Somehow I managed to live 20 years before hearing my first battered wife joke. I was on a date, and we met one of his friends by chance at a café. I don’t remember how we landed on the topic of spousal abuse. But when we did, the friend smiled at me. “What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” I put my finger on my chin while my beaux face-palmed hard; he’d heard this one a few times. Oh, I don’t know. Let’s try: What happened? Are you okay? Do you need help? Should I call the police? Any of those.
No, none of those it turns out. That wouldn’t be funny. No. You tell her nothing. Why? Because you already told her twice!
If you didn’t laugh at that joke, good. It means you’re a decent human being.
A couple of years later, another friend of mine said something even worse. I ran into him and his fiancé outside another café. (What can I say? I drink a lot of coffee.) I asked them about their weekend plans. He said, “Oh I’ll probably drive her out into the woods and rape her.”
The girl hissed. “Jesus, Mike. A little dark.”
“What? You know I wouldn’t really do that, babe.”
Around the same time, a friend in our extended social circle got engaged to a questionable guy, a little early in my book, and soon he started checking in on her every day. He started setting a curfew on nights she went out with friends. He also started calling her randomly during the day, asking to speak to her friends—even when she was just having lunch. We saw all the red flags and warned her, to little effect. We had to stage an intervention when the guy pushed her. That’s how it starts, demeaning behavior. Then a push. Over time, you wind up boiling alive.
These anecdotes help explain why domestic violence remains a problem in the U.S., and globally. Frankly, our attitude toward domestic violence sucks. Look at what happens when even respected and powerful women like Angelina Jolie decide to separate from an abusive spouse. When Angelina split the Pitt, social media lit up with slander. Surely she had to be a crazy ass bitch to leave Brad like that. Poor Brad. What could he have done? He was so great in Benjamin Button.
The same thing happened to Amber Heard. When she reported abuse by Johnny Depp, she was immediately villainized in the media. I’m not that naïve to think we’ll ever reach absolute zero on this kind of behavior. Still, don’t you think it’s a little too prevalent? Why do we accept this as the status quo? Even I don’t contest it as often as I should. It takes a special month to make me reflect on abuse and its representation.
If Angelina has to put up with this much bullshit, think about everyday abuse. Imagine that you’ve just had the shit knocked out of you by a husband or boyfriend. You aren’t Angelina Jolie. You’re just some ordinary girl with a part-time job and you need help with the rent. Maybe you have a kid together, and you’re afraid the courts might side with your abuser because, except for secretly beating you, he’s a model citizen. You think about calling the police, but then what? What if they look at your bruises and say, “I’ve seen worse. Try to work things out with him. Okay? Call us if you need anything else.”
Correcting a systemic problem this pervasive takes huge amounts of energy and sustained effort. Domestic violence rates have fallen considerably since the first passage of domestic violence legislation in 1994. We’ve come a long way over the past two decades since key legislation was passed: The Violence Against Women Act, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, and the Victims of Crime Act. The White House reports that between 1993 and 2010, “intimate partner violence” fell 67%. Intimate partner homicides against females dropped 35% from 1993 to 2007, 46% for male victims.
Strong leadership at the state level has also created or strengthened laws that had previously been soft on spousal rape and stalking. I know it’s hard to believe, but many men still think a wife or girlfriend owes her partner sex whenever he wants it.
Cultural attitudes toward domestic violence translate into concrete things like perception of need, funding, advocacy, and enforcement. The most recent annual report from National Network to End Domestic Violence shows that the umbrella of programs established in the 1990s are still struggling to meet the needs of domestic violence survivors. The NNEDV’s one-day census shows that about 12,000 survivors made requests that couldn’t be met, ranging from housing and transportation to childcare and legal representation. More than 60% of those requests involved housing needs.
Let’s repeat that fact. Over 24 hours, more than 12,000 people called about domestic violence problems who couldn’t be helped.
Government funding cuts explain 24% of the unmet need, and reductions in private funding another 14%. Another 12% is explained by staffing cuts, especially to what NNEDV calls “direct service providers,” like lawyers willing to represent domestic violence survivors.
The need is real. Imagine what a survivor of domestic violence deals with: the emotional and physical trauma of a loved one abusing them, the guilt, the fear. On top of that they’re never completely safe, even after their escape. The NNEDV report describes some abusers stalking their spouses for weeks, even once they find a shelter. Their lack of resources can make them vulnerable to relapse and repeat abuse. Leaving is hard. Abusers can also be skilled manipulators, feigning remorse and promising to change.
Survivors have been torn down so completely they don’t believe in themselves. They need education and training to find decent jobs. They may have children to support, children who’ve also survived abuse. If survivors succeed in finding a job, they’ll need transportation.
All of that costs money. I can already hear some people thinking, “Why can’t these women just pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” They don’t have bootstraps. Or boots.
Domestic violence is cyclical. Abusers and survivors are likely to have grown up with abuse themselves. A woman who stays in an abusive relationship has received sexist behavior her entire life. She might not even know any better than to accept her circumstances. That’s why intervention is so important.
Still, I meet people who ask odd questions. A friend once asked me why law enforcement treats domestic violence different from regular assault. “Seriously, what’s the difference?”
For starters, let’s face reality. Our culture is still dealing with the stains of sexism. It doesn’t wash out that quickly. You have to keep at it. As I’ve written elsewhere, we often don’t realize sexism until it’s pointed out several times. Historically, like back in the 1970s, a man could beat on his spouse without much intervention from the police at all.
Watch film and television from the 1960s through the 1980s. Men shake and slap uppity women all the time. The most iconic bitch slap of cinematic history has to be Ronald Reagan’s scene from The Killers (1964). Reagan slaps a woman because she doesn’t want to leave a gathering. Think about it. This man became President, and he appears on screen committing domestic violence.
Some trolls will say, jeez, that was fifty years ago. Ronald would never have done that for real. He was acting, you stupid bitch. Well, look that clip up on YouTube and read the comments section where, in 2016, jackasses are making jokes about how Donald Trump should slap Hillary Clinton that hard. To Trumpists, this scene sums up everything great about the GOP. Blond bitch giving you lip? Smack her real good, and she’ll go away. The only thing funnier than this clip is my indignation. I’ll tell you this, though, if a man ever slaps me like that, I’ll rip his dick off like in that scene from Hostel II.
When regular violence is depicted in the media, men are fighting back. It’s portrayed as a negative thing, unless we’re talking about someone like Dexter. Domestic violence is an especially concentrated dose of sexism against a vulnerable oppressed person that says, you have to accept this violence being done to you.
Domestic violence is something I’ve never experienced firsthand. I’ve been casually stalked, groped in public, and harassed, but never beaten. Back when I freelanced for newspapers, though, I came across it all the time. The incident report logs at the police stations around town were full of domestic violence incidents.
I can still remember the most chilling one. A woman wakes up to see her husband bent over her five-year-old son, baseball bat in hand, explaining to the boy what a slut his mom is and what he’s going to do to her. The man actually corners her in the bedroom and starts beating her. Miraculously, she manages to escape the house and finds refuge at a neighbor’s house. I never met this woman, but I hope she made it out of that situation alive and that her son doesn’t grow up broken.
A few times, I attended domestic violence hearings. These were surprisingly gratifying. The judge, a former DEA agent, had no tolerance for the scum who beat on their partners. Once, I watched him extend a man’s sentence because he gave a dirty look at the prosecutor, who happened to be a woman. After banging his gavel, the judge motioned the man forward and said, “If I ever hear about you looking at a woman like that again, you’ll regret it.”
That’s what we need, but not just in the courts. I’d like to see norming of abuse called out more frequently. I know, I know. You’ve had a long day. The trolls are many, and thick-headed. Who wants to join the social justice brigade these days? I’m not saying we have to save the world this week. Let’s start small. Maybe one day a month, if you see norming of abuse, call it out. Let’s make sure our media outlets, our schools, our Facebook pages, are free of this bullshit by the year 2050. Let’s also dispense with the idea that our lives will be less funny without abuse jokes. That “told her twice” quip was never that funny, just offensive in its ignorance.
Featured photo by Mario Capone via Flickr.