Want to End Violence Against Women? Don’t Read the Washington Post

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Commentary Violence

Want to End Violence Against Women? Don’t Read the Washington Post

Andrea Grimes

A recent Washington Post article put fault for abuse squarely on the shoulders of "women in unhealthy, unsafe relationships [who] often lack the power to demand marriage," as if the only thing standing between a belt and a bruised baby is a woman who didn't ask for a ring hard enough.

On Tuesday, two conservative academics took to the virtual pages of the Washington Post‘s new opinion blog, PostEverything, to implore America’s loose-moraled single ladies to stop getting themselves and their bastard kids beaten up by men who would otherwise love to love them, if only they could call those floozies “wife.”

PostEverything appears to be living up to its name: This is the same opinion blog that on Sunday published a rape-denying George Will piece that said sexual assault and rape survivors benefit from a coveted and privileged status on college campuses. It sparked the #SurvivorPrivilege hashtag, started by Wagatwe Wanjuki, and personal testimonies from survivors all over the Internet, including here on Rewire.

Post everything? Post anything, apparently. Literally anything.

In the Tuesday article, authors Brad Wilcox—a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia who has used his connections to anti-gay groups to help produce homophobic “research” to be used as political leverage by conservative lawmakers—and Robin Fretwell Wilson—a Washington and Lee University law professor who, in New York Times opinion piece once defended the “good” done by religious organizations when they are allowed to discriminate against gay and lesbian people—wade into dangerous, and racist, correlation-is-causation waters to argue that when women marry men, they keep themselves and their kids away from the dangers of domestic violence.

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The piece’s outright misogynoir—that is to say, its specifically anti-Black misogyny—is laid bare in the the original headline, subhed, and deck that some actual living human being (or group of human beings) chose for the piece, and the subsequent changes made sometime around lunch on Tuesday. The original: “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married. The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies” became “One way to end violence against women? Married dads. The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids.”

It doesn’t take a sociology PhD to know who the Washington Post is talking about when it talks about people who have “baby daddies” in their lives: women of color, specifically Black women. And the authors speak directly not to the “boyfriends” committing acts of violence against their partners and their partners’ children, but to the women (of color) who fail to get their wedding industrialized shit together in the eyes of these patriarchy-pushing professors. Wilson and Wilcox aren’t doing sociology—they’re white people playing the respectability police.

And they’re also ensuring that once again, the onus falls on (female) victims of violence to end the wrongs done to them, rather than on the perpetrators of violence to stop committing criminal acts, or even on society or media to rethink the perpetuation of damaging cultural narratives.

Wilcox and Wilson start off by appropriating the #YesAllWomen hashtag, wherein thousands of women the world over spoke out about the violence, abuse, and assault they experience at the hands of men, for their own purpose: the reinforcement of patriarchy.

This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers.

What follows is an astounding exercise in “Not all!” rife with bad, and badly biased, social science with a laser-focus on singling marriage out as a magical panacea for intimate partner and child abuse. The authors initially draw on a 1994 Department of Justice data survey, arguing that because “never married” women are most likely to be the victims of violent crimes (all violent crime, not just intimate partner violence), the clear solution is at the altar. Never mind the fact that, using the same data set, one could just as easily argue that women who have had “some college” are about as likely to be victims of violent crimes as women who never graduated high school—but there’s no easy get-back-in-the-kitchen cultural prescription there.

For both men and women, the most reliable academic data shows that income level, not marital status, is the clearest indicator of whether they will be personally affected by violence. People with fewer resources are more likely to be victims of violent crimethey’re also less likely to marry. But that doesn’t mean marriage ends violenceindeed, according to that 1994 Department of Justice study, divorced and separated women are the most likely, in terms of marital status, to be victims of violent crime.

Guess marriage wasn’t the cure for those families, after all.

Using Wilson and Wilcox’s logic and drawing from that DOJ study, the best way to not be a victim of violent crime, for a heterosexual woman, is to be widowedto have a dead husband. Whither the WaPo think piece, “One way to end violence against women? Dead dudes.”

In all of their claims, Wilson and Wilcox work backward from the data, instead of forward. “Marriage” is a goal, a consequence, an inevitable and naturalized resting state, rather than the result of a confluence of socio-cultural factors that include wealth, religious affiliation, parental status, and geographic situation. While research does suggest that children are more likely to be abused when they live in a household without one of their “natural” parents, the logical draw from that is not that marriage will turn an abuser into a shining and chivalrous knight.

Wilson and Wilcox put fault for abuse squarely on the shoulders of “women in unhealthy, unsafe relationships [who] often lack the power to demand marriage,” as if the only thing standing between a belt and a bruised baby is a woman who didn’t ask for a ring hard enough. Women in unhealthy, unsafe relationships emphatically need not “demand marriage”—they need to get the hell out of dodge, and they need to be empowered to do so with the help of, as a start, gun regulation that takes deadly weapons out of the hands of their partners.

In fact, when people “demand marriage,” they might very well be abusers themselves: Pressuring a partner to commit quickly to an exclusive relationship is one of the brightest red flags when it comes to identifying a domestic abuser. This is a pattern of behavior obscured by notions of “romance” in popular heteronormative narratives, seen in everything from Twilight to big box-office rom-coms featuring a reluctant female lead and her dogged pursuer, relentless in his attempts to cajole her into giving him a chance.

Never discussed in the Wilcox and Wilson piece is the idea that marriage might make some people who experience domestic violence far less likely to report itand less likely, if it is reported, to pursue charges. Spouses cannot be compelled to testify against their spousal abusers. Marriages are much harder to leave, legally and logistically speaking, than are other domestic arrangements.

Indeed, Wilcox and Wilson fail to take into account any of the underlying reasons that make some people more likelyand more able, and more inclinedto get married in the first place, and attribute some of the benefits that people enjoy, post-nuptials, to the marriage itself rather than the wide array of factors that enable and encourage them to marry at all. In their Washington Post piece, marriage as an institution lives independently from social, economic, and cultural influence, a stand-alone entity with no meaningful connection to wealth, education, or social mandates, and is posited as an all-purpose remedy for the ills and evils of modern America:

But marriage also seems to cause men to behave better. That’s because men tend to settle down after they marry, to be more attentive to the expectations of friends and kin, to be more faithful, and to be more committed to their partners—factors that minimize the risk of violence. What’s more: women who are married are more likely to live in safer neighborhoods, to have a partner who is watching out for their physical safety, and—for obvious reasons—to spend less time in settings that increase their risk of rape, robbery, and assaults.

The idea that marriage itself would cause men to behave better is patently preposterous—as if slapping on a tuxedo for a night and driving away into the sunset in a can-clanging convertible is going to automatically disabuse a man of any notions he ever had about entitlement to women’s bodies, and ownership thereof. This is retro-nostalgia dressed up as academic legitimacy, a fundamentally patronizing and backward-thinking yearning for days when Mom greeted Dad at the door with a martini and a roast in the oven—days that never existed for most working Americans.

In the midst of it all, some good has come out of the WaPo piece: the hashtag #AbuserDynamics, started by Mikki Kendall and Lauren Chief Elk in the wake of a powerful Twitter conversation about manifestations of abuse in their own lives and in the larger social sphere. It’s a better, more nuanced multi-logue than anything Wilson and Wilcox bring to the table as they obfuscate their own conservative endgame. #AbuserDynamics focuses on giving people the tools to recognize, and potentially escape from, abusive relationships, and a forum for people lucky enough to have lived through them to share their experiences—a better, more realistic, and more empowering take than the Washington Post’s simplistic advice: put a (right-wing) ring on it.