ability of women to sue employers for workplace violence and to obtain unemployment for circumstances related to domestic violence. But consider the implications of these requirements. Are employers likely to be encouraged to hire women when they, but not their male counterparts, can sue for damages in excess of those provided by Workers' Compensation; and when they can qualify for unemployment insurance for a whole new range of circumstances unavailable to male workers? Ironically, such "special protections" were among the first paternalistic rules feminists of the 1970s successfully overturned, recognizing how they held women back from career opportunities: yet VAWA II reintroduces them as "victim rights." In sum, VAWA II, if passed, will be very effective - at distorting truth, trashing science, exaggerating statistics, providing income to service providers and infantilizing women. In this way, it is very wellnamed, the Act itself is a form of Violence Against Women. Let us hope that our federal legislators hear from their constituents that this is one form of violence they want to prevent rather than address after the fact.
Dr. Susan Sarnoff is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Ohio University and the author of Paying for Crime: The Policies and Possibilities of Crime Victim Reimbursement, published by Praeger in 1996. Dr. Sarnoff is currently writing Sanctified Snake Oil, a study of the government's acceptance of "junk science."