There’s a new law proposed in my dear old home state of New Hampshire that has me rather riled up. This is saying something, especially given that I’ve been distracted by the Planned Parenthood and Susan G. Komen drama. In essence, two of the state’s more conservative legislators are trying to amend New Hampshire’s domestic violence law to state that police may not make an arrest on a domestic violence call unless they have witnessed the crime(s) in action. It’s an entirely stupid proposal, one that seems to have no merit unless its writers are hoping to get away with such crimes themselves, but it’s worth discussing here because intimate partner violence- domestic violence, battering, whatever you wish to call it- is a global problem with implications for all of us.
While many complain that intimate partner violence is treated differently than other forms of violence, it’s very important to make one thing clear: intimate partner assaults are not the same as stranger assaults. In a physical assault from a stranger, there’s rarely much history to explain the situation. We often think about such assaults as being preceded by drinking, disagreements, or other crimes such as robberies. The history of the people involved- or, really, lack thereof- means that future safety concerns are generally minimal. There might be some criminal charges, and in extreme cases a restraining order, but otherwise things go on. When the assault is perpetrated by one intimate partner against another, however, it’s almost always the latest in a series of controlling and abusive tactics that that person has used to gain power and control over their loved one. In most abusive relationships, the physical violence is preceded by verbal abuse, threats, isolation of the victim, and other tactics that have contributed to the buildup towards a physical assault.
Context is key because, for many victims, police involvement can make a relationship more dangerous. What may have been an offhand threat to kill may turn into a serious plan as the abuser stews in jail after the arrest is made. The safety of the victim(s) has to be paramount, and for that very reason many states have reconsidered their mandatory arrest policies (where at least one party has to be arrested on a domestic violence police call).
This reconsideration, however, is not New Hampshire’s proposed law. Rather than leaving the decision to arrest up to the responding officers, who we hope are well-trained in assessing the situations they encounter, the law would remove the power to arrest altogether. After several years’ experience as a victim advocate in multiple states and countries, I can tell you that holding abusers accountable is hard enough without preventing the police from doing their job of arresting dangerous individuals. Taking this discretion and authority away from the police does nothing to help the victims of abusive partners. In fact, it gives the abusers more power in the relationship (“What’re you gonna do, call the cops? They can’t do anything. Just try.”). The insidious message that this sends, even to those who aren’t in abusive relationships, is that victimization in certain contexts is okay.
As the article I linked rightly points out, domestic violence laws in New Hampshire- and around the world really- have changed a lot for the better in the last half-century. Intimate partner violence has, for a very long time, been perceived as a private problem. In America, the phrase has long been that “you don’t wash your dirty laundry in public” and community members have been encouraged to turn a blind eye to the abusive and violent relationships that exist all around them. Only in the last few decades have we finally begun to recognize that violence of this variety will not stop when we tacitly permit it to continue.
The problem is that, even without legal setbacks like this one, we continue to believe that intimate relationships confer ownership of one party by the other and thus the abuse is okay. For a lot of people, this specifically refers to the legal status of cis women as their husbands’ property; I can assure you, however, that possessive and controlling behaviours are not bound by simple sexism and can (and do) occur in all different types of relationships. Many state coalitions against domestic violence have revised their mission statements and lobbied their governments to reflect the fact that intimate partner violence occurs in same-sex relationships, relationships involving trans and genderqueer folk, and can include male victims of female offenders. Some human beings, for whatever reason, have a propensity to enjoy being in charge of each other and are willing to take this to an extreme in a variety of ways- sex and gender aside. What we see in intimate relationships is reflected, albeit in a distorted fashion, in other forms of power-based interaction. Think of human trafficking, for instance, or the way global trade choices often leave entire countries without access to basic necessities. Intimate partner violence is a very specific form of power-based personal violence, to be sure, but it’s symptomatic of the way humans are taught- in all societies- to assign value and worth to each other. For me, the proposed law in New Hampshire is an outrage but unsurprising in this global climate.
Where does that leave us as Go Girls? Laws like this one are proposed- and sometimes passed- around the world on a regular basis, and their effect isn’t simply to restrict the humanity of the victims of domestic violence. Global awareness of intimate partner violence has usually been through the lens of sexism, but I would suggest we add other lenses as well. Racism, ethnocentrism, religious bigotry, and other forms of categorizing and judging people all play vital roles in the way we react to- or sometimes permit- the diminishment of a given portion of our populations. Our awareness and response to these systems of oppression (including our complicity in them) is the first and best step we can take in ensuring that thought patterns like the ones that led to the New Hampshire proposal cease to exist.
This article also appears on Not Another Wave.