This year, violence against women -- an issue doggedly championed by feminists but rarely a front-page story -- seemed to make headlines in every section of the newspaper. Sports: A hotel worker accused Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of raping her. Entertainment: Singer Chris Brown was sentenced to probation for assaulting his girlfriend and fellow hip-hop star, Rihanna. International: After decades on the lam, Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland for drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Politics: Recently seated Sen. Al Franken introduced an amendment to withhold defense contracts from companies like KBR if they prevent their employees from speaking out about sexual assault. And the health-reform debate revealed that many insurance companies classify domestic violence as a "pre-existing condition," denying coverage to victims of abuse.
The Department of Justice also announced new data on violence against women. Between 1993 and 2008, overall rates of domestic violence and sexual assault dropped, but violence against women is still at epidemic levels. Of every 1,000 American women, 4.3 have experienced domestic abuse, and 89,000 women reported being raped last year. The statistics were released this fall, which also marked the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. VAWA, the primary way the federal government addresses this issue, provides funding for domestic-violence shelters, law-enforcement training programs, and services for sexual-assault survivors. While its goals seem hard to disagree with -- protecting women and deterring assault and abuse -- the law remains controversial among conservatives who argue it is sexist against men (even though VAWA provides funding for services for men, too, despite the fact that women are five times more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence).
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.
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.
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.
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.