The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Violence — whether police or domestic — has no place in America

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), at lectern, gestures toward then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) at news conference in Washington on Feb. 24, 1993, to discuss the Violence Against Women Act. (Barry Thumma/AP)
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Last week’s column on the failure of law enforcement to treat fairly people of color or those with different religious creeds, sexual orientations and gender identities drew a spot-on response. A reader wrote that I incorrectly framed the issue as a problem only confronting “marginalized groups.” To which I confess “mea culpa.”

The writer pointed to statistics on domestic violence and rape that reflect how few perpetrators ever go to prison. “Read up on how consistently police called to domestic violence situations protect the abusers and blame the victims, sometimes even charging them for defending themselves, not merely denying protection, but actively making the problem much worse.” Indeed, I have come across such accounts, but I didn’t have good data on actual police mishandling of domestic violence situations. The reader, however, is correct when she calls attention to bearers of the consequences of sexual abuse and assault.

In a review of Justice Department National Crime Victimization Surveys, the nonprofit group RAINN — short for Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network — found that only 0.5 percent of perpetrators end up behind bars. Only 4.6 percent of rape or sexual assault incidents even result in arrests.

This much seems clear: Throngs of women are being left to suffer in silent agony as their attackers merrily get on with their lives.

Frankly, I should have known better.

I delved into the problem as far back as 1973, when as one of his legislative assistants, I researched and drafted for Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) landmark legislation to create a National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape, to be housed within the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare. With the tireless lobbying assistance of Mary Ann Largen, director of the National Organization for Women’s National Task Force on Rape, the measure survived presidential opposition (and cloakroom snickering by conservative congressional reprobates). The center was established as a source of federal assistance to support and guide research on the reform of rape laws at the state level.

My reader, thankfully, brought front and center the continued severity and frequency of domestic violence — which is formally described as the willful intimidation, abusive behavior, and physical and sexual assault by one intimate partner against another.

It is a form of violence that inflicts within the spirit of equal opportunity — without regard to race, age, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation or nationality. No generation is excluded.

The numbers are huge, as well as the costs.

The nonprofit National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) keeps track of the devastation.

I won’t try to compare data on police shootings with incidents of domestic violence. The gross nature and widespread impact of domestic violence speak for themselves. NCADV fact sheets show that:

  • On average, nearly 20 people are physically abused every minute in the United States.
  • 1 in 4 women have been victims of severe physical violence (such as burning, beating or choking by an intimate partner).
  • 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime. (The figure for men is 1 in 71.)
  • Almost half (46.7 percent) of female rape victims in the United States were raped by an acquaintance.

Beyond the physical and psychological damage, domestic violence’s economic toll is staggering. According to the coalition, victims of intimate partner violence lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year. The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $8.3 billion a year.

And the job site is no haven. Between 2003 and 2008, 142 women were murdered in their workplace by an abuser.

It fell to President Biden to tell the American people about the deadly scope of domestic violence.

In Wednesday’s speech before a joint session of Congress, Biden called for reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which has been law in this country for 27 years since he first wrote it. Biden said it will close the “boyfriend loophole” — a gap in who is covered by federal gun restrictions on domestic abusers — to protect more women.

“It’s estimated that 50 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner every month in America,” Biden said. “Pass it and save some lives.” Violence — whether police or domestic — has no place in America.

This week’s lesson — which should not even need to be taught — is that whatever its ugly form, abuse must be fought without regard for anything but humanity.

No group has a monopoly on abuse.

Read more:

Ruth Marcus: Biden puts renewed focus on the Violence Against Women Act. What will female voters think?

Lizette Alvarez: Puerto Rico’s women have been heard — finally

Jamie Gorelick and Layli Miller-Muro: U.S. asylum law must protect women

Ann Telnaes: The big picture of violence against women

Sabrina Malhi: Tech, self-defense tips or pepper spray won’t save women