The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expired four days before Christmas, one of the many consequences of the 35-day partial U.S. government shutdown. Congress first passed the act with strong bipartisan support in 1994. Coming in the wake of the 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the act aimed to strengthen the criminal justice system's responses to domestic and sexual violence and to improve services to victims.
As well as being a domestic issue of major importance, suppressing violence against women is a geopolitical matter, one part of the soft power of the United States that has made so many nations willing (and sometimes even eager) to embrace American leadership of a democratic, liberal world order. But this leadership no longer seems guaranteed. American positions on a wide range of issues — from climate change and welfare to nationalism and the use of force — regularly clash with those of its closest allies, to the extent that these allies are losing confidence in American leadership. The leaders of the U.S. intelligence community warned the Senate Intelligence Committee on Jan. 29 that this erosion of confidence will be one of the country's major strategic concerns in the coming years.
A Shaky Commitment?
The United States looks particularly shaky on its commitment to gender equity. Half a century after both houses of Congress passed an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, the required number of state legislatures still have not ratified it. In 2003, the United States found itself aligned with Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Sudan in objecting to the United Nations' wish to add a paragraph to its Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women that called on governments to "condemn violence against women and refrain from invoking any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination." The revelations that inspired the #MeToo movement, the spectacle of Brett Kavanaugh's 2018 Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the steady rollback of abortion rights suggest to some allies — particularly in Western Europe — that even women's most fundamental rights, over their own bodies, are far from inviolate in the United States.
The history of VAWA seems consistent with this. From the beginning, it faced challenges that suggested — at the very least — that gender equity did not rank very high on the list of some Americans' priorities. In addition to an immediate attempt to defund the act, a long legal battle began over a clause allowing women to open suits in federal courts against their male attackers. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down this provision, ruling that it violated the Constitution's Commerce Clause.
Congress then reauthorized a more modest version of VAWA with bipartisan support in 2000 and 2005, but in the 2010s, the act was repeatedly treated as a pawn in struggles over other hot-button issues. Its champions eventually won another long struggle in 2012-13 to extend its provisions to same-sex couples and provide undocumented immigrants who had suffered sexual assault with temporary visas to remain in the United States. When the act came up again for reauthorization in September 2018, 46 members of the Republican Party wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Republican, recommending renewal. However, Ryan reacted to a proposed clause banning gun sales to anyone subject to a protection order or found guilty of stalking, offering instead to only reauthorize it for a short term. When this expired on Dec. 7, 2018, Congress renewed VAWA again, but just for 14 days, whereupon arguments over building walls on the Mexican border generated the partial government shutdown that swallowed up the act. It was reauthorized again when the government reopened on Jan. 25 — but only until Feb. 15, when, unless some compromise on border security and immigration emerges, the government will shut down again.
Disagreements Over What to Count
Is having a VAWA really such a trivial matter that it should be subordinated to so many other issues? According to Kofi Annan, a former secretary-general of the United Nations, "At least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime." If he is right, an act that reduces this violence and abuse (and VAWA, almost everyone agrees, has been effective) surely deserves reauthorization. The problem, though, is that obtaining reliable statistics on what is actually going on is not as easy as Annan made it sound.
Murder is the least problematic area, because homicide is hard to hush up. Globally, men commit 19 out of every 20 murders and men are four times as likely as women to be the victim. In this, the United States is typical: 78 out of every 100 homicide victims are men. These male-to-female ratios have barely changed in recent years, even though overall homicide rates have been falling in many countries. In the United States, the homicide rates for men and women are half what they were in 1980, with the result that less than eight in every 100,000 men and two in every 100,000 women can now expect to be murdered each year. In the medium term, however, rates have been more variable. Between 1900 and the mid-1930s, Americans were roughly twice as likely to be murdered as they are today. In the 1940s and 1950s, rates fell to roughly where they are now. In the 1960s and 1970s, they bounced back to early-century levels before declining again to today's record-low rates. In the long run, though, homicide rates definitely have come down sharply since the 19th century, especially in the former slave states.
We might interpret these figures as meaning that there is not actually much need for a VAWA. There have been ups and downs, but life is becoming more secure for both women and men, without either sex needing special legal protections. However, the details matter. While only 1 male homicide victim in 14 is currently killed by a domestic partner or family member, fully half of all female homicide victims are victims of domestic violence. Saving men's lives calls for pacifying the streets, while saving women's lives calls for pacifying the home — which is precisely what VAWA was designed to do.
Saving men's lives calls for pacifying the streets, while saving women's lives calls for pacifying the home — which is precisely what VAWA was designed to do.
But once we move away from the relatively clear-cut statistics on intentional homicide, things quickly become murky. Part of the difficulty involved in deciding whether legal protections like VAWA are needed is the extraordinary variety of activities that can be included under the heading of "violence against women." The first article of the United Nations' 1993 declaration says that "'violence against women' means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life." That is a big tent, and Article 2 of the declaration goes on to list 20 different categories, while stressing that its list is anything but exhaustive.
Definitions are important, because without agreement on what constitutes "violence against women," there can be no agreement on whether it is rising or falling or whether laws like VAWA are needed or not. Unfortunately, there seems to be little consensus on any of these issues. In his excellent book, Violence: A Modern Obsession, the historian Richard Bessel documents a remarkable broadening of the definition of "violence" in the past 30 years. "In recent decades," he observes, "people in many western societies have become increasingly and acutely sensitive to violence." One consequence, Bessel notes, is that in the 2010s "it is not necessary to lay a finger on someone in order to have committed an act of violence." What counts "is determined not necessarily by a supposedly objective observer but through the perception of the alleged victim." Looking at American universities, the lawyer Greg Lukianoff and the psychologist Jonathan Haidt even argue in their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, that "the word 'violence' has expanded on campus … to cover a multitude of nonviolent actions, including speech."
Some analysts see the defining-down of violence so that it includes lectures that we do not like and opinions that make us uncomfortable as one more sign that violence (in the traditional sense, of physical aggression) is in fact in retreat. Some parts of the United States are now so rich, democratic and peaceful, they suggest, that instead of worrying that sticks and stones will break our bones, we now obsess that words will actually hurt us. But whatever the causes of the redefinition of "violence," the disagreements over what to count in this category make it difficult to reach agreement on whether it is rising or falling.
Problems in the Data
The definitional difficulty is compounded by a second problem, that of reporting. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime found in 2013 that Sweden had the highest reported rate of sexual violence, at 219 cases of sexual assault per 100,000 people per year. In the United States, less than 30 cases are reported per 100,000 people per year, while in India — despite horrendous episodes like the lethal 2012 Mumbai gang rape — the rate of reported sexual assault is just five per 100,000 people per year. No analyst doubts that these statistics tell us more about national differences in definitions of sexual assault and victims' willingness to report assaults than about actual criminal behavior. In the United States, the Department of Justice estimates that 210, rather than 30, sexual assaults occurred per 100,000 people in 2010. Meanwhile, pronouncements on the frequency of rape and attempted rape on American campuses vary so much — from as few as 1 woman in 300 being assaulted to as many as 1 in 3.5 — as to be useless.
One way to control for the uncertainty is to focus on change over time using estimates made by a single agency, so that errors and biases will at least be consistent. In practice, this means relying on the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, which points to a massive 85 percent decline in sexual assaults between 1973 and 2010. If correct, this is happy news indeed — and yet the bureau still concludes that nearly 1 in 5 American women has been raped. This implies that sexual violence has touched the life of almost everyone in the United States, and perhaps it has. Thirty years ago, my girlfriend (now my wife) narrowly escaped a convicted serial rapist in Chicago; a few weeks ago, a woman I know was raped here in prosperous, supposedly safe Northern California.
If the U.S. Department of Justice is right that 18 percent of American women have been raped — and to me, at least, the estimate sounds depressingly believable — there is still a very long way to go.
We probably can be confident that some of the worst kinds of violence against women have declined. Some have even been stamped out altogether, such as the vicious foot binding inflicted on tens of millions of Chinese girls to warp and crush their bones so their feet would only grow three to four inches (7.5-10 centimeters) long. No new case has been recorded since 1957, and in 1999, the last factory making "lotus shoes" to fit their deformed feet finally went out of business. Around 2010, the journalist Jo Farrell had no trouble finding 50 women whose feet had been bound, but the youngest was in her mid-70s. By the middle of this century, this cruel practice will have passed entirely into the history books.
Other barbaric customs survive, however. Female genital mutilation is now legally regulated, although not necessarily banned, in 23 of the 27 countries where it has been most prevalent. The U.N. International Children's Emergency Fund nevertheless estimates that 98 percent of Somali girls have been mutilated, as have 87 percent of Egypt's 47 million women. To complicate matters still further, technological change has made new forms of violence against women possible, including not just cyberstalking and cyberbullying but also the far more lethal preferential abortion of unborn girls, using ultrasound scans to find out which fetuses are female.
For all the problems in our data, they do seem to indicate that a decline in homicide rates is making life safer for both sexes and that a decline in rape and the disappearance of some barbaric customs are making life safer for women in particular. However, if the U.S. Department of Justice is right that 18 percent of American women have been raped — and to me, at least, the estimate sounds depressingly believable — there is still a very long way to go. There is as much to lament as to celebrate in this story, but the bottom line is surely that this is no time to be abandoning the Violence Against Women Act and the liberal values that have made democracies around the world want to be America's friend.