Our Voice: Domestic abuse not limited by gender

Farm Forum

Because the South Dakota House and Senate are at loggerheads over the wording of a law relating to domestic violence, a study committee will meet over the next couple of months to perform a comprehensive review of the subject. One issue is whether the law should state that protection shall be afforded only to persons living in the same household who are “of the opposite sex.”

That issue erupted on this page in letters and columns by Aberdeen City Council member Mark Remily and Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen, one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 147, which aims to study and revise domestic abuse provisions.

The original bill defines “family or household members” as “persons who are or have been in a dating relationship with each other,” among other descriptors. The bill was amended by Kaiser to change that section to read, “Persons of the opposite sex who are or have been living in the same household.” He said it was to better clarify the bill so former roommates, for instance, weren’t subject to domestic abuse charges and penalties.

We do not see how narrowing the focus to only male-female relationships best protects all South Dakotans.

Historically, legislators have wisely recognized that domestic abuse is categorically different from simple assault. Domestic assault is usually repeated occurrences of differing dimensions and severity of injury. Simple assault may be a one-time incident. Domestic assault is a result of a power differential in a relationship, one that has been nurtured over time.

Many victims of domestic violence do not realize they are in an abusive relationship, or lie to protect their abuser or family. They are emotionally blackmailed in a way that others are not.

Domestic violence has little to do with the size or gender of the participants. Typically, the perpetrator of domestic violence rules the relationship through intimidation, coercion and fear. He or she has slowly and systematically removed all avenues of support from the other person — alienated him or her from friends and family, taken control of the finances. Most of the assets — home, vehicles, etc. — are listed in the perpetrator’s name only. The emotionally weaker person in the relationship feels trapped in a situation from which they can see no escape.

This type of arrangement can develop between men and women, married and unmarried and those of the same gender. And it’s only a small step between emotional battering and physical battering.

It is usually law enforcement officers who have first contact with victims and perpetrators of violence. It is the officers who have to evaluate the event and make on-site decisions as to who should be arrested or removed and who needs protection. Our laws should not hamper their ability to make sound decisions with muddy or restrictive language.

When the call is suspected to be one of domestic violence, as opposed to simple assault, law enforcement officers can take the necessary steps to either remove the perpetrator or transport the victim to a safe house, triggering such support services as victims’ assistance or counseling. These service providers do not discriminate based on age, race, religion or gender.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has now weighed in, the legality of gay marriage is not at issue here. What must be recognized is that long-standing relationships occur between people of all ages, ethnicity and gender. These relationships can be healthy or physically and emotionally destructive.

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law. It does not qualify this protection as being for those of opposite gender only.

— American News editorial board