With all the talk about marriage these days, there is a tendency in certain corners to promote it as a panacea for social ills. You see this approach, for instance, when people suggest marriage as a cure for poverty, as if one thing causes the other. Now comes the latest argument for marriage – that it protects wives and children from violence.
In a fairly regressive argument, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson, in an essay for The Washington Post, argue that women should get married so their husbands can protect them from other men. I’m all for these “married biological fathers” that Wilson and Wilcox, using a stack of statistics, praise as the supposed solution to women getting abused, assaulted and raped. Heck, I’m even married to one. But the authors are cherry-picking the data, and to disturbing ends.
Part of the problem with this argument, as with the reasoning that marriage solves poverty, is that is confuses correlation with causation. Okay, married women lead safer lives than unmarried ones, according the data Wilcox and Wilson cite — but is it because their husbands are wielding baseball bats against midnight intruders, and leaping in front of stray bullets? Or is it because unmarried women and poverty and rough neighborhoods tend to come bunched together in a bouquet of tough odds? The 1994 study that the authors cite, showing unmarried women at greater risk of violence, also states that widows are the “least likely of all to be violent victims.” But if I suggest that women start offing their husbands to increase the odds that they remain safe, would that seem harebrained, an illogical leap? Yes. Because it is.
Wilson and Wilcox point out that “married women are less likely to be raped, assaulted, or robbed than their unmarried peers.” But here’s another statistic, from 2007: of female murder victims, 24 percent were killed by a spouse or ex-spouse, 21 percent by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Women are much, much more likely than men to be killed by their “intimate partners.” So marriage protects against violence in some cases, if you believe the Wilson/Wilcox argument; in other cases, it quite literally kills.
How does that make sense? In fact, it seems more likely that marriage doesn’t cause either one; and that marrying into an abusive relationship is no more a solution to violence than simply dating the abuser. In fact, being legally bound through matrimony may make it significantly harder for a woman to get out of an abusive situation. A blanket recommendation to marry certainly doesn’t solve this problem.
The second aspect of the authors’ argument is that children are better protected from potential abusers when their fathers are around. “Girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father,” they write. But later, they get at the nub of it: “girls and boys are significantly more likely to be abused when they are living in a cohabiting household with an unrelated adult—usually their mother’s boyfriend.” Is the solution, then, to marry the children’s father – despite whatever underlying problems might have kept a couple from doing that in the first place – or to keep the boyfriend out of the home? And, for that matter, does the fault lie with the mother’s failure to marry, or with the abusive actions of her boyfriend?
This gets at the most troubling aspect of this reductive essay, which is the way the authors make abuse the woman’s problem. Framing it this way, not surprisingly, leads to a more conservative argument. The notion that women should get married so they don’t get beat up sounds curiously similar to an argument other cultures propose, which is that women should cover themselves because men cannot be trusted not to look, touch, and worse.
The whole point of the #YesAllWomen campaign, which the authors cite, isn’t that women need one man to protect them from another man, but that men need to take responsibility for their own violence and misbehavior. The solution to male violence is neither that we should cover ourselves more, nor that we need cloak ourselves in the supposed protection of marriage. The solution is men behaving better, and our culture demanding more of them.
Libby Copeland, a former Washington Post staff writer, is a writer in New York.