Op-Ed: The Violence Against Women Act and Why Language Matters


The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is our nation’s response to the epidemic rates of domestic and sexual violence in the United States. As its name suggests, the 1994 law focused on eradicating this violence as it disproportionately impacts women, a specifically gendered problem that was ignored and dismissed for decades before VAWA was enacted.

VAWA was fundamentally responsible for shifting our view of domestic and sexual violence from a “private, family matter” to a national social and health epidemic and creating systemic national responses.  VAWA works:  A recent report from the Department if Justice documented a 64 percent decline in intimate partner violence from 1993 to 2010. 

Since 1994, each time VAWA is reauthorized the bill is introduced with improvements made from lessons learned in the field since the previous authorization. Since the last VAWA was passed, in 2005, advocates, law enforcement, survivors and service providers working with survivors every day have provided input about what types of improvements need to be made in VAWA to fully serve all survivors.  Explicit inclusion of LGBT survivors in VAWA was among the top recommendations.

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LGBT people experience violence at the same, and sometimes higher, rates as non-LGBT people, but have far fewer resources specifically tailored to address the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. While VAWA implicitly includes LGBT people, we need to see explicit language in the law to fully address the needs of queer survivors of violence—because, as VAWA showed us, language changes attitudes.

Over the years the phrase “violence against women” has become synonymous with “domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking,” the crimes that VAWA was created to address. In 1994, this language was critical to raising the awareness of how violence specifically impacts women and how sexism and misogyny acted to protect abusive partners from reprisal.

To meet the needs of LGBT survivors of violence, we need to explicitly include them in the national discussion about ending domestic and sexual violence.

However, in 2012 this language has unnecessarily—and in most cases, inadvertently—excluded LGBT survivors from the conversation. Using “violence against women” as shorthand language for domestic and sexual violence entirely omits gay, bisexual and transgender men from the conversation and renders lesbian, bisexual and transgender women less visible. This language impacts the day-to-day resources available to LGBT survivors. 

A 2010 report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs and the National Center for Victims of Crime found that 94 percent of anti-domestic and sexual violence service providers, law enforcement and child-abuse organizations did not have programs specifically focused on the needs of LGBT people.

LGBT survivors of violence may be reluctant to engage with the traditional domestic and sexual violence-related responses, such as calling the police, going to court for a protective order or going to a domestic violence shelter. This reluctance may exist for many different reasons, including uneasy or overtly hostile relationships with the police, experiences of homophobia and transphobia within courts, or an inability to get services at a domestic violence shelter.

Gay, bisexual and transgender men, in particular, may not be believed when they disclose abuse.  Transgender people may face hostile attitudes about their gender identity and expression.

Ultimately, though, the real problem is many of the interventions we use as our national response to violence are predicated on the idea that (heterosexual, non-transgender) men abuse (heterosexual, non-transgender) women, which makes the models difficult, if not impossible, to use when working with LGBT survivors. We can change that by explicitly including LGBT survivors in VAWA—and by shifting the conversation from ending “violence against women” to ending “domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking” against all survivors.  

It isn’t that we shouldn’t continue to talk about how domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking disproportionately impact women—they do, and we need to keep talking about this. But it's not the only conversation we need to be having about this violence.

To meet the needs of LGBT survivors of violence, we need to explicitly include them in the national discussion about ending domestic and sexual violence. I believe we are smart enough to include all survivors of violence—and that there is, in fact, enough safety to go around.

Are you outraged that VAWA reauthorization is held up for political bickering? Talk about it in COMMENTS.

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Sharon Stapel is the executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP). AVP empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and support survivors through counseling and advocacy.  AVP runs the national Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. New York Anti-Violence Project | @sharonstapel