The Violence Against Women Act was once a given of American political life. Signed into law in 1994, almost exactly twenty-five years ago, it’s older than many of the people who will be voting in the midterms this fall. The protections it ensures—funding for rape crisis centers, the first federal criminal law against domestic violence, the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the DOJ’s Office on Violence Against Women, special investigation units for sexual assault—were once something women could take for granted. Under Trump, they may disappear, one more in a series of emotionally devastating decisions that seems to signal the end of America’s compact with women.
The deadline for re-authorizing VAWA passed this week and has been extended to December 7. But if Democrats don’t re-take Congress in the midterms, the act may expire. You would be forgiven for not even realizing VAWA was in danger until now. The past few months have been an onslaught of awful news for women. There’s the potential end of Roe v. Wade, which could happen shortly after the confirmation of any new, Trump-appointed Supreme Court justice. There is the GOP’s continued support for Trump’s current nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, now credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults. It's hard to focus on any one bit of anti-feminist fuckery, particularly one related to the re-authorization of a decades-old bill, because there are always several once-in-a-generation examples of said fuckery happening at any given time.
We’ve known, for a long time, that Trumpism is a politics of spite. It’s an ethos of owning libs and triggering SJWs: Doing exceptionally brutal and bigoted things, not so much because they further any long-term goals, but simply to prove that they’re possible, and that white men still have the power to make the rest of us suffer. From separating children from their parents to gutting the ACA to pulling out of climate change accords and then admitting the natural world will be destroyed as a result, it doesn’t matter if the whole world burns, so long as the liberal tears keep flowing. Under these circumstances, I admit, claiming that Trump is selling out women may seem obnoxious. He sold out immigrant women, poor women, women of color, queer and trans women, long ago. It’s really only straight white ladies who are just now beginning to feel the pinch
But it still feels as if the past few weeks represent some kind of breaking point; a formal declaration to women that, if they believed they were guaranteed equal treatment under the law, they were wrong. If the US government had any formal agreement to protect the interests of its female citizens, that agreement has been broken. Even if you had low expectations for the feminism of the US government, they have not been met. This country will not just unfairly limit abortion, or defund clinics into oblivion, but revoke the legal right to abortion altogether. America will not just elevate sexual predators to positions of power, but end any form of government-funded support for their victims. The protections VAWA offers are incredibly basic: Someone to call or somewhere to go in a crisis, and the promise of a police department that might not totally bungle or blow off an assault investigation. It’s so very little to ask for, and yet even that, in this new order of business, is too much.
The message being conveyed here is not just that sexual violence, or harm done to women, is unworthy of being addressed by the government — it’s that harming women isn’t a problem. “Even if it's all true, does it disqualify him?” Rep. Kevin Cramer asked, of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault allegations. “It certainly means that he did something really bad 36 years ago, but does it disqualify him from the Supreme Court?"
Violating a woman's basic bodily integrity, has been reduced to some stupid mistake or youthful excess, like shoplifting a candy bar or racking up one too many parking tickets. (Unless the bodily violation is denying a woman an abortion, which is framed as a moral good.) In the GOP’s current mindset, sexual assault is unfortunate, but not inexcusable, or unforgivable. You can rape a woman and then just get better. If you’re a woman who gets raped, you’re on your own.
It’s strange, after a life spent as a paranoid feminist, to reach a place where reality outstrips paranoia. After a life spent explaining why our culture’s narratives are constructed to prioritize men’s feelings over women’s lives, it is bizarre to be able to just turn on the TV and see the President of the United States re-affirm that his thoughts are with accused rapists, not rape victims: We live, he says, in “a very scary time for young men.”
President Trump says it's a scary time in America...for men pic.twitter.com/YiCEP9bfnJ
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) October 2, 2018
“What’s happening here has much more to do than even the Supreme Court justice,” Trump affirms. “You can be somebody that was perfect your entire life, and somebody could accuse you of something.”
Well, yes. If you abuse someone, they could accuse you of that. Which is now, evidently, a bad thing. If there’s one thing to say about our current historical moment, it is that at least we have finally gone past the need for subtlety.
Feminism is among the loudest social movements, and so it only makes sense that women would be hit hard in the white male backlash. But it’s dizzying to realize there’s no floor here, no limit to how low we can go, and that nothing can be taken for granted any more. Re-authorizing VAWA was a basic political courtesy, lip service; it relied on Republicans having enough manners to publicly act as if they believed rape was a bad thing. In 2018, the GOP no longer feels obligated to uphold even that breathtakingly low standard.
here is only one way to put the brakes on this: vote, take back Congress, get these men out of power, and out of the White House. But despite the many thriving movements now fueling women’s political engagement, from #MeToo to the Women’s March, there is no real guarantee that women as a whole will do so. The majority of white women, in particular, backed Trump; white women continue to back Brett Kavanaugh, with only 46% saying they believe Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations. Some white women might be so happy that Trump is denying rights to everybody else that they don’t notice our own are disappearing.
But they are disappearing, and faster than anyone expected. We cannot afford to proceed with optimism. We cannot continue to ignore the worst-case scenario. The representative government of this country no longer represents women, if it ever did. The social contract we thought we signed has been voided. The damage incurred will be profound, and it will linger for a generation or more.