Chicago Tribune

A DISTORTED VIEW OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN

By Steve Chapman
Chicago Tribune
March 28, 1999

American women have given no indication that they suddenly feel endangered. This is hard to explain without contradicting the logic of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, much of which was struck down by a federal appeals court earlier this month. The fact that very few women noticed this blow to their safety and equality suggests that the epidemic of gender-based violence the law was designed to combat was less a social reality than an ideological myth.

Not that attacks on women are fictitious. In a society that has more than its share of violent crime, neither sex is immune. But women are less likely than men to suffer from it, and their victimization has hardly been ignored or condoned, as implied by the Violence Against Women Act.

The bill is one of a series of measures through which Washington has intruded into the politically fruitful area of crime, traditionally the province of state and local governments.

Both Congress and President Clinton have labored mightily to give the impression that they are doing everything possible to improve public safety, short of personally handcuffing suspects.

One of the few limits on their ever-expanding activities is the Constitution. Our national leaders were surprised five years ago when the Supreme Court threw out the Gun-Free Schools Act, a Clintonesque specimen of micromanagement that made it a federal crime to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of any school in America.

The court found that the Constitution didn't give Congress the authority to legislate on such matters and said, "If we were to accept the government's arguments, we would be hard pressed to posit any activity by an individual that Congress is without power to regulate."

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals says that goes for the VAWA as well. The provision it overturned gave victims of "crimes of violence motivated by gender" the right to sue their attackers in federal court. The bill's sponsors argued that assaults on women affect interstate commerce, which Congress has the right to regulate, but the court perceived this reasoning to be every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. If this affects interstate commerce, then there is nothing that doesn't--and nothing the federal government can't butt into.

Politics aside, there was no reason for Washington to step in. The VAWA was passed not long after the murder of Nicole Simpson, which was cited as evidence that the American justice system is indulgent of the physical abuse of women. But it should have been clear even then that this type of mayhem is just part of a broader social malady that plagues both sexes.

Contrary to myth, most of the violence committed by men is inflicted on other men. White men are three times more likely to be murdered than white women; black men are five times more likely to be murdered than black women. But no one interprets these figures to mean that law enforcement devalues the lives of males.

Hard-line feminists say the chief threat to women comes from the men in their lives. They would be startled to learn, as journalist Cathy Young points out in her clear-eyed new book "Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality," that more women are attacked each year by other women than by husbands or ex-husbands. The number of females suffering injuries each year from domestic abuse is not in the millions, as commonly claimed, but about 200,000.

Male attacks on women are often depicted as one weapon in a larger cultural effort to keep uppity females in their place. "Why on Earth, if battering is a product of male dominance, do lesbians in some surveys have the highest violence rates of all?" asks Young. If rape is an expression of male domination of the opposite sex, then why is it that "gay men are at least as likely to be raped by their dates as heterosexual women"?

And how do we explain the fact that in surveys that ask violent heterosexual partners who initiated the violence in their last fight, "by both spouses' reports, it was the woman about half the time"? We often hear statistics about women battered by men, but it is rarely noted that 40,000 males are treated in emergency rooms each year for injuries inflicted by their partners.

No one regards female assaults on men as "crimes of violence motivated by gender," yet the VAWA takes it for granted that when a man deliberately harms a woman, he does it out of hatred or contempt for half the human race.

The ruling against the VAWA may lead to its invalidation by the Supreme Court. Even better, it may produce a recognition that our real problem is not violence against women but violence against people.

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