How would the lives of everyday women be changed if they said #MeToo? Would their candor and bravery be applauded and believed like their rich and famous counterparts, or would they be silenced once again and relegated back into the homes of their abusers? Violence against women is a complicated and multifaceted issue. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately one-third of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner or sexual non-intimate partner violence in their lifetime. The majority of this abuse is intimate partner violence, which can look like physical, sexual, or emotional abuse against a partner. Though sexual assault does affect both men and women, women are more likely to be victimized while men are more likely to be perpetrators.
Like most women and girls, I have been taught to be vigilant of the strange predators lurking in the shadows, but evidence and personal experience prove that we are more likely to be hurt by those closest to us than by an imagined assailant. Washington, DC is not exempt from this plight, and as with most issues, existing socio-economic, racial, and safety factors exacerbate intimate partner and domestic violence in the area. Violence against women ages 13 and above in the DC Metropolitan Area is rampant and disproportionately affects marginalized populations such as people of color, non-English speakers, and members of the LGBTQ community. However, intimate partner violence can be combated and reduced through DCPS implemented prevention programs and Congress’s continued reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, also known as the VAWA.
Domestic violence and intimate partner violence are pervasive in women’s lives. In her 2018 research synthesis of domestic violence experiences in DC, UMBC assistant professor Nkiru Nnawulezi states, “In total, 39% of DC women experienced physical assault, sexual assault, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. 35% of DC women reported physical assault by an intimate partner during their lifetime. 50% of DC women reported psychological aggression by an intimate partner during their lifetime” (8). Violence against women in DC is highly prevalent and happens at a higher rate than the national average of about 1 in 4 women. In DC, 7 out of 10 adult sexual assault victims knew their attacker prior to the assault yet when the offender was a prior or current intimate partner, 77% of rapes were not reported to the police (Metropolitan Police Department), which exacerbates their invisibility. Additionally, intimate partner violence and domestic abuse often begin before the age of 18. A fact sheet from the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence shows “24% of youth in middle and high school reported experiencing physical or sexual dating violence in 2017. This represents a 4% increase of reports of dating violence among middle and high school students from 2015. Lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) high school students were more than 2 times more likely to report physical dating violence by the person they were dating compared to heterosexual youth” (Domestic Violence in the District of Columbia 2017). In DC schools, physical and sexual violence is common, yet intervention programs are few and far between, and prevention programs scarce. LGBTQ students, who already deal with the burden of acceptance and safety from their communities, are more likely to be victimized. DC public schools desperately need to implement domestic and intimate partner violence education and prevention programs because their inaction allows these harmful behaviors to continue into adulthood.
Intimate partner and sexual violence can have several repercussions for those directly involved and their families and societies. The World Health Organization states that intimate partner violence can result in fatal outcomes, injuries and disabilities, STDs, reproductive issues, and mental health issues like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (Violence Against Women 2017). The myriad of negative consequences this violence has on the women affected can be a deficit to physical and psychological health. It can also further result in isolation, inability to work, and loss of wages. Additionally, physical and sexual abuse often limits women’s ability to care for their families. Children raised in families with violence are more likely to suffer from behavioral and emotional issues. They are more likely to experience or perpetrate intimate partner violence later in life. However, with an intimate partner, victims are pressured to stay with their abuser and abuse is more likely to be repeated, making this type of assault particularly damaging. In reality, a relationship is not a barrier to assault but can be used as an excuse and can aggravate abuse. As intimate partner violence continues to rear its ugly head in our communities, it rips apart lives, and its presence perpetuates the cycle of violence.
There are known risk factors for victimization and perpetration of intimate partner violence. These include lower levels of education, poverty, acute mental disorders, family history, and alcohol or drug abuse. Social norms that ascribe men a higher status and oppress women also increase the risk of intimate partner violence (Violence Against Women 2017). These social norms also increase victim blaimg; victims of sexual assault are more likely to be blamed for their assault than other victims of interpersonal crimes, especially when they know or have a relationship with their attackers. Such victim blaming worsens negative effects, excuses rape, and decreases the likelihood the crime will be reported, which is particularly harmful when you consider that the majority of sexual assaults are already not reported to law enforcement. Homeless women also are more likely to fall victim to or be adversely affected by intimate partner violence. “Nearly one-third of unaccompanied homeless women in D.C. indicate that violence is the cause of their current homelessness or house instability, and 63% of unaccompanied homeless women with past experiences of violence and trauma report at least one act of violence against them during their current period of homelessness or housing instability” (Domestic Violence in the District of Columbia, 2017). Survivors of intimate partner violence are often forced to choose between their safety and wellbeing or their housing. While these risk factors are universal, some (like poverty, homelessness, or low educational attainment) are especially prevalent in minority communities. Furthermore, stigma around mental health in minority communities often restricts people from seeking help which may heighten abuse.
Washington, DC is a socio-economically segregated city. Even as gentrification creeps in, ward is often correlated with income and education level. So the fact that in 2017, Wards 7 and 8, both wards with lower median household income and majority African American residents, received the most domestic-violence-related calls for service (Domestic Violence in the District of Columbia, 2017) is particularly troubling. Black women face the second-highest rates of intimate partner violence out of all women, and are two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than white women. Black women are often more reticent to approach law enforcement for fear of putting their Black partner behind bars or not being taken seriously. Members of the non-English-speaking and the LGBTQ+ communities also disproportionately fall victim (District of Columbia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, 2019). Although DC is a sanctuary city, this does not fully mitigate the fear of deportation and the stigma immigrants, who are often non-English speaking, feel. This serves as an obstacle when asking for help against intimate partner violence. In the LGBTQ community, fear of being outed augments toxic relationships and behaviors. Overall, society’s transgressions often overlap so much that they are difficult to separate from one another. There is so much intersectionality between marginalized communities that increases the prevalence of intimate partner and domestic violence.
While comprehensive legislation is key in combating this violence, political partisanship may be preventing further action and costing lives. A day after a mass shooter murdered seven Asian women in Atlanta, justifying his crimes with racism and misogyny, 172 Republicans voted against the VAWA. The VAWA, initially passed in 1994, was the first US federal legislation acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes. Under the VAWA, DC is seen as a state; therefore, the legislation applies. It is designed to prosecute intimate partner and sexual violence and provide support to survivors and their communities. However, it needs to be reauthorized and revised every five years. The new 2019 provisions in VAWA include those directly impacting DC like safe housing for survivors to prevent homelessness, increasing investment in domestic and sexual violence prevention, and promoting financial security for survivors (Violence Against Women Act). These new provisions would close the “boyfriend loop,” prohibiting current or former dating partners convicted of stalking or abuse charges from buying a firearm, thus making it a target for NRA-friendly legislators (Corbett). The NRA should not be involved in writing this legislation since continued revenue, rather than the safety of women, is their priority. The firearm provision is paramount; the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that 35% of all women killed by men are killed by an intimate partner with a firearm. Many Republicans in Congress also oppose the bill for its new protections for transgender people and same-sex couples, despite harrowing statistics like 30-50% of transgender people experiencing intimate partner violence in their lifetime (Corbett). VAWA should not be a partisan issue, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many women to stay at home with their abusers. By painting VAWA as a red versus blue issue, we mitigate its major positive ramifications.
VAWA was created to recognize the severity of crimes associated with domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It included funding victim services and evidentiary matters as well as the first federal criminal law against battering. Under VAWA, domestic violence and homicide as a result of domestic violence have serious consequences. It has made guidelines and penalties for intimate partner violence clearer, and its mandatory arrest laws make crimes easier to prosecute and lift some of the burden from survivors. VAWA has continually proved to be effective. After its passage, the rate of intimate partner violence against females and males age 12 and older significantly declined from around 2.1 million in 1993 to around 907,000 in 2010, and the number of intimate partner violence homicides among males and females has decreased (Modi, Palmer, Armstrong, 2014). It has also increased reporting of intimate partner violence. As long as VAWA continues to be reauthorized and revised, it will continue to reach the scope of everyone in need, help prosecute domestic violence and intimate partner violence, and save countless lives.
Although intervention at a national level is important, we need action at local levels as well. We live in a reactive society when we could save lives by being proactive. There is a jarring lack of intimate partner violence and sexual assault prevention programs. The existing ones are primarily focused on mitigating potential victims’ risk of being attacked rather than focusing on offenders. While the VAWA is helpful, it too is somewhat reactive and there are other potential ways to reduce physical and sexual violence against women. Men who rape tend to start young, in college and even high school. DCPS can help prevent intimate partner violence and sexual or physical assault by educating students on consent and teaching healthy and safe dating and relationship skills. In addition, schools should teach students about the different types of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse that can occur in relationships, the signs, and the effects. Schools should create atmospheres where students feel safe to report their experiences and have access to the necessary support, and where commonplace sexual harassment and assault are condemned. DCPS can implement this through teacher training, reviewing and revising sexual education curriculum, discussing warning signs with parents, and school-wide assemblies or events dedicated to prevention, to name a few examples. Programs like Shifting Boundaries and Safe Dates have been promising in reducing dating and sexual violence among adolescents. Shifting Boundaries is a prevention program designed for middle schoolers on sexual harassment and the precursors to dating violence, involving schoolwide interventions and classroom lessons. According to the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs’ study on the use of Shifting Boundaries in New York middle schools, for students who participated in both schoolwide intervention and classroom programs, there were statistically significant reductions in the prevalence and frequency of total sexual victimization and a significant reduction in the total victimization by peer (Shifting Boundaries). Safe Dates is a similar program designed to prevent dating violence victimization and perpetration. The program was subject to formative research in fourteen North Carolina public schools, and researchers found the program was effective in preventing and reducing perpetration among teens already using violence against their dates (Foshee and Langwick). Evidence-based programs like these could be beneficial for DCPS.
Overall, physical and sexual violence against women locally and nationally can be detrimental not only to the victims and their communities but to society at large and have an undue impact on vulnerable and minority populations such as communities of color, non-English speakers, and the LGBTQ community. Ultimately, sexual assault is not an act of lust and loss of control, but a crime. Nothing overrides consent. Nonetheless, the continued reauthorization and expansion of the Violence Against Women Act and implementation of preventative programs can help reduce its impact. Violence and oppression against women are ubiquitous, transcending time and space across all the geographic, cultural, social, racial, and economic boundaries society has strategically placed. So when are we going to decide to value the lives and safety of our women over the pride and aggression of our men?
District of Columbia Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. 2019 Report on Domestic Violence Fatalities in 2015, Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, 2019, https://ovsjg.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ovsjg/service_content/attachments/DVFRB%202019%20Report%20on
“Domestic Violence in the District of Columbia.” Microsoft Word – 2017 DCCADV Statistical Snapshot (2).Docx, DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2017, dccadv.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2017-DCCADV-Statistical-Snapshot.pdf
Corbett, Erin. “The Majority of House Republicans Don’t Support the Violence Against Women Act.” Republicans Voted Against Violence Against Women Act, 18 Mar. 2021, www.refinery29.com/en-us/2021/03/10374286/violence-against-women-act-republican-vote-support
Foshee, Vangie, and Stacey Langwick. “Respect Works: Safe Dates: Violence Prevention Works.” Violence Prevention Works from Hazelden Publishing, www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/safe_dates.page
Modi, Monica N, et al. “The Role of Violence Against Women Act in Addressing Intimate Partner Violence: a Public Health Issue.” Journal of Women’s Health (2002), Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., 1 Mar. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3952594/