In 1978 in Salem, Oregon, a married woman who had been a victim of domestic abuse accused her husband of rape. The rape and the accompanying violence inflicted upon her by her spouse was not a new thing for the woman; the ability to have the state intercede on her behalf was. Prior to 1978 Oregon rape laws mirrored those of the rest of the country, in that cohabitation was a legal defense against rape. (In most states this defense was extended to husbands who were estranged or legally separated from their wives.)
The story sparked a national controversy. The concept that a woman should be allowed to refuse her husband’s sexual advances, violent or otherwise, divided the country’s progressives and conservatives along wholly predictable lines. That the victim had been beaten, bloodied, and dragged about her house by the hair was not in dispute. Nonetheless, most of the national press stories focused on the defense’s arguments that she was sexually dysfunctional, frigid, and might well have once had a lesbian encounter. According to the defense attorneys (who did not deny that the defendant had forced himself upon her), criminalizing such violence was a “wholesale feminist view [of rape]” which would only be pursued by “a manipulative woman seeking either revenge or fame.”
Within three hours of closing arguments, the jury acquitted the husband. The couple was divorced soon after the trial. Once divorced, the defendent would break into his ex-wife’s house to continue the harassment; he was eventually jailed for these later transgressions.
By then the genie was out of the bottle, however. Not surprisingly, the idea that women might have some say about the legal use of their bodies turned out to be extremely popular with women. Within twenty years each state had done away with its cohabitation defense, and other similar grassroots efforts began to seed changes in how we Americans viewed rape. In my freshman year my university announced that it would start pressing charges against male students who raped women while on a date. At the time, it was a revolutionary step (If she didn’t want sex, why was she alone with him?!) and I remember that the newly minted phrases “date rape” and “no means no” were openly mocked as a feminist overreach created for the sole purpose of hurting men.
When I think back on the extreme, vitriolic conviction of those that fought bitterly against efforts to punish perpetrators of marital rape and date rape, I find myself asking the same question, over and over:
How is it possible that these people could not see how far on the wrong side of history they stood?
As previous noted by both Zic and Nob, today is the day of One Billion Rising. Ironically, it’s also a time when the expired Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is in real jeopardy of not being reauthorized. As with those who stood against the criminalization of marital and date rape, I find myself baffled that those looking to put the death knell in this law cannot see how history is going to view them.
Signed into law in 1994, the VAWA was a federal reaction to both widespread violence against women and the inability or unwillingness for local authorities to protect its victims or prosecute the attackers. (As US News’s Anson Kaye wryly noted, prior to 1994 “if you robbed someone you were more likely to face punishment than if you raped them.”)
Far from a reach toward Utopian ideals, the VAWA’s mandates are relatively modest: It primarily provides funding for legal aid for victims, rape kits, shelters, crisis centers, awareness training, and community prevention programs. In addition, it sets rape national shield standards, protects women being evicted due to being the victim of domestic abuse, and looks to establish special protection programs for disabled women. (It also created a mechanism for female victims to sue their attackers in federal court, since it was assumed that certain communities were more skittish than others about punishing men for alleged rape and abuse. However, the Supreme Court struck down this part of the VAWA in 2000.)
If government statistics are to be believed, it’s hard not to declare the VAWA a success – at least in part. Since 1994, incidents of “intimate partner violence” have decreased 76%; female murder victims in that same group have decreased 35%. What’s more, state laws have begun to reflect the ideas and ideals set forth in the VAWA: Raping a victim that you know is no longer considered a lesser crime than raping a complete stranger and stalking has become illegal in all fifty states. Victims of rape are no longer forced to pay for their own rape investigation. The National Domestic Violence Helpline receives over 22,000 calls a month; 92% of those callers report that it is their first call for assistance.
And yet it now appears that the VAWA might well become a thing of the past. Social conservatives within the GOP Senate unsuccessfully voted against extending the VAWA’s provisions, but it appears the House Republicans are in a position to scuttle the Act for a second year in a row.
There are a number of reasons offered by those voting against. It is true that some of these objections have to do with the Act’s newest provisions: The proposed VAWA now looks to extend its protections for victims of rape and abuse to partners in same-sex marriages, Native Americans on tribal lands, and undocumented workers – all of which is a step too far for many in the GOP. But many of the objections are philosophical and ideological. Many conservative Republicans simply do not like that it is a Federal program. They see the previous system – where states were allowed to determine what extra protections and preventions, if any, should be afforded women – was a better model. But tellingly, at least from a historical perspective, was the reason given not only by social conservative Senators and Congressmen, but also the Heritage Foundation and FreedomWorks:
The VAWA will just encourage women to fraudulently claim they are the victims of violence and rape.
The more things change, and so forth. This lynchpin argument for those opposing violence-against-women legislation remains the same today as it was twenty, forty and sixty years ago: If we criminalize such violence, women might run wild with false accusations and we men will be at their vindictive mercy. I find this argument bizarre, and telling. Of course it’s possible to falsely accuse people of rape or other violence against women – just like it’s possible to falsely accuse people of every other crime we prosecute. When I was in my early twenties a disgruntled co-worker who had embezzled money from the company accused me of the theft in an unsuccessful attempt to throw corporate investigators off of his trail. I didn’t come away from that experience with the conclusion that we should stop prosecuting those who commit theft.
It is perilously easy to forget how hard our culture has fought against the idea of protecting women from men within our own lifetimes. The truth, however, is both that we’ve come a remarkable distance in the past few decades and that we’ve still got a fair way to go. Politically speaking, this puts conservatives at a tremendous disadvantage since just about half of all potential voters in most elections are women.
In my lifetime, resistance to change in longstanding cultural traditions – and the seemingly irresistible urge to oppose “feminazis” – has put conservatives (initially) on the wrong side of history with issues such as the state’s ability to prosecute men for marital rape, date rape, spousal abuse, and domestic violence. In addition, they (again, initially) stood opposed to women being able to find legal remedy for sexual harassment, unequal pay, family leave, employment termination due to pregnancy, ability to sue for unpaid child support, and paternity testing when a man refused to fess up to sexual dalliances. In my father’s generation before me, conservatives fought hard to keep status quo laws that unilaterally allowed one gender to commit justifiable homicide in cases of marital infidelity, granted unwilled estates to sons rather than spouses or daughters, and disallowed prosecutions of rape where there were no third-party witnesses.
It would be a mistake to hang conservatives today for any of these positions (well, almost any of them, anyway), but mothers talk to daughters and cultural memory runs long. Because of this, fair or not, the perception of being anti-women is a cross that conservatives must bear today. What is less clear is whether or not they necessarily have to continue to bear that cross into the future.
It seems painfully obvious to me that on domestic violence legislation, the GOP is swimming hard against the inevitable tide of history. (It certainly doesn’t help that their opposition to the VAWA follows so closely on the heels of mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds, threats to charge rape victims who take morning after pills with tampering with evidence, and statements that pregnancy shows you probably weren’t raped.)
They’re going to continue to slowly lose this battle, and they’ll do incalculable damage to their brand along the way. And thus a choice: They can choose to reexamine their fear of allowing men to be as legally vulnerable to women as women are to men, or they can prepare to be forced to try to explain to the deaf ears of my kids’ generation of women why the accusations of misogyny are unfounded, leftist propaganda.
Conservative GOPers pride themselves on being the party that sticks up for the victim and are willing to get their hands bloody getting tough on the perp. The last thing they need right now is to add an asterisk that says, “except in cases of violence against women.”
Republicans that want their party to get a whiff of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 2016 might want to call their congressmen soon.
 Interestingly, even though it was a hot-button topic at water coolers around the country some Oregon newspapers refused to cover the story at all. The Silverton Appeal-Tribune actually announced its refusal to dignify the story with an article in its editorial page, declaring “what goes on in a bedroom between a husband and a wife is only between them and their Creator… No jury would ever convict a husband under this new Oregon law.”