domestic & dating violence


for the Old Mole Variety Hour March 30, 2009

If there's one good thing about the publicity surrounding pop singer Chris Brown's arrest on felony assault charges for an incident that left pop singer Rihanna with visible injuries, it’s that it's raised awareness about violence in intimate relationships, and especially dating violence among young people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the US about 4.8 million women and 2.9 million men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner. The gender disparity increases with the level of violence: of those killed by an intimate partner, three quarters are women. Similarly, for teens:1 in 11 adolescents reports being a victim of physical dating violence, and 1 in 5 high school girls has been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner. This sort of information has been much more widely disseminated in recent weeks. Even the New York Times has written about the issue, reporting that nearly 10 percent of teenagers report being hit or slapped by a boyfriend or girlfriend, and quoting Dr Elizabeth Miller of the University of California Davis School of Medicine, who states that “The numbers of girls who sustain serious injuries, and the sexual violence sustained against girls, is much higher than boys.”

But there may be such a thing as bad publicity, and I say that not just because the Times put the story in their 'fashion and style' section, and not even because the release of the battered woman's name and photo was a breach of her privacy. I say it because, as the staff at AlterNet also note, "most of the dialogue surrounding the incident hasn't done much to advance an intelligent, empathetic discussion about the problem." In addition to the initial statements of support for Brown, there's been a good deal of blame and criticism of Rihanna, especially since reports that she has continued her relationship with Brown.

Given the nature of public discourse on this subject, we shouldn't be that surprised by the results of a widely reported survey of 200 teenagers by the Boston Public Health Commission, in which 46 percent said Rihanna was responsible for what happened, despite knowing that her injuries required hospital treatment. A post by Jill on the blog Feministe explains the response of girls in the survey by comparing it to self-defensive victim-blaming in sexual assault cases:

If you can pin the responsibility for the violence on something the woman did, you can live without the fear that someone might harm you in a similar way. If you convince yourself that women “get raped” because they go somewhere they shouldn’t, or because they dress in a particular way, or because they drink too much, or because they have a bad reputation, then it’s easy enough to convince yourself that if you just act right, you’ll be safe. If you convince yourself that women “get beaten” because they talk back, or because they instigate the violence with physical aggression, or because they otherwise bring violence upon themselves, then it’s easy enough to convince yourself that you won’t ever end up [getting beaten].

Andy Wright on AlterNet critiques those who have said that in continuing the relationship, Rihanna is "condoning the behavior of abusive partners." But, he writes,

Rihanna's treatment at the hands of the press will be . . . more damaging to domestic-abuse victims than her behavior ever could be. Casting Rihanna as the willing victim and summarily revoking sympathy as a means of punishing her for a perceived complacency sends a clear message that women who are victims of abuse deserve compassion on a conditional basis only. Victims should speak out, but only if they are ready to leave their partner and, better still, engage in legal retaliation. This of course, ignores the fact that many women suffer the same kind of revictimization in court that Rihanna is currently suffering at the hands of the press. If victims of domestic violence are taking any message away from this fracas, it's that once other people become aware of your situation, you open yourself up to criticism and contempt.

Even the AlterNet writers, who are clearly trying to advance an intelligent and empathetic discussion of the problem, shy away from addressing the politics of the problem of domestic violence. While Wright's argument hints that legal retaliation might not be the only or best response, he stops short of addressing those limits more explicitly. In an essay in the collection Nobody Passes, Priya Kandaswamy points out that

the "success" of the battered women's movement has proven to be a double-edged sword. In order to gain public support, domestic violence advocates portrayed abused women as innocent victims who suffered at the hands of particularly deviant men. While this narrative perhaps sought to combat the idea that abuse was a woman's own fault, it drew upon dominant ideas of 'innocence' and 'victimhood' and required that women represent themselves in particular ways ion order to be recognized as deserving of assistance. This requirement to pass as a "good victim" reinforced dominant gender norms and also marginalized women of color, immigrant women, working-class women, homeless women, lesbians, gay men, transgender people, and anyone who did not or could not fit these norms. Perhaps even more insidiously, these kinds of legislative engagements with the state have increasingly come to pass as the only kind of 'real' or acceptable politics. Under the rubric of helping 'real' victims of 'real' crimes, approaches that emphasize criminalization and rehabilitation have usurped critiques that sought to change how power is distributed in society and have naturalized the process of criminalizing violence against women and seeking expanded state funding for services for battered women as the only available political approaches to the problem.

But as the Alternet staff do note, it's now more important than ever to shed light on domestic violence – [because] the economic meltdown is likely to drive up the incidence of abuse.

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline. . . . documented a … 21 percent increase in calls for September over the same month in 2007. . . . [and although] research shows that recession and unemployment don't cause spousal abuse by themselves, … they [do] exacerbate situations where violence already is a factor.

But some activists and progressives are looking for other ways to address problems of intimate violence. Portland's Dicentra collective, which kboo has reported on here on the Old Mole as well as on Circle A and Positively Revolting Talk Radio, has been working on harm reduction approaches to intimate violence and creating safer spaces. Those interested in reducing family violence may also want to take note of next month's event on child abuse prevention, offered by Listen to Kids at In Other Words women's books and resources.

Rather than imagining that abuse is only real when it happens to a suitably innocent victim at the hands of a particularly deviant man, we need to continue seeking not only to reduce violence but also to change how power is distributed in society


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