A Bad Law For Good Cause

It’s difficult to argue with a law that tries to do something so important and urgent as stopping domestic violence

Unfortunately, a recent piece of legislation in Illinois has proven that even universally-recognized good intentions do not guarantee good legislation. The first of the year was also the day that a new law went into effect, requiring that people in Illinois working in salons get training in domestic violence and sexual assault awareness in order to receive or renew their professional license. The mandate applies to cosmetologists, nail techs, aestheticians, barbers, stylists, and braiders. It’s based on the idea that women, including women who are suffering from abuse or assault, have very close relationships with salon workers and share intimate details of their lives with them.

That’s the first problem with this law; that close relationship between a woman and her hairdresser or nail tech is one of those “truthy” things that everyone “knows” about. But no one involved in the law seems to have gotten any data to see if this is actually true. This kind of legislating from the gut and passing laws because they feel right, without any regard to empirical data or scientific evidence, may not seem that bad when the outcome is a law to try and stop assault, but it’s a small step from unscientific thinking to anti-science thinking.

Allowing a law to be based on the “fact” that “everyone knows that women are close with their stylists,” makes it easier to pass other laws because “everyone knows GMOs are bad for you” or “everyone knows vaccines cause autism” or “everyone knows climate change is a hoax.” We should be passing laws based on better critical thinking, not less rational thought, and we should be demanding more scientific inquiry into laws before they get enacted.

The fact that this is a law at all is another big problem. People in the salon industry worked with domestic violence prevention experts and legislators to create this bill and that partnership and initiative to address very serious problems is commendable. The training that the law requires teaches people to recognize the signs of domestic violence and sexual assault and educates them on resources to provide to people who may be victims. That is very valuable training and should be made available at no cost to those who work in salons or anywhere else. This would have been great as a resolution encouraging salon workers and others to take this training or maybe an appropriation to provide funding so anyone who wanted the training could get it free of charge. But it should not be required.

There is no legal basis for making people get training that has nothing to do with their profession in order to get a professional license. Requiring an extra hour-long training, which does not involve any trade-related education, as part of the licensing process, is equivalent to forcing salon workers to donate an hour of their time or an hour’s worth of wages to stopping domestic violence and sexual assault, without giving them any say in the matter. Stopping these crimes is obviously a good cause, but so is stopping child abuse or saving whales or protecting old growth forests or volunteering at the animal shelter. You can’t force people to donate their money to a charity and there are no grounds for creating laws that force people to donate their time to a particular cause, even if it’s a really good cause that everyone supports.

The large amount of support for this cause and this legislation is also part of the problem. Few people are going to want to challenge such a popular and seemingly-helpful law that has such noble intentions. Even a very libertarian-minded hairdresser, who has a lot of other things they could be doing with that hour of their time, may balk at the prospect of taking on this law and appearing not to care about domestic violence and sexual assault. So this law may stand until its sunset date of 2026. Hopefully, by then, someone in Illinois’ legislature will have noted the problems above and will also have decided that sexual assault and domestic violence are not inevitable and that we’re not going to really stop them by asking salon workers to take action after the fact.

Like a lot of efforts to prevent abuse, rape, and sexual assault, this law puts the onus for prevention on victims and observers rather than on perpetrators. And it focuses on addressing domestic violence and sexual assault after they’ve already occurred, rather than preventing them before they happen. If the goal is truly to end these crimes, then efforts have to focus on both potential perpetrators as well as potential victims and both groups have to be given the tools before the fact. Perhaps Illinois lawmakers could fund something like a pilot program to study the preventive effectiveness of teaching high school students basic anger management techniques, the meaning of consent, and giving them tools to recognize the precursors to physical abuse in a relationship. A program like this would be more scientific, be legally valid, and could lead to identifying actions and policies which might stop domestic violence and sexual assault before they start.

Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm and you can find her on Twitter @AlexisAPChapman.