Marriage and Protection from Violence

June 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This was the original headline in the Post Everything op-ed by Bradley Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson.

Apparently, many outraged readers pointed out the  “blame the victim” assumption in the headline. Or as Erin Gloria Ryan, at Jezebel translated it,  “Violence Against Women Will End When You Sluts Get Married.”

Others pointed out that the data did not support that claim.  Wilcox, the lead author, tweeted.

The new headline wasn’t much better.

Offensive terms like “baby daddy” have been removed, but the idea is the same. And while Wilcox didn’t write those headlines, they do represent his thesis: marriage as protection.

And, most fundamentally, for the girls and women in their lives, married fathers provide direct protection by watching out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters, and indirect protection by increasing the odds they live in safe homes and are not exposed to men likely to pose a threat. So, women: if you’re the product of a good marriage, and feel safer as a consequence, lift a glass to dear old dad this Sunday.

Philip Cohen (here)  has looked at the data, which clearly shows the trend Wilcox has been wringing his hands about for a long time: marriage in the US is on the decline. Wilcox would predict that the fall in marriage rates would result in huge increases in violence against wives and girlfriends.

But it hasn’t.  In this same period, the data show, “intimate partner violence” has also declined.  (Cohen’s analysis requires a bit of statistical sophistication, but his discussion makes the data clear, and his post is well worth reading.)

There are ecological-fallacy problems in the data, as Cohen acknowledges. But such problems have not prevented Wilcox from drawing shaky conclusions about the broad benefits of marriage.  Philip even provides a parody version of Wilcox’s strategy, though Cohen uses the data to draw the opposite conclusions about marriage.

We had reason to believe marriage was harmful, on average . . . as if marriage feeds off itself in a violence loop. . . . The bottom line is that intimate partner violence is much less common in years when marriage is more rare.

Cohen is kidding.  Sort of.  Underlying the traditional marriage – the one Wilcox takes as the ideal – is a power imbalance.  For Wilcox, that’s a good thing. As he says, husband/fathers provide “protection,” both direct and indirect.

But the marriage-as-protection trope reminded me of something Philip Slater wrote forty years ago:

In relation to women, men have taken the stance assumed by the warrior-aristocrat toward the peasant: “If you feed me, I will protect you.” Before long, of course, every protection contract becomes a protection racket: “Give me what I want and I will protect you against me.

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