Two and a half decades after the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), we still have a long way to go. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence, or stalking in their lifetimes. In the Fifth, rates of domestic assault incidents remain stubbornly consistent, despite efforts in recent years to devote more resources to combating domestic violence. And nationwide, rates of intimate partner homicide appear to have increased slightly.
These numbers mask even more horrific disparities, especially when it comes to Native American women. The vast majority of Native women experience violence in their lifetime, and in some cases Native women are ten times as likely to be murdered as the national average. This violence is predominantly perpetrated by non-Native Americans.
My first priority in congress with respect to domestic and sexual violence is passing the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The House bill, which gained bipartisan support in 2019, makes vital updates to the original. The VAWA House reauthorization bill importantly increases the funding specifically for sexual assault prevention and response services. Often, domestic violence advocates and sexual violence advocates are forced to compete for the same funds, despite providing distinct services. The increase in the carveout for sexual violence response will help ensure that needed services are funded. The bill also expands Tribal jurisdiction, granted in 2013 over non-Native Americans in cases of domestic violence, dating violence, and criminal violations of court orders, to include sexual violence, sex trafficking, obstruction of justice, and assault of a law enforcement officer. Additionally, the reauthorization bill provides additional funding to Tribal governments and law enforcement agencies to aid in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.
The VAWA reauthorization bill would also close the “boyfriend” loophole in the original VAWA that prohibits those convicted of abuse or stalking of their spouses or former spouses from purchasing firearms, but says nothing about those convicted of dating abuse or stalking. Additionally, it would prohibit subjects of an emergency or ex parte restraining order for stalking from possessing a firearm, provided they are notified. Advocates have long noted the dangerous gap between the initial court order—where subjects are often still allowed to possess a firearm—and the final order. Access to a gun significantly increases the risk of homicide in domestic incidents, and we cannot allow the gun lobby to continue to put women and children at undue risk due to a meaningless legal distinction. This is why I will fight to pass the VAWA reauthorization.
Protecting domestic violence victims from gun violence also requires closing the loopholes that allow the purchase of firearms without conducting a background check. Right now, it is too easy for anyone prohibited from possessing a firearm to obtain one. I support the Bipartisan Background Checks Act to ensure that all firearms sales are subject to background checks and to enable arms sellers to be held accountable for failing to conduct a background check.
To end sexual violence, we must also acknowledge that sexual violence is often perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect us. Police sexual violence is one of the most prevalent misconduct complaints against law enforcement. This violence disproportionately impacts Black, Latina, Native American, and poor women, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Yet, despite the inherently coercive nature of the relationship between a police officer and a detained individual, limited “consensual” sexual conduct between officers and suspects is legal in all 50 states. In over 30 states, including Minnesota, “consensual” sexual penetration between an officer and a suspect or detained individual is legal, and consent has been successfully used as a defense in instances of sexual assault and rape allegations against a police officer. I support federal legislation to make it a crime for police officers to engage in sexual conduct with anyone in their custody or anyone whom they have detained or otherwise stopped. We must recognize that there is no ability to consent to sexual conduct under the immediate threat of force, arrest, and detention.
Despite the many community organizations and nonprofits that provide services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence, there remains significant unmet need both nationwide and in Minnesota, especially with respect to safe housing and legal assistance. I support the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act to increase the funding available to states and tribal areas for the full range of domestic and sexual violence prevention services, including significant funding for shelters, culturally competent services, and the establishment of a National Indian Domestic Violence Hotline to better connect Native American survivors of abuse and assault with services and support. I also support continuing to carve out funds from the McKinney-Vento Continuum of Care program for joint Transitional Housing and Rapid Rehousing of domestic violence survivors. Domestic abuse and sexual violence are significant causes of homelessness, and joint Transitional Housing and Rapid Rehousing programs, which aim to help those without the need for intensive and ongoing support exit homelessness, can help connect survivors and families with immediate safe housing and support services and transition quickly into permanent housing.
Women and girls are not only more likely to be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, they are also more likely to be victims of sex trafficking. While Congress passed an important set of bills in 2018 and 2019 to reauthorize and update policies to combat trafficking and protect survivors, there remain several gaps in federal policy that make it difficult to identify trafficking victims and prosecute traffickers. In particular, we must pass the Corporate Transparency Act to ensure that law enforcement can identify business owners involved in trafficking and money laundering. I also support the Visa Transparency Anti-Trafficking Act which will improve and systematize data reporting for all non-immigrant visa holders with work authorizations, as well as publicize certain data, both of which will make it easier for law enforcement and advocates to identify potential traffickers and victims. These are bipartisan solutions to clear lapses in federal policy, and we must pass them as soon as possible.
The goal of public safety with respect to domestic and sexual violence must ultimately be prevention. Many of the existing policies have the goal of preventing the escalation of violence after a first incident has occurred. We must also focus our efforts on preventing violence in the first place. This is why I support federal funding for comprehensive education programs that promote consent, inclusivity, and healthy sexuality. In particular, education around consent and respect must begin towards the end of elementary school. Instead of trying to break bad behaviors in college and later in life, we must ensure that our kids learn about consent, inclusivity, and healthy relationships from the get-go to reduce the harm that too many—women and LGBTQ+ individuals in particular—are subject to in adolescence and often well into adulthood.