The recent Washington Post article titled “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married” is a misguided and unhelpful examination of the pandemic of violence against women.
The title is particularly problematic, falling neatly into the classic narrative of victim-blaming, and while the rest of the article is a little more nuanced, it is still highly problematic.
First, the analysis of vulnerability to violence lacks any discussion of social class, ignoring the interconnectedness of poverty and violence. Second, it disregards the difference between reported rates of violence and actual rates of violence, even though rape and domestic violence are drastically underreported.
The authors do not address social class in their analysis. The article states that unmarried women with children are the most likely to experience intimate partner violence, but this is unsurprising considering 30 percent of single mothers are living in poverty and poor people, particularly women, are more likely to be victims of violence.
Economic dependence on an abusive partner is one of the many factors that may keep women in abusive relationships.
Though they point out that single mothers are more vulnerable to violence, by ignoring social class and the feminization of poverty, the authors miss the point.
This doesn’t mean that the solution is for those women to get hitched, it means that we need to get women out of poverty by providing a better social safety net, end the gender and race pay-gap, pay people a living wage, and provide affordable childcare.
Another factor left unaddressed is the underreporting of abuse and sexual violence within marriages.
Women are unlikely to go to police for a variety of factors, and marriage can make women more dependent on a partner, less able to get the help they need to leave an abusive situation, and less likely to report abuse:
Experts estimate that survivors of marital rape are less likely than other survivors of violence to report their assaults to formal service providers, friends, or family members…. Reporting rape in marriage may become even more complicated because of a woman’s relationship to her assailant. Women raped by their husbands may hesitate to report because of family loyalty, fear of their abuser’s retribution, inability to leave the relationship.
Also contributing to underreporting is that many married women don’t define their experiences of forced sex within marriage as sexual assault and may believe that sex as part of marital duty or not even know that marital rape is against the law.
This shouldn’t be surprising seeing as marital rape was only (finally) criminalized in all 50 states in 1993. In many states, the criminal penalties for marital rape are less severe, thus reinforcing the idea that it’s not rape if it occurs within a marriage.
Studies also show the pervasive problem of police unresponsiveness when women do report marital rape.
This article does nothing to address the problem of the underreporting, the failure of laws to adequately criminalize violence within marriages, the failure of police to take this violence seriously, and the cultural perception that husbands are entitled to rape their wives.
Even if husbands can provide women with “direct protection” from harm, women shouldn’t have to attach themselves to a man to free themselves from violence. That does not liberate women and is not a solution to the problem, just a Band-Aid for a gaping wound.
We need to have a productive conversation about violence against women, but this article perpetuates dangerous ideas about gender roles and reinforces a culture of victim-blaming.
(FiveThirtyEight has a breakdown on the misuse of statistics in this op-ed from The Washington Post. )