Washington Post's domestic violence mess: Horrendous column needs more than a headline change

Some geniuses have found the way to turn violent men away from violence: Marriage contracts and diamond rings!

Published June 11, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

Probably the best thing about the latest piece of garbage that the Washington Post opinion section has given the Internet is that an editor seriously thought that he (or she) could save the thing by changing its headline and subhead. So while it was first announced as, "One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married," with the subhead, "The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies," the piece soon became, "One way to end violence against women? Married dads," with the subhead, "The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer with fewer boyfriends around their kids."

Shockingly, people stayed pretty mad about the whole thing. Because the headline was hardly the only problem. Rather than present the social science with the heavy dose of qualifiers, context and skepticism deployed by the the actual researchers who produced it and the experts who have grappled with it, writers W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson -- a professor of psychology and a professor of law, respectively -- decided to go all in and argue that women should stop being so promiscuous and/or selective about whom they legally bind themselves to if they don't want to be raped or violently abused. Because apparently marriage contracts and diamond rings have the power to turn violent men into not violent men?

Now both of these writers are going to call this a misrepresentation of their argument. They will probably say that they are just presenting social science and data as it stands and not trying to turn it into a behavioral proscription, despite the fact that the piece is exactly that.

And here are the reasons why these excuses will be bullshit.

The piece leaves out everything that actually makes the presence of a husband or father in the home a sometimes positive indicator when it comes to physical and sexual abuse. Here is one of the experts Wilcox and Fretwell Wilson referenced in a passing link -- without actually going into any detail about -- on what's actually more important than the mere presence of fathers and husbands in the home:

David Finkelhor, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and director of its Crimes against Children research center, said that how a father relates to his family matters more than his mere presence in reducing sexual abuse.

"I do think the quality of the parental relationship is the most important thing," he said. "Having an open, secure and communicative relationship with at least one parent is important."

And here are Jenny Murphy-Shifflet and Scott Berkowitz -- two other experts on sexual abuse linked to but not quoted -- on the same:

Murphy-Shifflet said fathers can be role models for their children.

"Model good, healthy relationships with their partners," she said. "I know it's important that children grow up in homes where they see adults being respectful."

Berkowitz said how fathers relate to their children can play a vital role in reducing and preventing sexual abuse.

"A kid who has a good relationship with their parents is, hopefully, more likely to let their parent know if someone is mistreating them," he said.

Here's another one of those experts on what having a husband or father in the home does to deter violence: "There is no effect in the home."

So the actual lesson of the social science is not that marriage is the solution to violence against women, but that cultivating nonviolence, trust and open communication in our relationships -- and in men -- really matters. Having these things in place with even one parent or trusted adult can make a world of difference to a survivor of abuse. But the way that Wilcox and Fretwell Wilson frame this information is dangerously misleading.

Being legally married to a woman does not mean that a man will not violently abuse her. Being the biological father of a child does not mean that a father will not violently abuse that child. And in situations in which the woman or child is victimized by someone other than the husband or father in their lives, they generally will not disclose this abuse to a person -- husband or father or not -- whom they don't trust or feel safe around. We know all of this because we see it happen. Again and again and again and too many times again.That this point need be articulated as a corrective to a piece run in a national newspaper is embarrassing and terrible for all of us.

And rather than abuse being contingent on women's decision to marry or not marry, these findings boil down to the most obvious point imaginable: Men who are not abusive do not abuse women. But abusive men will abuse women regardless of the nature of the relationship. Abusive men abuse women they are married to. Abusive men abuse women they are dating. Abusive men abuse women they do not know. The problem is not unmarried women. The problem is abusive men.

Wilcox and Fretwell Wilson also present the social science they've based their argument on in a total vacuum -- without mentioning any of other factors that the research they cite takes into heavy consideration -- in the service of making a bullshit argument about marriage being the salve to heal all of our social and political wounds. And even if it were true (it is not true) that marriage on its own was a magic remedy when it comes to violence against women, wouldn't we feel compelled to ask additional questions to ensure that women and children in all kinds of relationships have access to the same safety and bodily autonomy? Wouldn't we want to do that instead of just suggesting that everyone get married and stop having babies outside of marriage if they don't want to get raped? Isn't this just slightly more palatable than placing the blame for violence against women on the shoulders of the women who lose their lives every single day because of it?

The editors at the Washington Post clearly thought the headline needed some work, but everything in this wildly misleading and misogynistic shit heap also needs to be cut. Well, except this line:

Marriage is no panacea when it comes to male violence.

That line can stay.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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Domestic Abuse Editor's Picks Gender Marriage Media Criticism Rape Violence Washington Post Women #yesallwomen