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Sexual Politics

Dreaded Violence

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Early Monday, police arrested a 32-year-old Southeast Portland man for attempting to strangle his girlfriend with his dreadlocks.

It's tempting to laugh at this news because, of course, dreadlocks are disgusting and everyone who decides to grow dreadlocks should be publicly mocked. But when you think about this for more than one second, the news is not funny at all. Domestic violence is so common in America that the only way an assault makes headlines is if the boyfriend has a regrettable haircut.

The more than 40 Oregonians who died last year because of domestic violence will never wind up hashtagged with "#portlandiajoke!" because their murderers, presumably, happened to wash their hair. But domestic violence is just as much a reality in Portland as other cities.

Feeling bad yet? Good. Take that guilt, convert it to anger, and channel it at a worthy source: Republican congressmen like House Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor who, in a final act of partisan negligence last week, let the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) expire.

No one—despite what GOP gum-flapping may have led you to believe last spring—ran for Congress with the promise to roll back prosecutions of rapists and protect fewer domestic violence victims. But that's exactly what will happen if VAWA isn't taken up and passed before its funding runs out at the end of June. Washington Senator Patty Murray is promising to introduce VAWA this session. Until it passes, she has a doomsday clock on her website that ticks off another act of violence against women every nine seconds.

The sticking point for Republicans is that they're bigots. Though originally passed with broad bipartisan support in 1994, the new VAWA would have spread domestic violence and rape prevention funds to 30 million more people: specifically, LGBT partners, Native Americans, and undocumented immigrants. GOP representatives value protecting certain rape victims over others. Those are my words. Their words are: "There are matters put on that bill that almost seem to invite opposition." (That's Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.)

The impact of VAWA in Oregon is profound. This past year, 53 groups received $1.6 million to pay for domestic violence shelter workers, advocates to help survivors find housing, and counselors for sex workers. Workers in the trenches on domestic violence issues are appalled that Republicans blocked the law but hopeful that the new, more diverse crop of congressional representatives will pass it soon.

In North Portland, VAWA funds a part-time job answering the crisis line and helping survivors in the 22-bed Bradley Angle House shelter. The center doesn't have fat to cut: Last year, it received more than 3,000 calls and had to turn away 1,000 women, having space for only 175 people.

"There's been a lot of anti-woman legislation and bizarre language around sexual assault recently, so we're hoping we can turn that rhetoric around and make them feel embarrassed for failing to pass VAWA," sums up Bradley Angle House Executive Director Deborah Steinkopf

When there's no shelter space available—which is often, says Portland Women's Crisis Line Executive Director Rebecca Nickels—advocates tell women to get to any safe, public place they can: Ride the MAX, go to the airport, find a 24-hour diner. Women are literally taking refuge in pancake houses, and Congress can't agree that providing more funding is a dire need? Survivors would be better off in the path of a hurricane.

"VAWA was allowed to expire because it was expanding support to survivors who are even more marginalized than 'mainstream' survivors, for lack of a better word," says Nickels. "And that's an example of institutionalized oppression." Also known as: Congress.

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