For the past decade, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which comes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a reauthorization hearing today, has been a nearly $ 1 billion-dollar-a-year tax-supported industry based upon fatal flaws in three areas: (A) conception, (B) discrimination, and (C) administration. (a) Conceptually, Domestic Violence (DV) programs are predicated on the false presumption men always are the predatory perpetrators and women always the innocent victims. By contrast, the strongest and most consistent finding in decades of worldwide empirical DV research is that both men and women initiate DV at about equal rates and men are at least one-third of the physically harmed victims. A second conceptual fatal flaw is that the only solution to DV is to break up the family and isolate men rather than provide social and counseling services to reunite families that can be rehabilitated. (B) VAWA operates at such a high level of blatant sex discrimination it could not pass muster under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs. VAWA application forms explicitly state programs providing services for men need not apply. Nor are there requirements that women (who initiate one-half of the disputes) take anger management classes to work out their differences equitably with men.
(C) Tragically, the VAWA administration also seems to have fallen under the control of gender superiority ideologues who misuse tax dollars to destroy families. These tax dollars also are used to institute “must arrest” policies where a parent (almost always the father) must be arrested during a domestic dispute even when there is no physical contact and even over the objection of the other parent. These tax dollars would be better spent providing counseling for both parents.
So, what to do?
There is a wide range of views among members of Congress who soon must vote on the reauthorization of VAWA — as well as the general public. For those with concerns about VAWA, there are but two choices: sunset or rewrite. My view is VAWA is so harmful to children and fathers it should be sunsetted.
—Interestingly, while many members of Congress are fearful of a women’s backlash if they vote for sunset, they appear oblivious to a growing men’s backlash vote. Republicans, in particular, seem to forget they owe their political ascension to overwhelming support from males and their spouses.
Further, there is some evidence the women’s block vote is less unified than it once was. The first comes from the small turnout to elect Gloria Steinem as president of NOW. The second is more elusive but surfaces as multiple fissures on multiple issues in heterosexual women who appear to be at a crossroads on women’s issues. For VAWA, the critical question will be whether heterosexual women want to support a program that may destroy the lives of men in their family of origin (grandfathers, uncles, fathers, brothers, cousins) as well as current relationships (husband, boyfriend, friends, coworkers).
On the other hand, rewriting VAWA to correct fatal flaws will be a daunting task with a very short time line. Below are a few examples of required changes.
First, and most critically, allegations of DV should be tried in criminal court with the protection of due process. If the allegations are unsubstantiated, the focus should be on family preservation and counseling services. If the allegations are substantiated, rehabilitation services should be considered.
Second, following Title IX, sex discrimination must be eliminated throughout and the focus should be on victim need.
Third, everyone should “follow the money.” Administratively, it seems past VAWA funds have flowed to groups espousing a gendered political agenda. Two groups conspicuously absent from funding are men’s programs and religious institutions. Religious institutions, along with the family, traditionally have been considered as bedrock social institutions. In my view, religious institutions should expand their ministries to meet two currently underserved but dramatically evident family needs: DV and divorce.
While men’s shelters and religious organizations lack a track record because of past discrimination, they should be considered on an equal footing with existing providers. Indeed, if reauthorized, a new mechanism must be established for fair distribution of VAWA monies on the basis of victim need.
Finally, for a comprehensive understanding of VAWA, two Web sites provide fine-grained analyses and excellent critiques: (www.mediaradar.org) and ( www.VAWA4ALL.org). Both should be required reading for members of Congress as well as the interested public.
Gordon E. Finley is a professor of psychology at Florida International University.