This social media outpouring makes it clear that some men pose a real threat to the physical and psychic welfare of women and girls. But obscured in the public conversation about the violence against women is the fact that some other men are more likely to protect women, directly and indirectly, from the threat of male violence: married biological fathers. The bottom line is this: Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and 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.
Start with the threat that girls face from men. One of the most comprehensive portraits of sexual and physical abuse of girls (and boys) comes from the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. As the figure above indicates, children are more likely to be abused when they do not live in a home with their married father. What’s more: 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. Indeed, the report notes that “only 0.7 per 1,000 children living with two married biological parents were sexually abused, compared to 12.1 per 1,000 children living with a single parent who had an unmarried partner.” The results from this federal study are consistent with academic research (see here and here, as well) that indicates that “girls who are victimized are … more likely to have lived without their natural fathers,” and that the risk is especially high when a boyfriend or stepfather is in the picture.
The risk of physical abuse also increases when a child lives without her father, once again, particularly when an unrelated boyfriend is in the home. A 2005 study published in Pediatrics found that “[c]hildren residing in households with unrelated adults were nearly 50 times as likely to die of inflicted injuries than children residing with 2 biological parents.”
Women are also safer in married homes. As the figure above (derived from a recent Department of Justice study) indicates, married women are the least likely to be victimized by an intimate partner. They are also less likely to be the victims of violent crime in general. Overall, another U.S. Department of Justice study found that never-married women are nearly four times more likely to be victims of violent crime, compared to married women. The bottom line is that married women are less likely to be raped, assaulted, or robbed than their unmarried peers.
What’s going on here? Why are women safer when married and children safer when living with their married biological parents? For girls, the research tells us that marriage provides a measure of stability and commitment to the adults’ relationship, that married biological fathers are more likely to be attentive and engaged with their children because they expect the relationship to be enduring. As a consequence, unrelated males are less likely to have sustained interaction with children of the family when dad has a day-in-day-out presence in the home. More generally, the “emotional support and the supervision” that engaged fathers provide to their children can limit their vulnerability to potential predators, as David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, has observed.
For women, part of the story is about what social scientists call a “selection effect,” namely, women in healthy, safe relationships are more likely to select into marriage, and women in unhealthy, unsafe relationships often lack the power to demand marriage or the desire to marry. Of course, women in high conflict marriages are more likely to select into divorce.
But marriage also seems to cause men to behave better. That’s because men tend to settle down after they marry, to be more attentive to the expectations of friends and kin, to be more faithful, and to be more committed to their partners—factors that minimize the risk of violence. What’s more: women who are married are more likely to live in safer neighborhoods, to have a partner who is watching out for their physical safety, and—for obvious reasons—to spend less time in settings that increase their risk of rape, robbery, and assaults.
To be sure, it doesn’t take a viewing of “The Burning Bed” or “Safe Haven”to realize that married men can and do abuse or assault their wives or daughters. Marriage is no panacea when it comes to male violence. But married fathers are much less likely to resort to violence than men who are not tied by marriage or biology to a female. And, most fundamentally, for the girls and women in their lives, married fathers provide direct protection by watching out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters, and indirect protection by increasing the odds they live in safe homes and are not exposed to men likely to pose a threat.
So, women: if you’re the product of a good marriage, and feel safer as a consequence, lift a glass to dear old dad this Sunday.
W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, directs the Home Economics Project at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies. His most recent book is Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives and you can follow him on Twitter: @WilcoxNMP
Robin Fretwell Wilson is the Roger and Stephany Joslin Professor of Law and Director of the Program in Family Law and Policy at the University of Illinois.