Does the Violence Against Women Act discriminate against men?

Cristen Conger

Vice President Joe Biden spearheaded the Violence Against Women Act while in the U.S. Senate. © Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis

In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden spearheaded the drafting of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which President Clinton signed into law four years later. On Feb. 12, 2013, the U.S. Senate voted to reauthorize the 19-year-old bill, effectively sending it off to the House of Representatives for a likely debate. Republicans and Democrats have disagreed over additions to the VAWA reauthorization, namely provisions for gay and transgender victims of violence, expanded protection for illegal immigrant victims of domestic violence and an allowance for tribal courts to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of violent and sexual gender-based crimes.

At face value, VAWA might seem like a no-brainer, bipartisan initiative to support, especially considering its background and stated intention. The landmark legislation, which was passed as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, targeted stalking, domestic violence and sexual violence, publicly acknowledging women's risk of being a victim of violent crimes in public as well as private spaces on its most powerful platform to date. Through the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women, established in 1995 in conjunction with the VAWA passage, more than $4.7 billion in federal funding has since been distributed to state, local and tribal (VAWA includes specific measures for Native American women on tribal reservations) initiatives.

According to the White House, VAWA has "improved the criminal justice response to violence against women" in many ways, including:

  • establishing the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE)
  • toughening penalties against repeat sex offenders
  • ensuring that rape victims don't have to pay for rape kits
  • educating law enforcement officers, victim advocates, prosecutors and judges about domestic violence and sexual assault

To illuminate the need for these provisions, consider this: the National Domestic Violence Hotline went live in 1996 and received 4,826 phone calls during the first month. On Aug. 02, 2003, its one millionth call came in.

But nearly 20 years later, some conservative politicians and voters alike oppose reauthorization because they tend to disagree with the gendered nature of the legislation as well as its proposed $659 million price tag. At The Atlantic, political reporter Molly Ball highlights the primary VAWA objections, such as:

  • insufficient funding oversight
  • fears of immigration fraud
  • mandatory arrest policies that may unfairly target men
  • gender bias against accused male perpetrators

Indeed, the "Women" in Violence Against Women Act seems to raise the most hackles among VAWA critics -- male and female alike. Since men are also victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, some interpret VAWA as a form of discrimination, wrongfully overlooking a male population in need of services and simultaneously giving violent women a legal pass. From that vantage, certain opponents argue that VAWA infringes on men's 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law, which raises the question of whether the bill hurts men in the process of helping women.

Despite its name, however, VAWA is a gender-neutral measure in practice. In explaining the titling of VAWA, then-Sen. Biden said in 2005:

"The reality is that the vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women and children, and most outreach organizations take those demographics into consideration when providing services . . . The bottom line is - violence is violence no matter what gender the victim. Because of that, the Violence Against Women Act applies to all victims of domestic violence, irrespective of their gender. Nothing in the act denies services, programs, funding or assistance to male victims of violence."

The bill's language also is gender-neutral and doesn't assume guilt against accused male perpetrators, the government maintains. As the National Task For to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women underscores, "VAWA requires that "reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard is given to the person against whom the [civil protection]order is sought sufficient to protect that person's right to due process" as a prerequisite to those orders being accorded Constitutional full faith and credit."

And if the reauthorization doesn't happen during the 2013 legislative session, it won't be because of gender neutrality, or the lack thereof. The final partisan rub has largely come down to the question of broadening the power of tribal courts on Native American reservations.