A few weeks ago, the Washington Post published a piece co-written by academics W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson which suggested that violence against women and children could be minimised if more women were to get married.
The piece was originally published under the headline, “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married.” As headlines go, it’s astonishing in its brazen application of blame to women for their own victimisation. Still, this is the same paper in which George Will recently argued that survivors of campus based sexual assault experience unfair privilege, so the ignorance isn’t exactly surprising.
In the piece, Wilcox and Wilson examine data which indicates that incidents of violence against women and children increase when ‘unmarried men’ are a factor in a living arrangement. The implication of such a manipulation of data is that it is women (and specifically, mothers) who are most responsible for the abuse they or their children might suffer and not the men enacting the violence against them.
For ‘traditionalists’, it’s a convenient reading to support conservative ideas about how it is marriage and not independence which best serves women as a life goal. Conservatives already argue that marriage provides women with economic and social protection (when, fundamentally, it does neither), and articles like this will only further misrepresent marriage as a ‘sensible’ pursuit for women forced to live in a world which insists on their vulnerability.
In reality, it’s the expectation that women should sacrifice their own emotional and sometimes physical well-being for the sake of the children that is one of the leading contributors to women staying in relationships that might pose some kind of danger to them. And this places an enormous burden on women, not men, to subsume the responsibility for the protection of vulnerable minors, despite the popular fantasy of the patriarchal protector.
Sara Shoener is a gender violence researcher whose response to Wilcox and Wilson recently appeared in the NY Times. Following its publication, she was interviewed by website Science Of Us. In the course of research in which she spent time in a variety of different communities of different sizes while conducting fieldwork interviews with survivors of Intimate Partner Violence, she said, “One of the big lessons I learned was that survivors, as well as their surrounding communities, were often more concerned about maintaining two-parent households for their children than ending the abuse.”
Roughly translated, this means that the narrative of strong, solid, two parent families is actually harmful to women and children living with violent men - especially where marriage and biological fatherhood are factors. In her NY Times piece, Shoener recalls that, “Mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, judges and members of the clergy often showed greater concern for the maintenance of a two-parent family than for the safety of the mother and her children. Women who left abusive men were frequently perceived at best as mothers who had not successfully kept their children out of harm’s way and at worst as liars who were alienating children from their fathers.”
The concept of male-bestowed ‘protection’ is one that harms rather than helps women. A society which operates along paternalistic lines is one which undermines the rights of women to exercise their own autonomy and protect themselves. Instead of advising women to tether themselves to a ‘decent’ man who’ll willingly marry them and protect them from the world’s villains, we should instead be enforcing a zero tolerance policy towards those people who abuse. Men are not the conservators of women, and it’s not their morally bestowed obligation to protect us. As human beings, it is the moral obligation of everybody to refrain from harming others.
And what of the rights of women to live independent lives in which choice of partner isn’t seen as a necessary negotiation for the safety of themselves and the people they love? Women cannot and should not be made to feel like marriage is the sensible price they must pay to safeguard their children from abuse, and to suggest otherwise without at least acknowledging the deeply entrenched patriarchal oppression of that is intellectual dishonesty.
But it’s this intellectual dishonesty which feeds sexist arguments that demand women’s allegiance to patriarchal traditions. Wilcox and Wilson manage to pull off the remarkable feat of discussing the problem of abuse without ever once addressing the elephant in the room - that is to say, the person consciously perpetrating sexual or physical violence. Like so many narrative surrounding violence against women, the perpetrators are minimised and all but eradicated entirely, relegated to a shadowy figure comprised of data and ideas rather than living, breathing people who walk among us and are capable of making conscious choices. Why not shift the focus of prevention onto them, or even the social structures which allow their behaviour to continue without real consequence?
In short, it’s because it’s easier to demand that women readjust their expectations and actions to fit into a culture in which it is ‘unrealistic’ to expect that ‘evil monsters’ will play by the rules. But when women are charged with the responsibility of avoiding violence, it only makes it easier to hold them accountable when it happens to them. It’s a mass social exercise in gaslighting, and thanks to its constant repetition it’s little wonder it’s worked for so long. Why were you out alone at night? Why did you bring a strange man into your house? Why did you endanger your children like that? Why won’t you understand that men can’t protect you unless you let them? Why won’t you learn that the world is different for you?
Marriage - which was traditionally seen as the transferral of property from one man to another and whose historical benefits to women have been symbolic at best - does not ‘save’ women or protect them from the risk of violence. It is an insult to carry on this ludicrous assumption that men are best placed to protect women from other men. As a supposedly progressive society with developed intellectual understanding and compassion, we should be advocating for the rights of all people to be fundamentally protected from violence. Most importantly, we should be supporting the rights of women to protect themselves as men are given leave to.
For better or worse.