High court ruling is not a 'setback' for women

By Cathy Young

The Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2000

On Monday, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which allowed victims of “gender-motivated violence” to file federal civil-rights lawsuits against their attackers. This ruling, predictably deplored by some as a setback for women, is a victory not only for the rule of law but for real gender equity.

While VAWA’s civil-rights provision was modeled on federal laws targeting racially motivated assaults, it was far more sweeping. Whatever one thinks of the concept of “bias crimes,” not all interracial violence is automatically labeled racist. Under VAWA, nearly all rapes and spousal assaults are presumed, by definition, to be “gender-motivated.” One reason orthodox feminists saw VAWA as a major achievement was that it endorsed a key tenet of their creed: that male violence against women is a form of collective political terrorism, both an expression of woman-hating and a deliberate strategy to perpetuate patriarchal dominance. Such extremist theories may be popular in women’s studies courses, but there is no reason they should be incorporated into official policy — and no evidence that they have any relation to reality.

Forensic psychology doesn’t support the belief that rapists are driven primarily by hatred of women, rather than sexual compulsion or generalized rage. The feminist analysis of rape hardly explains sexual assaults on boys, or sexual coercion among gays and lesbians. If the claim that “women are raped because they are women” rings true, it’s in a biological rather than political sense: When a man’s sexual urges are directed toward women, his sexual aggression will be too. Indeed, it’s not unusual for rapists to direct their nonsexual aggression at men. The teenagers who savagely beat and gang-raped a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989 — a crime many feminists have cited as a prime example of gender-motivated violence — also viciously assaulted several men on their park rampage.

As for domestic violence, most studies find it has much more to do with psychological disorders than with patriarchal attitudes; drugs and alcohol, too, are major factors.

Besides feminist theories, the arguments for VAWA are based on the premise that violence against women requires a federal remedy both because it takes a uniquely horrible toll that affects the national economy, and because it isn’t taken seriously by state courts and law enforcement officials because of gender bias. Both these claims, however, are supported by distorted or false statistics, which Congress bought wholesale when it passed VAWA in 1994 (and which Justice David Souter liberally cited in his dissent).

Take the claim that “battering is the single largest cause of injury to women in the U.S.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, all violence, domestic or not, is the fifth leading cause of injury for both women and men, after falls, car crashes, and accidental collisions and cuts. Auto accidents cause nearly three times as many injuries to women as all violent crime, and nearly 10 times as many as domestic violence.

Congress also reported that 125,000 college women are raped every year. In fact, the Justice Department’s National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes not reported to the police, finds that just over 100,000 women of all ages are raped annually.

Or take the statistic that in their lifetime, three out of four American women will experience a violent crime at least once. That may be true, but if anything, the numbers for men are higher. Nearly two-thirds of all violent crime victims in the U.S., and three-quarters of homicide victims, are male.

It is quite true that, historically, domestic violence was often shamefully neglected and victims of rape encountered widespread bias. But today, many advocates want to swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme: Any man who is cleared of charges of abusing a woman is assumed to have “gotten away with it.” So much for the presumption of innocence.

Most congressmen who voted for VAWA probably don’t embrace feminist theories of “gender violence.” They were motivated by the desire to “do something for women” and perhaps, ironically, by the old-fashioned chivalry that holds that harm done to women merits special consideration.

Actually, it’s unlikely that VAWA’s civil-rights remedy would have benefitted many women. For most victims of rape or domestic violence, civil litigation makes little sense since the perpetrators have no assets to collect. Only a handful of VAWA suits have been filed in the nearly six years since the bill was passed.

Most VAWA supporters frankly admit that the real purpose of the law is to send a message about violence against women. That message, however, is not a message of equality. It’s a message that combines the traditional paternalistic belief that women deserve special protection from harm with the feminist fictions of a male “war against women,” pitting the sexes against each other instead of treating offenders and victims as individuals. It’s a message the Supreme Court has done well to reject.