Politics & Policy

Protecting Women and Girls

Marriage alone doesn’t do it. But intact families are certainly a factor.

Is strengthening marriage and family one strategy to reduce the violence, and threat of violence, that girls and women face over the course of their lives, a threat highlighted in the #YesAllWomen campaign? With Robin Fretwell Wilson, a family-law scholar, I answered in the affirmative in an article for the Washington Post. That article has gotten a lot of pushback, in part because the Post initially ran it with a needlessly provocative headline encouraging women to “stop taking lovers and get married.” Our intent was not to encourage women to get married willy-nilly or to marry an abusive boyfriend in the hopes of improving him (and we were clear that marriage is “no panacea when it comes to male violence”).

Rather, our goal was to highlight the ways in which women and girls are typically safer in an intact marriage and — it would appear, if community victimization rates are any indication — in communities where stable, two-parent families are the norm. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has found that communities with high numbers of stable two-parent families experience significantly lower levels of “criminal victimization.”

We were particularly concerned with spotlighting the danger that family instability — and the presence of an unrelated male in the home — poses to girls (and boys), a danger that is markedly lower for children in intact families. We argued that, on average, “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.”

Marriage is clearly correlated to physical safety for women and children — and men. But our critics, such as Mona Chalabi at FiveThirtyEight, argued that we were confusing correlation with causation. After all, marriage is correlated with factors like higher age and levels of education, both of which are also associated with lower odds of violence and could be the true drivers of the negative correlation between marriage and violence for girls and women.

When it comes to the physical safety of girls and boys, however, there is a considerable body of evidence (see here and here and here for examples) that indicates that children face higher levels of maltreatment, abuse, and violence in non-intact families, particularly when the mother has a live-in boyfriend, even after controlling for the kinds of potentially confounding factors mentioned by Chalabi. For instance, one study found that “youth from single parent and stepfamilies experienced higher rates of several different kinds of victimization compared with youth living with two biological parents,” even after accounting for age, gender, race, family size, and socioeconomic status. Indeed, it’s telling that Chalabi did not challenge our point about family structure and children.

But what to make of the higher rates of violence that unmarried women face compared to their married peers? The National Crime Victimization Survey found that never-married women were about four times as likely to be the victims of violent crime as married women, and that women are more likely to be raped by boyfriends, acquaintances, or friends than by husbands.

Factors like age and education may indeed have something to do with these differences. For instance, violence against women is highest for young women, who are less likely to be married. But this federal report does not explore the association between marital status and violence while controlling for factors such as age, education, and race. So we do not know if the overall rate of victimization is higher for married women after accounting for these kinds of factors.

Nevertheless, sociologist Linda Waite at the University of Chicago has done some relevant work on the link between intimate-partner violence and relationship status. Analyzing data from the National Survey of Families and Households, she found that “after controlling for education, race, age, and gender, people who live together are still three times more likely to report violent arguments than married people.” Waite attributed the differential in part to the fact that cohabiting couples had lower levels of commitment and more infidelity, both factors that are linked to more domestic violence. Indeed, a different University of Chicago study found that conflict over sexual jealousy was more common among cohabiting and dating couples than among married couples, even after controlling for race, age, and education. This same study found that jealousy was a strong predictor of intimate-partner violence. These two pieces of research, then, suggest that marriage is safer — at least when it comes to intimate-partner violence — even after controlling for the kind of sociodemographic factors mentioned by Chalabi.

Of course, none of these studies definitively prove that marriage plays a causal role in protecting women and children. But they are certainly suggestive. What we do know is this: Intact families with married parents are typically safer for women and children.

And to be clear: We are not saying that marriage is a panacea when it comes to violence against women and children, that all women need to marry, or that all marriages are safe for women. Indeed, high rates of violence against separated women suggest marriage is not protective for all women. But it is to say that marriage tends to foster more faithful, stable, and committed relationships between couples and between adults and their children, all factors that appear to reduce the risk of violence in the home. And it is to say that we think more high-quality marriages would be a help in fostering safety. That’s why the conversation about violence against women and girls, a conversation highlighted by the #YesAllWomen campaign, should incorporate the family factor into efforts to reduce the violence facing women and girls in the United States.

— W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow: @WilcoxNMP


W. Bradford Wilcox, professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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