The Violence Against Women Act: discrimination against men?

The NOW Legal Defense Fund (NOWLDF) is suing the feds over a Pennsylvania marriage promotion program. The program apparently provides “employment services” to fathers but not mothers.

The marriage movement is bound to run into further problems like this as they push their agenda. Not all marriage movement people are chauvinists and gay-bashers, but they’ve nonetheless aligned themselves firmly with chauvinists and gay-bashers, and that’s bound to lead to problems.

Tom Slyvester of Family Scholars Blog more-or-less admits that the NOWLDF folks are correct to object to this sexist program. He also points out that it’s unfair to judge the entire marriage movement by one sexist program in Pennsylvania. So far, so good – I agree with all of that. Then Tom writes:

Ms. Brown also adds, “When a program offers services to men and not to women, that’s indisputable discrimination.” I don’t remember: did NOW Legal Defense fight the Violence Against Women Act for that same reason?

NOWLDF, of course, lobbied hard for passage of VAWA and the various VAWA sequels.

However, despite its title, it’s not at all clear that VAWA discriminates based on sex. Most of VAWA is written in scrupulously sex-neutral language. Take this passage (from a part of VAWA later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, because the Court felt that Violence Against Women isn’t sufficiently related to interstate commerce):

(b) RIGHT TO BE FREE FROM CRIMES OF VIOLENCE- All persons within the United States shall have the right to be free from crimes of violence motivated by gender (as defined in subsection (d)).
(c) CAUSE OF ACTION- A person (including a person who acts under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State) who commits a crime of violence motivated by gender and thus deprives another of the right declared in subsection (b) shall be liable to the party injured, in an action for the recovery of compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive and declaratory relief, and such other relief as a court may deem appropriate.
(d) DEFINITIONS- For purposes of this section–
(1) the term `crime of violence motivated by gender’ means a crime of violence committed because of gender or on the basis of gender, and due, at least in part, to an animus based on the victim’s gender…

I know the legalese is painful reading, but still – it’s clear that this is not a law that created one law for women and a different law for men. Before the Supreme Court overturned the federal crime aspects of VAWA, VAWA convictions included women arrested for violence against men (see, for instance, Rita Gluzman’s arrest and conviction, reported by AP on 3/22/1999).

Other parts of VAWA aren’t so clear-cut – for instance, I suppose someone could read the bits funding research, rape crisis lines, and the like as providing funding exclusively to helping women. In practice, however, VAWA hasn’t excluded male victims; rape crisis lines help anyone who calls them, and some VAWA-funded research has interviewed victims of both sexes (pdf file).

(Men’s rights advocates often claim that VAWA explicitly discriminates against men in its provisions, but I haven’t seen anyone quote an actual passage from VAWA to prove their case. To be fair, I haven’t read all of VAWA – but even if some obscure, discriminatory passage exists, that doesn’t alter the fact that the overwhelming majority of the legislation is sex-neutral).

To imply that VAWA is as discriminatory as providing employment training to men only is ridiculous.

* * *

That said, I think Tom’s argument misses the boat in another way. Like opponents of Affirmative Action, Tom ignores the difference between attempts to combat discrimination and discrimination itself.

As I wrote in an earlier post (I’m recycling freely from that post in this post, incidentally), it’s tempting to respond to VAWA by asking “so where’s the Violence Against Men Act?” Taken out of context, VAWA does seem pretty unfair. Why should the government focus on what happens to women?

But VAWA wasn’t written outside of context. In reality, crime is not sex-neutral. The majority of criminal violence against men is “stranger violence”; men are assaulted in bars, attacked by muggers, raped in prison. For women, in contrast, the majority of violence is “intimate violence”; women are beat up by husbands, raped by acquaintances.

Here’s where context comes into play. Our courts and our cops have been designed mainly to prevent stranger violence – which is to say, the kind of violence that happens mostly to men. You want to know where the Violence Against Men Act is? Virtually our entire criminal-justice system – at least, the bits dealing with violent crime – has been a Violence Against Men Act, for most of its history. Violence that happens primarily to women – intimate violence, date rape, and so on – has been ignored until recently.

VAWA isn’t adding bias to a sex-neutral system; it’s an attempt to correct a system which has for centuries been overwhelmingly biased towards the needs of men.

UPDATE: David Blankenhorn, also of Family Scholars Blog – using the rather bitter tone that has, alas, become the norm for his postings – argues that the employment-for-dads program is an example of good intentions leading to a mistake. From what David writes, I think that’s probably true.

It’s rather ironic, however, that David simultaneously asks us to give his friends’ motives the benefit of the doubt, while writing that he has “no doubts” that the folks at NOW have evil intentions. Apparently giving people you disagree with the benefit of the doubt is something David thinks his opponents should do, but he himself should not.

Also, David strongly implies that NOWLDF’s lawyers are racists – without, needless to say, providing a speck of evidence to support his mean-spirited insinuations. (As far as I can make out, David thinks that NOWLDF should give a pass to sexist policies if some of the administrators running the policy are black. Oy.)

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29 Responses to The Violence Against Women Act: discrimination against men?

  1. Pingback: Tales from a Yeti Suit

  2. 1
    ginmar says:

    It’s because the mother has been the primary caregiver for years before the divorce—and probably the primary housekeeper as well. Maybe that even caused the divorce, who knows? But every time I see somebody bitching about how women get custody so much more than men, it’s like they’re totally unaware that women still do vastly more than men with the kids.

  3. 2
    neko says:

    Quadratic, I could pull up examples from my own childhood friends, and current female friends who are divorced and either do not have custody of their children (even if they were SAHM’s), or have joint custody. So?

    I suggest you read “Dividing the Child”, a book that takes a far more nuanced and critical look at custody.

  4. 3
    Ampersand says:

    As I recall, around 90% of custody decisions are made by the divorcing parents, without any intercession from the court system. And even for those parents who enter the court system, many of them end up deciding custody themselves in negotiations, rather than the court issuing a ruling on custody. It’s true that the overwhelming majority of parents end up deciding on mother-custody, but since that decision isn’t made by the courts, it doesn’t prove courtroom bias.

    In the cases examined in Dividing the Child, when the courts decided, men got the outcome they were asking for (which was often joint custody) about 50% of the time.

    As Dividing the Child points out, the data doesn’t really prove bias in either direction. From Dividing the Child:

    We have found that although mothers receive sole physical custody in the vast majority of cases, the proportion of joint or father custody outcomes approaches 50 percent for high-conflict families. At first blush, this finding would appear to disprove allegations that the California divorce process reflects and perpetuates gender bias. Why, after all, shouldn’t a 50-50 distribution of outcomes suggest gender neutrality?

    Both advocates for women’s rights and advocates for fathers’ rights would probably reject this reading of our findings, and in fact the presence or absence of gender bias in the legal process is not so simple to establish. A fathers’ rights group might well argue that since the overall gender ratio in cases where there are conflicting requests is 2 to 1, the law in action still reflects a maternal presumption. Why, after all, would fathers who conceded custody at lower levels of the conflict pyramid have settled for less than they wanted if they believed they had a 50 percent chance? Advocates for women, on the other hand, would counter that our findings demonstrate that escalation of legal conflict over custody clearly operates to the benefit of fathers. As we demonstrated in Chapter 3 before divorce mothers are the primary caretakers of children far more often than men. Thus, a 50-50 distribution of outcomes should be considered neither fair nor neutral. Rather, a “fair” distribution of outcomes should reflect differences in the care-taking base rate for mothers and fathers.

    [?]Alternatively, suppose that, on the merits, custody claims of mothers were, on the average, no stronger than the claims of fathers. (Imagine a judge going into her chambers and flipping a coin in all contested cases.) The outcome ratios might still vary by conflict level if most mothers simply cared more about the custodial outcomes than most fathers, and were therefore more prepared to escalate the conflict to a higher level rather than settle for less than their preferred custodial alternative. Because it takes time and energy to work one’s way up the conflict pyramid, this would imply that only in a small minority of families would the father be prepared to pay the price, even though those who did so might have a 50 percent chance of prevailing.

    [?]But one thing does seem reasonably clear: our finding that the gender ratio of custody decrees at the top approaches 50-50 even though the overall ratio among conflicted cases is closer to 2 to 1 in favor of mothers demonstrates neither the presence nor the absence of gender bias.

  5. 4
    Quadratic says:

    No apology necessary, but appreciated.

    It is a well known fact that nationwide, 80% of physical custody is given to mothers.

    Every friend you ever had that came from a broken home lived with his/her mom. Who are you fooling?

    Yes, that’s a generalization, there are exceptions.

  6. 5
    Jake Squid says:

    Quadratic says: “Every friend you ever had that came from a broken home lived with his/her mom.”

    I can write a list here, starting with my first spouse, who lived w/ their fathers.

    And another of shared custody.

    In fact, the more I think about it the more of an equal split it seems to be in people that I have known. Not a valid sample by any means, but it puts paid to Quadratic’s statement.

    What I want to know is WHY “80% of physical custody is given to mothers” (if that is true). Is it gender discrimination? Or are there other reasons (mother has been primary care giver for X years)?

    I think that what you are expressing is far too complex to be boiled down “women get all rights regarding children in divorce custody cases.”

  7. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Jake wrote: If you can’t be bothered to offer supporting documentation, kindly shut up and go away.

    Just to be clear, Jake isn’t speaking for me. My feeling is that people who can’t offer supporting evidence shouldn’t “shut up,” but should be willing to admit that what they’re offering is an anecdotal observation, not a fact.

    I also want to remind Jake and other folks that I prefer discussions here to remain civil, insofar as it is possible.

    How does this prove that “crime is not sex-neutral”?

    Because the sex of a victim strongly predicts the type of crime most likely to happen to them. (Of course, there are individual exceptions). If crime were genuinely “sex-neutral,” then sex would not be a useful factor in predicting what kind of crime is likely to happen to a person.

    Do you believe the current laws regarding domestic violence are insufficient?

    Laws regarding domestic violence vary so much from state to state that it’s impossible to answer this question. Speaking in general, though, I think it’s less a matter of “insufficient” as “not always correctly aimed.” I favor the approach that DV should focus on empowering the victims, rather than on trying to get the highest possible conviction rate (e.g., I don’t support laws that use coercive tactics to force victims to testify).

    Although we need DV laws, in the end I think criminal law is not the only or even the best approach for fighting DV. It may be more important to provide economic and social programs to enable victims to control their own lives; the DV laws should act to enhance that.

  8. 7
    Hestia says:

    Quadratic, I know two mothers who were, in my opinion, screwed over by the courts when it came to custody matters during their own divorces. One was married to an abusive husband.

    So you can understand why I don’t place much credence in anecdotal evidence. I’d like to know what the laws are, specifically, and how exactly they favor mothers in (as you imply) every case. If you can’t outline them, then I can only doubt your assertations.

  9. 8
    Jake Squid says:

    I will apologize to Quadratic here. It’s just my frustration over “I’m not going to do research for you” got to me. Amp is perfectly correct, that you should admit to offering anecdotal observation – not fact. Again, sorry Quadratic. I’ll try not to do that again.

  10. 9
    Hestia says:

    They are a reaction to laws, judges, and a court system that overwhelmingly favor women on the basis of their gender in cases of child support, custody, visitation, and accusations of abuse.

    Please outline California and Florida’s paternity laws for me, and provide other evidence that this statement is true. I’m not saying it isn’t, just that I have learned not to trust anyone who makes claims without backing them up. (Anecdotal evidence–i.e., “I know lots of guys who…”–doesn’t count. Keep in mind I can come up with counterexamples.)

    The answer for a women’s rights attourney is “whatever benefits my client.”

    So you’re saying that “attourney”s shouldn’t try to help their clients? How does that make sense?

  11. 10
    Quadratic says:


    I’m not going to research anything for you, put I can tell you as, a single father, that when my daughter’s mother and I split, I had to petition the court for the legal right to see my kid.

    I was immediately slapped with child support and given no legal rights. My ex got physical custody regardless of the fact that she’s a walking piece of crap that can’t keep a job, and spends my daughters money keeping her tan saddlebag brown.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with her raising my kid if she would get off her lazy ass and set some kind of example.

    Women, by default, have all the rights regarding children. Even after we petition for visitation, men are given (usually) every other weekend. 4 days per month. 48 days a year. Over an 18 year period, the law is giving us the right to 12% of our children’s physical upbringing. Fair?

  12. 11
    Quadratic says:

    sorry about the typos, I was all riled up!

  13. 12
    Jake Squid says:


    Nobody is asking you to do research to support opposing positions. You must provide evidence supporting your position when asked, otherwise you must state that you are giving an opinion (as opposed to a fact). If you can’t be bothered to offer supporting documentation, kindly shut up and go away.

  14. 13
    DookieHed says:

    Wow, that was rude.

  15. 14
    Raznor says:

    Quadratic – see the problem with personal experience is that you’re subject to your biases. This isn’t downplaying personal experience, it’s recognizing the limits of personal experience as a rhetorical tool. My mother works in family law, so I realize that a lot can happen in custody cases, it’s easy for an abusive partner to gain the favor of a judge, either partner is subject to the competence of his/her lawyer, and all are subject to the prejudices of the judge (although most judges are careful to try to be objective despite their prejudices, they are after all still human). So in an individual case, there would be no telling if what occurred is indicative of a greater legal or judiciary trend. If you’re interpretations in your case are valid (since I don’t know you I shan’t judge one way or the other) it doesn’t mean that that case is common.

  16. 15
    TheYeti says:

    I think the men’s rights activists aren’t truly that concerned with abused men.

    They are a reaction to laws, judges, and a court system that overwhelmingly favor women on the basis of their gender in cases of child support, custody, visitation, and accusations of abuse.

    While I agree there is certainly more reason to protect women with the courts – I can understand the anger and the hatred at courts that overwhelmingly dismiss evidence of competence or accuracy in favor of protecting women.

    California and Florida’s paternity laws come to mind. In fact, it is exactly those paternity laws that probably lead to a default position of opposing women’s organizations.

    The real question, which is rarely addressed, is how much discrimination on the basis of gender is acceptable to right historical wrongs?

    The answer for a single man caught in the systmem is none. The answer for a women’s rights attourney is “whatever benefits my client.”

    It’s why we can’t simply negotiate a compromise.

  17. 16
    Quadratic says:


    “In reality, crime is not sex-neutral. The majority of criminal violence against men is “stranger violence”; men are assaulted in bars, attacked by muggers, raped in prison. For women, in contrast, the majority of violence is “intimate violence”; women are beat up by husbands, raped by acquaintances.”

    How does this prove that “crime is not sex-neutral”? And what, exactly, does that mean? I know you’ve heard the saying “Justice is Blind”. Violence is just plain violence. Anyone spreading it should prosecuted to the fullest extent.

    From the little I read about this, it seems that the motivation of the violence, in order to qualify for prosecution under this act, must be based on sex. Are wives and girlfriends assaulted because they are women, or because they are convenient targets?

    Do you believe the current laws regarding domestic violence are insufficient?

  18. Feminists are viciously and regularly accused of being “sexist” unless they can prove that they spend exactly half of their time, money, effort and resources on men. Because something that “only” benefits women is not seen as important enough on its own – strange, huh?

    I’ve written more about this on my website,

    It seemed relevant to the discussion, I hope that’s okay.

  19. 18
    Raznor says:


    You’re allowed your share of topical blogwhoring (or in this case, article advertising) just like everyone else.

    Besides the article seems quite interesting.

  20. 19
    Trish Wilson says:

    >As Tom just pointed out to me in email,
    >the fatherhood movement is another
    >thing entirely, and they’re hated by the men’s righters too.

    That’s right. The fathers’ rights movement has been miffed at the fatherhood movement for years, first because the fatherhood movement gets more media coverage and attention from the government, and second because it doesn’t focus on the “rights” of men in divorce and custody cases. That said, I have my own disagreements with the fatherhood movement as well, as I’ve often mentioned on my blog and in previous articles.

  21. 20
    Trish Wilson says:

    >Complaining about where the Violence
    >Against Men Act is is akin to complaining
    >about where the Americans Without Disablities Act
    >is. […] We dont have a VAMA because
    >it would address a problem that does not exist.

    That’s not true. I know that you are referring to abused men, but the fact is that most violence against men is committed by other men, not by women. Regarding abused men, the criticism against VAWA by men’s rights activists has been fueled by a persistant myth that men and women are equally abusive. That’s where the complaints about “bias against men” regarding domestic violence services comes from – that “battered men” are discriminated against by domestic violence shelters. Every case that made this claim (conveniently pushed by men’s rights activists) has been thrown out of court. The “equal abuse” myth minimizes the seriousness of violence against women, while at the same time it ignores the men who have been abused by women. While these men are in the minority, it is not women’s job to provide help for them, although many shelters do anyway. If men’s rights activists were really concerned about abused men, they would do something for them rather than attack services for abused women.

  22. 21
    Quadratic says:

    Interesting, Sheepfarmer, that simply disagreeing with your line of thinking makes someone a misogynist. I believe women should be protected, but are the current laws insufficient? If we are all to be considered “equal” do we need differentiating legal definitions?

    Would I betray my inner misogynist if I said out loud that the NOW organization, though solid in theory, is run by a lunatic, man hating minority? Most women have, at best, a smirking attitude toward NOW.

    You make a valid, though repetitive, point about making laws which are redundant by default. You lost me with the labeling “misogynist” for what is actually “opposing viewpoint”.

  23. 22
    Raznor says:

    Quadratic, no one will label you a mysogynist for having an opposing viewpoint, but you should be careful about saying stuff like:

    Most women have, at best, a smirking attitude toward NOW.

    I’m glad you have such a compelling understanding of what most women think of NOW. And you lost me with the label “lunatic, man hating minority” for what is actually “opposing viewpoint.”

  24. 23
    Echidne says:

    A very good explanation of the VAWA’s role. I wish I had had you by my side in some debates; I don’t always think too fast standing on the tip of my tail.

  25. 24
    Echidne says:

    But after checking the site you linked to, I must sorrowfully admit that David Blankenhorn is every bit as much a misogynist as he ever was. (I read his book where he said that the best thing wives can do is just be quiet when their husbands tell the family to do something; and I remember some interviews with him where his vitriol broke out.)
    Too bad. It’s hard to deal with the men’s rights activists when so many of them think that men’s rights=women’s duties.

  26. 25
    Ampersand says:

    Actually, one of the strange things about this is that David isn’t a men’s rights activist. There’s a big idealogical split between the men’s rights folks and the marraige movement. From here in feminism, they can all look the same – but the men’s rights folks hate David B..

    I should post about this sometime, but I believe the big split is over the issue of male responsibility. The men’s rights folks (and their siamese twin, the fatherhood movement) want to diminish male responsibility: that’s why they want to do things like reduce child support payments and support far-out policies like Choice For Men.

    The marraige movement folks, on the other hand, want men to take on more responsibility for what happens to their children.

    What the two movements have in common are their support for traditional (and in my view oppressive) gender roles, their dislike for feminism, and their general support for conservative politicians.

  27. 26
    Ampersand says:

    Whoops. I messed up when I said the fatherhood movement is aligned with the men’s rights movement; I should have said that the “father’s rights movement” is aligned with the men’s rights folks.

    As Tom just pointed out to me in email, the fatherhood movement is another thing entirely, and they’re hated by the men’s righters too.

  28. 27
    Raznor says:

    The thing is, since women are the ones who will be helped more often by VAWA it’s de facto discrimination against men.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I must now beat my own head repeatedly into a wall for even thinking such a fucking ridiculous argument.

  29. 28
    sheepfarmer says:

    Complaining about where the Violence Against Men Act is is akin to complaining about where the Americans Without Disablities Act is. We don’t need to address a problem of accessability in polling places, courthouses, schools, etc. and all the myriad issues addressed in the Disabilties Act with a Abilities Act for the simple fact that there is no problem with the accesability for able people.
    We dont have a VAMA because it would address a problem that does not exist. This kind of thinking is called being in a state of denial. We have many such pieces of legislation to deal with actual problems, The Jobs for Veterans Act (where is the Jobs for non-veterans act?)Why a No Child Left Behind Act?, what about a No Adult Left Behind Act. I think we need a Concrete Stabilization Act to be fair since we have the notorious Soil Stabilization Act of 1998, Bill 12-854.
    I think someones misogyny is showing.