New York Times refutes Washington Post's dangerous domestic violence claims: "Two-parent households can be lethal"

A public health researcher writes a necessary corrective to the Post's victim-blaming editorial

By Katie McDonough

Published June 23, 2014 2:20PM (EDT)

                     (Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this month, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece arguing that marriage is some kind of magical solution when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault. The piece, initially given the dog-whistling title and subhead, "One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married: The data show that #yesallwomen would be safer hitched to their baby daddies," stripped a lot of social science on marriage and violence of its context and qualifiers in order to suggest that women who don't get married are putting themselves at increased risk for being victimized by violent partners and strangers.

This is victim-blaming 101, and there have already been a number of responses exposing the dangerous claims and dubious data of authors W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson. Over the weekend, the New York Times joined the pushback (even if the Times piece doesn't directly name the WaPo) with a piece from a public health researcher who has seen how our system -- by prioritizing two-parent households -- puts survivors in danger. Sara Shoener writes that by framing two-parent households as the ultimate familial arrangement and incentivizing these arrangements through policy and coercing them through court actions, our system "tethers victims of violence to their assailants, sacrifices safety in the name of parental rights and helps batterers maintain control. Sweeping rhetoric about the value of marriage and father involvement is not just incomplete," the piece points out. "For victims of domestic violence, it’s dangerous."

More from Shoener on how victims have internalized this stigma:

After spending two years studying services for domestic violence survivors, I was surprised to realize that one of the most common barriers to women’s safety was something I had never considered before: the high value our culture places on two-parent families. [...] I found that almost all of the women with children I interviewed had maintained contact with their abusers. Why?

Many had internalized a public narrative that equated marriage with success. Many had internalized a public narrative that equated marriage with success. Women experiencing domestic abuse are told by our culture that being a good mother means marrying the father of her children and supporting a relationship between them.

And how this stigma is reinforced by institutions that are supposed to help survivors escape these dangerous relationships -- something she has witnessed firsthand:

The truly alarming part, however, is the extent to which the institutions that are intended to assist domestic violence survivors — protection order courts, mental health services, public benefits programs and child custody systems — reinforce this stigma with both official policies and ingrained prejudices.

Mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, judges and members of the clergy often showed greater concern for the maintenance of a two-parent family than for the safety of the mother and her children. Women who left abusive men were frequently perceived at best as mothers who had not successfully kept their children out of harm’s way and at worst as liars who were alienating children from their fathers.

In court, I watched a judge order the very first woman I interviewed to drop off her son at his father’s house every week for visitation. When she tried to tell the judge that she had a protection order against her child’s father and that she was concerned for her safety, the judge responded: “You know what? You are just trying to keep this child from his father, aren’t you?”

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

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