Friday, September 4, 2009

From Erica: on tolerating and punishing intimate partner violence

Emily's last post got me thinking some more about the aftermath of Chris Brown's assault on his girlfriend, and with Domestic Violence Awareness Month coming up in a few weeks, I feel like it's a good opportunity to do a post on some basics of how our society responds to intimate partner violence. For those of you who are wondering, by the way, my area of specialization is domestic abuse prevention and intervention; I've worked in multiple domestic abuse prevention organizations and filled a variety of roles therein, including outreach and education roles.

Given the long tradition of tacitly accepting intimate partner abuse as a fact of life in Western society- and here I'm thinking of the popular belief in the origin of the "rule of thumb," the fact that it took until the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 to declare marital rape a crime in the US, and the fact that anti-cruelty organizations were established for animals and children about 100 years before "safe houses" were established for female victims of abuse- it should come as no surprise to anyone that lax punishments like the one Chris Brown received for putting his girlfriend in the hospital aren't uncommon for perpetrators of intimate partner violence. Emily and I were talking about this, and the truth of the matter is that, if Chris Brown had beaten a stranger that badly, he would've received jail time.

Of course, both of us are outraged that he's getting off as lightly as he is. My partner, while he agreed, was also seeking intellectual debate and asked why Chris Brown should receive something more serious. As my partner's argument went, and as many peoples' arguments go when dealing with assaults against strangers vs. assaults against partners, someone who randomly assaults a stranger- say, because this stranger knocked over their drink at the bar, or looked at them funny, or whatever small excuse they give- is more of a menace to society than the person who assaults their partner because they're liable to do it again, to another person, for another shallow reason- the long history between partners makes the assault more complex. Essentially, the argument runs, the stranger-assaulter is more dangerous because s/he will likely lose their temper with other people and thus have a broader impact on the community than the person who's "only" assaulting their partner.

This is what I have to say about that:

Reasons for assaulting people, be they strangers or partners, are almost always shallow. One abuser I knew of put his wife in the hospital because she hadn't ironed his shirts "correctly." Another one spent almost an hour going over his wife's activities for the day, actively hunting for something he could "get" her for, before finally making up a reason to beat her into the ER. Having a longer, more complex history between two people doesn't make the choice to physically abuse someone any more morally ambiguous; in fact, when you're talking about people who are supposed to love each other and care for each other, their prior relationship should serve as an even greater buffer against the possibility of abuse. The fact of the matter is, someone who assaults someone else- especially their partner- is choosing to do something wrong and is responsible for the consequences.

Furthermore, the person who commits an assault against a stranger is usually doing it more out of issues with temper and self-control than the person who assaults their partner. Intimate partner abuse isn't about love, jealousy, anger, or temper. It's about one person doing everything they can to control the other. That's why abusive relationships rarely start out with physical abuse. Early on, an abuser doesn't "need" physical abuse to keep their partner "in line." And that's why abusers toe the party line that Chris Brown did, that they should "just walk away" instead of "letting" their partners "provoke" them into committing acts of abuse. That way, the abuse becomes the victim's fault, rather than the choice of the abuser. Temper issues are dangerous; the person who's willing to use anything, even extreme acts of physical violence, to control someone is far scarier.

If we want to take this all the way to the final argument my partner made, about community impact, let's do something that our society never does: let's stop assuming that the impact of intimate partner abuse stays behind closed doors and between two people. The fact is that the impact is community-wide, just as much as the impact of the stranger assault. Let's say that Person A assaults their partner, Person B, one evening, and Person B has a couple of broken ribs, severe bruising on the stomach, and some sort of arm injury- maybe a fractured wrist. Person B visits the hospital to get their injuries sorted out, and by the time they get out of there, it's 5 AM and they haven't had any sleep. Their productivity for the day, if they're employed? Gone. Either they're exhausted and do badly at work, or they take the day off to let the painkillers do their job. If Persons A and B have children living with them, those kids have witnessed violence in their family- even if they didn't see it face-to-face, they know about it- and are gradually being traumatized. The kids' teachers have to deal with the stress the kids are experiencing, whether the kids are acting out in class or withdrawing. If they've been sent to stay with a relative while Person B heals, or a relative comes to help out around the house, that's further strain on the kids and an additional burden on the relative who's asked to help out.

So far, that's an impact on hospital staff, school staff, work, kids, and extended family.

The saga continues, however. Abuse almost never ends between partners unless the relationship ends- this is fact. Let's say that, the next time Person A assaults Person B, Person B is able to call the police. The police come out and issue an emergency restraining order against Person A, and Person B, after some hospital time to fix up these latest injuries, takes the kids and heads to a shelter. Because of the danger of having Person A being able to locate Person B at their old job, Person B either takes a leave of absence or quits; similarly, because of the danger of having the kids picked up at school by Person A or of being followed from the school by them, Person B chooses to transfer the kids to a new school district. While at the shelter, Person B looks for a new place to live and a new source of income; when they can't get a job right away, they apply for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families- in popular terms, welfare- to tide themselves and their kids over and pay for a new apartment until they land a new job.

That's an additional impact on the hospital staff, police, extra strain on the kids, social services, the job industry, and on society as a whole as they put additional funding into social assistance programs like TANF.

To get back to Person A, the judge issues a restraining order of 1-3 years (depending on the state) to keep Person A away from Person B in the future. Person A is required to go to classes on how not to be an abuser as well. Unfortunately, all of the evidence points to a lack of success: of the abusers who actually attend "batterer's intervention" programs, regardless of whether they're "supposed" to or not, only about 2% will actually develop healthy relationship habits to use in the future. In all likelihood, Person A leaves the program, gets a new partner, and begins the cycle all over again.

The final impact tally thus needs to include all of the earlier impacts, multiplied by the number of partners Person A abuses in his/her lifetime.

So is the person who assaults a stranger actually more dangerous than the person who assaults their partner? The evidence would suggest not.* Instead, what becomes clear is that our society is tacitly accepting of abuse between partners, especially when the abuser's a man and the victim's a woman (although let's be honest: how often does our society believe that a man can be abused by a woman?). The US has a long history of expecting a certain balance of power between men and women in romantic relationships, and popular culture- especially White-dominated popular culture- teaches us that the very things that ought to be warning signs about abuse, such as possessiveness and jealousy, are "romantic." Just look at the massive "heartthrob" reaction to Edward Cullen from Twilight. Even African-American culture, with a history of strong, capable women, isn't immune- there's a lot of writing and talking out there from African-American men who feel emasculated by their female friends and relatives, as though men of any race are entitled to some sort of power over women that they aren't getting. For some reason, the metaphorically loudest reactions to cases like Chris Brown's aren't demanding that we take intimate partner violence more seriously.

And what's even more frightening is how much our perception changes based on the races or sexes of the people involved. How would we have reacted if both Chris Brown and Rihanna were White? Or, more frighteningly still, how much would Chris Brown's sentence been changed if Rihanna were White, and he were still African-American? If Chris Brown had assaulted a White woman, it's a no-brainer to say that he would've gotten a much heavier sentence than he did. Our punishments for those who commit assaults are directly correlated to the social value we assign to the victims, and even to the status of being victims. In our minds, it goes: male victim? Lighter sentence- men can't be victims. African-American woman? Lighter sentence- African-Americans aren't as important as White folks. Trans person? Lighter sentence- how do we know it wasn't an extreme reaction to discovering the victim's dark past? Interracial violence? Depends on who assaulted who. Woman of any race? She was probably provoking him- we know how women can be nags. If you think I'm exaggerating, or kidding, or anything other than completely serious, check out the Bureau of Justice statistics on victims and the US Department of Justice statistics on perpetrators.

I'm going to leave this topic for now, since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the US and I plan on focusing pretty heavily on it for those four weeks. But keep it in mind. Watch how our assumptions affect our initial and lasting impressions of the abuse cases we hear and read about. It's frightening.

*The type of cycle and level of impact I've presented here is about as average as it gets in abusive relationships, based on the statistics reported by studies and domestic abuse organizations across the country, and based on what I've seen in three years of working with victims of abuse.

1 comment:

  1. It really is peculiar and disturbing that we'd be more accepting of violence that is perpetrated against the very people to whom a person should show the greatest respect and love.