Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Pitfalls of the Mainstreaming of DV

I have been noticing more and more how mainstream the issue of Domestic Violence (DV) has become. At the end of the semester, almost all of my WS students expressed concern that we didn't cover this issue during the semester. I attended a fundraiser for the new Child Advocacy Center in Gettysburg, and was surprised to see how many of the attendees were male and staunch Republicans. BBC had a large segment on the occurence of DV in England a few days ago. Everywhere I turn, DV is talked about.

This maintstreaming of DV is a bittersweet phenomena for me. While I am thankful that finally Police Departments, D.A.'s offices, and average folks see DViolence as real and painful epidemic, I worry about how the mostly male and staunchly Republican supporters of initiatives to fight Domestic Violence frame the issue. Radical feminists put the issue of DV on the map: the started shelters, protests, lobbying, and public awareness campaigns. Their message was clear: Men who abuse are not sociopaths, rather they believe they have a right to treat women the way they do. The feminist framework for understanding the roots of DV lay in the analysis of our patriarchal society: men have more social, political and economic power; men believe they are superior to women; and, men believe they have a right to "control" women through physical and emotional abuse. Abuse, from that feminist framework, was a product of a pervasive imbalance of power, not unlike abuse stemming from ethnic and religious conflicts--when there is a power imbalance, the more powerful internalize a belief that they can treat subordinates any way they wish.

This framework still exists in the philosophy of the DV agency that I work for and in much of the literature. However, when I look upon the "mainstream" supporters, I can't help but think they have a different framework from which to understand DV. First of all, I think it is significant that the male, conservative supporters that I saw were at the Children's Advocacy Center dinner. I don't see the same crowd at fundraisers for our DV shelter. My guess is the difference is children. It's easier for them to care about the child victims of abuse, rather than the women?

But, to the point, I think the framework they use follows from a very traditional, conservative sense of what a man's role is: men are to protect, and provide for, their family. Men who hurt their wives, children, or fail to provide adequately for their family should be emasculated. In fact, I will go one further and argue that the mixing of DV advocacy with conservative politics has ripened the conditions for a new era of lynching. What? Did I just say that? Yes, I did, and let me explain.

The reason why it was difficult to get DV on the map before was because those being accused of DV were nice, church-going men who were successful business leaders, on civic boards and from all outside perspectives looked like ideal fathers. There has never been much trouble believing that there are losers, dead beat dads, and otherwise assholes. But those are "trailer trash" and the mainstream just doesn't give a shit, unless to watch the spectacle on Jerry Springer. But, to go after the ideal patriarch was unthinkable and hence why DV took so long to take hold in the public consciousness. Now that it has, I think that the images of the average wife beater that has been supplanted in the minds of the mainstream are men who aren't taking seriously their patriarch role. I take it that the mainstream is more willing to accept that men abuse women, and even men who look "decent" from the outside. But, what happens once a man is tagged an abuser, other men start to ostracize him on the grounds that he is a "bad apple." There is noting systemic about DV in their minds. The men doing it are "wimps" who need to pick on someone "weaker" than them to feel a man. This view of the typical abuser makes it possible for the mainstream to face up to DV and do something about it.

The political ramifications of ignoring complaints or accusations of abuse for an elected judge are deadly. The courts and the police take DV more seriously now and they dutifully fill out reports and award mothers who accuse their spouses of abuse full custody of children. I should be happy with this, right? Well, I am, partially. But, what concerns me is that the conservative, protectionist bent to the laws protecting women from abusers makes it easy to lynch an innocent man who is falsely accused. If you know that judges will err on the side of caution and that the mainstream now disdains any man accused of abuse--much like a woman who might have been accused of being a whore in another era--then you, if you are manipulative woman, effectively ruin the life of an innocent man. Don't get me wrong. All laws are imperfect. But, nonetheless, I fear that the particular danger to men in this political climate--conservative--is substantial.

I think the likelihood of false accusations increasing under the conservative worldview that understands DV legislation as essentially protectionist is akin to the dystopia that Margaret Atwood portrayed in the Handmaid's Tale. When Radical Feminists get in bed with the Religious Right, the feminists always lose. How I think feminists will lose if DV continues to be mainstreamed is that we will lose the more complicated view of male abuse of women. We will lose sight that it is rooted in patriarchal power. We won't see women availing themselves of this legislation because they need to free themselves from these misogynist abusers, rather we will see "conservative" women use this legislation to punish men who they think don't live up to their ideals of breadwinner (or other such complaints). We will also lose a complicated view of human nature and sexuality. We will reify in the law the false idea that all men are stronger than women and hence, all women are easy prey. Women will be seen as precious flowers that need to be guarded from the inherent predatory nature or male sexuality. These images of humanity will not support emancipation of women, nor will it challenge patriarchy. Rather, it will consolidate it.

UPDATE: zuzu has an example of what I am talking about here at Feministe.