The French parliament has approved a law that makes psychological violence a criminal offence.
Not only is “psychological violence” a criminal offense, it’s now punishable by as much as a 75,000 euro fine and three years in prison. Read about the new law here (BBC, 6/24/10). The law is gender-neutral on its face, but the article readily admits that it was passed to protect women.
What is “psychological violence” other than a serious misuse of language? It’s defined as,
“repeated acts which could be constituted by words or other machinations, to degrade one’s quality of life and cause a change to one’s mental or physical state”.
What could be clearer? “Repeated…machinations to degrade one’s quality of life.” (It doesn’t quite have the ring of “Liberty! Equality! Brotherhood!” but I guess it’s the best they could do.) Keep in mind that you can go to jail for that, whatever “that” is. What if a spouse loses a job more than once? That looks like a criminal offense now.
So, like so many laws that have the effect of restricting legitimate behavior, this one is impossibly vague. Anyone past the age of about eight could imagine all sorts of actions that may or may not violate the statute. Does hubby too vociferously disagree with his wife’s spending habits? It’s off to jail for him. What if he tries to convince her not to invest in the “can’t miss” business opportunity peddled by Snidely Whiplash? Is that a matter for sane discussion between the husband and wife? Well, it could be, but it could also be probable cause for his arrest, prosecution, conviction and incarceration. It’s her choice.
The “logic” of domestic violence legislation began legitimately enough. Battery which would be illegal if done to a stranger shouldn’t become legal if done to an intimate partner. That’s simple enough. But that was never all there was to the concept of policing domestic violence. From the beginning it was about protecting women and not men. That meant it was about punishing men and not women.
It took years for statutes to even use gender-neutral language in DV matters. But that’s just cover, and pretty thin cover at that. Everything from laws and regulations, police training manuals and government documents and websites, to news media and popular culture assume that domestic violence is done only by men only to women. Thirty-five years of social science to the contrary be damned.
But even that has not been enough to satisfy the anti-male contingent of the DV industry. If domestic violence laws were truly about violence, they’d still be radically sexist, but that would be their only problem. Unfortunately, over the years, the concept of “violence” has expanded far beyond the confines of the word. So now “financial violence,” “psychological violence” and “social violence” have become routine parts of the concept that began with the real need to protect people from physical injury.
And make no mistake; as the article acknowledges, the French law targets men. So whose freedom is circumscribed? Overwhelmingly men’s. Who will be taken from their homes and families? Overwhelmingly men. Who will be afraid to do or say the slightest thing because someone could conceivably construe it as tending to degrade the quality of the other person’s life? Overwhelmingly men.
Not too long ago I reported on a DV training seminar for Maine police officers. It contained sexist language to the effect that all perpetrators are men and all victims are women. But worse than that, of the eight hypothetical examples used to train the officers, not one concluded that the woman in the incident should be arrested for DV. Still worse, one of the examples consisted of a woman who had struck her husband with a heavy ashtray, raising a lump on his head and causing bleeding. He had done nothing to her, but, amazingly enough, he was the one arrested. Why? Because she seemed afraid that he might retaliate. In short, she had committed DV and he had committed no crime, but he was arrested because he might do so in the future.
In DV cases, the man has a way of being at fault regardless of the facts, and so, I suspect, it will be with the new French law.
Is that because women don’t abuse men emotionally/psychologically? Hardly. But placing the new law in the context of domestic violence will inevitably mean that it will be overwhelmingly men who are arrested, prosecuted and sent to jail.
And as before, the arm of the law grows ever longer. From punches and cuts it’s moved to criminalize words. Is there a reason for this law? Do women or men need to have the state step into their houses to listen to what they have to say to each other and carry them off to jail if the words are deemed by someone to be inappropriate?
What is gained by this law and what is lost? Freedom of speech and the right of personal privacy are lost; that’s easy enough. But what is gained? That’s harder. It’s so hard in fact that the article cites French murder statistics as justification, as if they in some unexplained way bolstered the need to criminalize speech.
In fact, even when it comes to violent crime (i.e. actual violence), France is an extremely safe place to live. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, France has a murder rate of 1.6 people per 100,000 population. That works out to about 1,000 murders per year, or a rate about a third that of the United States. Of those 1,000, about 150 are women, and not one by “psychological violence.” Of course a single murder is one too many, but by any stretch of the imagination, French women are safe.
This law won’t make them any safer, but it’ll certainly make men less so.