Thursday, August 18, 2011

Words matter: Make VAWA gender neutral

The necessity for, and the excesses of, VAWA and similar laws have been written about by many others. The subject of this post is far more limited.  At the very least, VAWA needs to be renamed, and the gender references need to be neutral.  There can't be any plausible dispute about that.

It is only fair when we talk about our armed forces that we refer to "the men and women" serving in the military, not just "the men." The proportion of males to females in the military is still heavily lopsided in favor of the former, and men continue to suffer nearly all military fatalities, but a failure to refer to "women" would be unfair to the many dedicated women who serve. 

Use of gender inclusive language has become the norm in virtually every other aspect of life as well. As but one example, writers of texts routinely are given editorial guidelines to insure that their language is gender neutral, regardless of whether the particular subject matter is one that would more likely involve one gender than the other. 

Even on this blog, we include "women" in our subtitle even though males have a near monopoly on victimization from wrongful sex claims. Why do we do this?  Because some women also suffer--directly, and more commonly, indirectly--from false sex claims, and it is important to signal to them that their victimization is worthy of attention, too.

So isn't it time to rewrite VAWA as gender neutral?  It is now clear that men, too, suffer from domestic violence in significant numbers. "A number men's and father advocacy groups often cite statistics and studies from the Department of Justice to the Centers for Disease Control to State Universities, that show women are the perpetrators of violence against men as often as men are the perpetrators of violence against women."  See here.

Congressman Ted Poe, Texas Republican and longtime I-VAWA supporter, doesn't agree that men suffer from domestic violence in equal numbers, but says he would now support re-writing the legislation as gender neutral.  Poe says that even though the current law is also applicable to male victims of domestic violence, he thinks it might be time for a name change. He also favors replacing references to "women" in the act with gender neutral language.  “The Constitution uses ‘person.’ They thought of it long before we did, so 'person' is an appropriate term,” he noted.  Id.

The fact is, "[n]othing in the act denies services, programs, funding or assistance to male victims of violence.” See here.  So why is it necessary to make the language of VAWA gender inclusive?  Because words matter. The very title, and the gender exclusive language, of the current VAWA serve as a de facto "MEN NOT WELCOME" sign that only reinforces eons of harmful, gender constricting cultural stereotypes--stereotypes that make it very difficult for men to acknowledge their victimization from domestic violence, much less to do anything about it.

And while we are insisting on the importance of gender inclusive language in VAWA, we need not bother reiterating what has become a near obsession in some quarters--insisting that men's victimization is equivalent to, or worse than, women's. This is done to counteract the blithe and inexcusable omission of male victims from the public discourse about domestic violence, but it's not necessary. It is enough to assert that, by any measure, men suffer from domestic violence in significant numbers, without trying to pin down a mathematically precise percentage, which is likely as impossible as pinning down a percentage of false rape claims.  No one requires equivalency when it comes to any other aspect of life where gender inclusive language is now the norm, and the never-ending debate about gender "equivalency" in the domestic violence milieu creates an artificial hurdle to treating male victimization with the seriousness it deserves.  It is enough to assert that too many women, and too many men, are victims of domestic violence.

Congressman Poe wants to see clarification about VAWA's aims, as well. He wants to see clarification in terms of how domestic violence is defined. "We’re talking about people getting hurt. We’re talking about people having to flee in the middle of the night for their safety and that this bill is addressing violence not name calling—not suggestive behavior--but the word violence," he said.  "When we get to re-drafting the bill, it must be clear enough that we are talking about somebody getting hurt. Physical harm and serious bodily injury is a good definition of domestic violence. But I agree. I think that needs to be very clearly defined and not some abstract feeling or [someone] getting their feelings hurt."