Joanna Pepin is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow her on Twitter at @CoffeeBaseball.
Comedian Louis C.K. has a comedy bit about the bravery necessary for heterosexual dating. He points out, perceptively and with humor, that (traditionally) men have to summon the courage to ask out a potential partner while women are courageous for dating men at all.
How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. You know what our [men’s] number one threat is? Heart disease.
Although women continue to date, love, and sometimes marry men, marriage has been in decline for decades.
The response to this demographic shift has been to invest billions of dollars in marriage promotion. Although the primary (flawed) justification given to emphasize marriage is to decrease poverty – especially for single mothers and their children – marriage promotion activists also have argued that “marriage dramatically reduces the risk that mothers will suffer from domestic abuse.” This ideological thinking was debunked as early as 2004, but was revived when Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson published a piece in the Washington Post claiming the solution to violence against women is marriage.
The pro-marriage activists rely on statistics that compare rates of violence between cohabiting and married couples. What they ignore are selection effects. For instance, research from the longitudinal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study illustrated mothers’ strategies to keep their children safe by leaving relationships they see as unhealthy, especially those involving physical abuse. Sociologists Catherine Kenney and Sara McLanahan show in their research analysis of data from the National Survey of Families and Households that selection out of cohabitation and into marriage – and selection out of marriage through divorce – creates an apples-and-oranges comparison between these two groups.
Another talking point for the marriage promoters is that married men have lower rates of criminal activity compared to non-married men. However, the research is still unclear on whether marriage per se decreases criminal activity, or if crime cessation is associated with stable family ties — cohabiting, married, or otherwise. Moreover, this line of research investigates generalized crime and not intimate partner violence (IPV) specifically. There is no reason to think IPV operates in the same way, given that DV is characteristically a uniquely individual dynamic of one person establishing power and control over another. It also ignores research on violence in later life, which shows that violence doesn’t decrease over the course of a relationship, but rather abusive tactics change. If the marker of a lifelong commitment is what decreases IPV, having children together should also be associated with lower rates of DV. However, many survivors of IPV continue to experience abuse during their pregnancies (and after) and there is some evidence that the risk of violence increases during pregnancy.
To no one’s surprise, the federally funded marriage promotion programs have had no impact on relationship quality of participants, couples were no more likely to stay together or marry after participating, and they had no effect on the frequency or severity of IPV. Yet, we continue to spend scarce welfare dollars on marriage promotion at the expense of the very real economic resources survivors of domestic violence need. For example, although a Family Violence Prevention option grants temporary waivers of public assistance requirements for survivors of domestic violence, women are rarely screened for domestic violence and few are able to obtain the mandated services even when they do report domestic violence to their case worker.
Contrary to the theory that marriage reduces IPV, one could theorize that marriage is actually more dangerous for women. Sociologist Philip Cohen showed that prevalence of IPV has been declining over the same time period as marriage rates have been falling. While the myth of widespread stranger danger is pervasive, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, in two thirds of female homicides, women were killed by an intimate partner or family member (24% were killed by a spouse or ex-spouse; 21% were killed by a boyfriend or girlfriend). Marriage theoretically increases perpetrator access to victims, and social sanctions as well as legal ties make it more difficult to leave dangerous situations.
Indeed, evidence we do have demonstrates marriage is no safe haven for women. In some ways our societal obsession with the institution of marriage may be placing more women at risk. Data from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project reveal that 45% of the women killed in DV homicides committed by male perpetrators had been married. These couples were more likely to be living together, have children together, and be in the process of ending the relationship. Public health researcher Sara Shoener affirmed what I witnessed as an advocate working with survivors of abuse: cultural narratives of linking marriage with success, the stigma of single motherhood, and religious beliefs about divorce hinder survivors’ ability to access the vital resources they need to keep themselves and their children safe. Creating a no-win situation, mothers are condemned if they raise their children alone, blamed if they don’t leave an abusive relationship to protect their children, and criticized for deliberately obstructing relationships between children and fathers if they exit an abusive relationship.
The pro-marriage movement seems to be borrowing a concept from the National Rifle Association, that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” As the NRA asserts that the solution to gun violence is more gun violence, pro-marriage advocates assert the solution to men’s violence against women is for women to marry men. Increase both access and dependence. Raise the stakes. Make the relationship permanent. This solution is not only illogical and unsubstantiated, it’s dangerous.