Domestic Violence (DV) will be redefined if the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (H.R. 6545) is reauthorized in its revised form. VAWA is the federal touchstone for how DV is addressed nationwide. Passed in 1994, the act has been reauthorized in 2000, 2005 and 2013, with additions attached each time. The 2018 reauthorization is no exception. The pending bill would expand the definition of DV in a way that could harm abused women and other innocent people.

My interest is personal. I am legally blind in my right eye due to a DV beating I experienced decades ago. Since then, I have watched with keen interest as the legal context of the crime has expanded in ways both good and bad. For several reasons, VAWA falls into the latter category: bad.

H.R. 6545 diminishes the seriousness of violent DV by categorizing and equating it with churlish but non-violent behavior, like online harassment; this trivializes DV and it draws attention away from its neediest victims.

The new definition also criminalizes common acts that occur in normal relationships or break-ups, like hurling insults during a fight or phoning a partner repeatedly. Normal and non-violent behavior during moments of stress should not be treated as a police matter. Moreover, the vagueness and elasticity of the DV definition invites frivolous or false allegations, which could raise skepticism about all accusations and prevent victims from coming forward.

More specific objections to H.R. 6545’s definition

The version of VAWA that is now in effect takes its definition of DV from U.S.Code 42 13925: “The term domestic violence includes felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim...” The definition is objective and clear.

The revised VAWA definition is not. “The term domestic violence means a pattern of behavior involving the use or attempted use of physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, economic, or technological abuse or any other coercive behavior committed, enabled, or solicited to gain or maintain power and control over a victim.” DV is no longer limited to “crimes of violence.” Instead, non-violent behavior becomes criminal when its purpose is to control another person. An act becomes DV or not based on the motivation of the partner accused of abuse; this definition is subjective and unclear.

The terms identifying DV are also unclear. “Verbal, emotional, economic, or technological abuse” are vague and could well include acts that are common in normal relationships. One partner often handles the money and draws up an obligatory budget, for example. Is this economic control? A partner may threaten “to leave”—which is everyone’s right, but is the statement become act of DV if it is meant to gain power? In a fit of jealousy, one partner might read through the emails or phone texts of the other. Is this technological abuse?

Unfortunately, H.R. 6545 offers little guidance in answering such questions, as the section on “technological abuse” illustrates. The bill’s definition of technological abuse includes, but is not limited to, a handful of specified behaviors. “Unwanted, repeated telephone calls, text messages, instant messages, or social media posts” are among them.

But the list clarifies little. “Repeated” calls is so vague a description that its legal meaning and application seems arbitrary. And, again, the list covers the normal behavior of a persistent partner who may try to talk things over, to tie up loose ends, or to get back together.

This is another most disturbing aspect of H.R. 6454’s view of DV—the criminalization of normal life. Every couple has fights in which both sides shout hurtful accusations, bicker about money, give ultimatums, slam doors and speak indiscreetly to friends in a bar or online. But lovers’ quarrels and angry outbursts are not DV.

Instead, they could become a blank check for partners to lie in pursuit of revenge, child custody, or other advantages. If so, the impact would fall most heavily upon men who are usually viewed as the perpetrators of DV, although studies show that they are often victims. Although VAWA’s language is gender neutral, its title is not and men’s advocates claim that VAWA’s funding goes almost exclusively to women.

Will VAWA be reauthorized?

VAWA was due to expire at the end of September. On Sept. 28, however, President Trump signed an appropriations bill that funded VAWA through Dec. 7. Another bill, H.R. 6796, extended VAWA’s reauthorization well into 2019.

It is not possible to predict what will happen to VAWA’s reauthorization. However, I know what should happen, because I know what domestic violence looks like. It is waking up each morning and being able to see only half of the world.

H.R. 6545 confuses true DV with petty infractions, most of which are already addressed by laws against stalking or other forms of harassment. In doing so, the bill depreciates those who are physically abused and makes them less likely to speak out. It also criminalizes normal behavior, placing innocent men and women at risk of frivolous or false accusations.

The errors of H.R. 6545 should not be embedded into law.