Nebraskans for Family (Joint Custody/Shared Parenting)
Nebraska Must Address Gender Bias in the Legal System
By Chris Johnson
The writer, a family law attorney in Hastings, is a past chair of the family law section of the Nebraska State Bar Association.
The Nebraska legal system suffers from widespread gender bias against men. While gender bias against fathers in family law cases is well documented, anti-male bias in other areas is less well known.
According to the largest-ever review of domestic violence research, women and men abuse their partners at comparable rates. The “Partner Abuse State of Knowledge” project found 28.3 percent of women perpetrated domestic violence compared with 21.6 percent of men.
The study also found men and women are victimized at comparable rates. Overall, 23 percent of women were assaulted by partners at least once in their lifetimes compared with 19 percent of men. Across studies, 40 percent of women and 32 percent of men reported expressive aggression (verbal abuse or emotional violence in response to some agitating or aggravating circumstance) , while 41 percent of women and 43 percent of men reported some form of coercive control.
These findings are important because research shows judges are much more likely to issue protection orders to women than men, impose greater restrictions on male defendants and defer cases of male victims. Men are treated more severely at every stage of the prosecution process, particularly regarding the decision to prosecute, even when controlling for other variables.
Federal law requires domestic violence shelters to provide equal services to male victims. However, no Nebraska domestic violence shelter of which I am aware accepts them. Female victims are given food, housing, counseling and financial assistance in a secure shelter for an indefinite period, but male victims often receive a voucher for a single night's stay in an unsecured motel room with no additional services.
Sexual violence shows similar patterns. An article published last month in the journal “Aggression and Violent Behavior” reported that men and women commit sexual assaults at comparable rates. The article noted that when female abusers are reported, they are less likely to be investigated, arrested or punished compared to male perpetrators.
According to the article, “female perpetration is downplayed by those in fields such as mental health, social work, public health, and law. … Stereotypical understandings of women as sexually harmless can allow professionals to create a ‘culture of denial' that fails to recognize the seriousness of the abuse.”
This disparate treatment extends to other criminal cases, as well. A 2012 study by University of Michigan law professor Sonja Starr examined gender disparities in federal criminal sentences. This study found that, after controlling for the arrest offense, criminal history and other variables, "men receive 63 percent longer sentences on average than women," and "women are...twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted."
These disparities also occur in Nebraska state courts. In one recent case, a 25-year-old female teacher was sentenced to four to five years in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old male student. That same year, a 23-year-old male teacher was sentenced to 20 to 30 years for having sex with a 14-year-old female student.
In two other recent cases, a 29-year-old woman was sentenced to three to five years for having sex with a 15-year-old boy while a 29-year-old man was sentenced to 18 to 25 years for having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Nothing in these cases explains why the men involved should have received sentences that were 500 percent to 600 percent longer than the women did for comparable crimes.
Gender bias against men is endemic in our legal system. The gender disparities in family law, domestic violence and criminal cases are so extreme they suggest these laws, as applied, violate the equal protection guarantees of the United States and Nebraska constitutions.
1. Partner Abuse State of Knowledge Project, Partner Abuse (2013)