*Trigger Warning – Frank Stats About Domestic Violence*
A couple months ago, I read an article in Elle that impacted me so deeply, it took this long to be able to write about it.
Nina Collins, former book agent and literary scout, writes a horrifying, gut wrenching story about being a domestic abuser – and the process involved in understanding she had a problem:
In my thirty-seventh year, I divorced the father of my four kids after 16 years together, and I was arrested three times: once for assaulting him, once for assaulting his new girlfriend, and the last time for violating the order of protection he’d taken out after the first incident, when I upended a coffee table in his direction on Christmas Eve, two months after we’d separated. Aside from traffic violations, I’d never before been in legal trouble, never been in handcuffs, never seen the inside of a police station. [...]
The police promised me that this was a bullshit charge—“What kind of pussy husband has his wife arrested for cursing at him?”—even though I’d indeed broken the protection order’s stipulation against verbal harassment. The police spent hours working with the DA to follow Q.’s request: Despite having me arrested, he didn’t want the judge to go beyond the “limited” order the court previously had granted; he still wanted us to communicate with each other about the children only. This negotiation lasted for what seemed like forever; at around 8 p.m. I was taken handcuffed in a squad car to Brooklyn’s Central Booking, where I’d be in a holding cell until I could get in front of a judge. My lawyer was pulling every string possible so I wouldn’t have to spend the night in jail.
Orange cinder-block walls, sticky brown floor, fluorescent lights; the cell stank, partly because of the toilet and partly because of the bits of old food lying around—stale cartons of milk, remnants of bologna sandwiches. It was packed with women: a whip-smart 16-year-old lesbian named Paradise whom I initially took for a boy, in for assault; two enormous women, lovers, who’d engaged in a domestic brawl—one bandaged above her left eye and dressed in a white nurse’s uniform, as if she’d been headed to work when the fight erupted. And then there was Melva, a teen who’d been living on the streets since she was 12; my heart ached for the girl. Strikingly beautiful with clear dark skin, classic features, and long, thick hair, she was so obviously alone in the world—and radiating fury. An older woman said she’d been arrested by animal welfare for neglecting her bone-cancer-afflicted dog (they do that?). DeMaris, a warm Puerto Rican/Polish/black 18-year-old, was in for shoplifting for her baby, she told me.
DeMaris was sharp, and over the course of the evening she started sharing her impressions of the assembled crowd.
“What about me?” I asked.
“You? You seem white.”
Meaning that while I have light brown skin and African-American features, I looked like someone with money. I was wearing a silk Calypso blouse, a black linen skirt, and some unobtrusive gold jewelry. I hadn’t given much thought to my outfit that morning; I’d put on something that seemed businesslike, I suppose. Would it have been better to wear sweats? I wondered.
DeMaris and I actually had a nice time of sorts, chatting and supporting each other. When I told the girls in my cell that I was going to be 38 the next day, a bunch of them remarked that I was way too old to be in jail for fighting with my ex. I ruefully agreed.
Her tale is gripping, but what jumped out me more than the narrative is the nuanced way Collins introduces to talk about domestic violence. She reports on changes in the conversation around domestic violence in the last forty years, complete with a reframing of the issue. Ever since domestic violence conversations entered the public space, there have been fights to control exactly how it is being discussed. Primarily, the conversation has revolved around heterosexual, cisgendered men attacking heterosexual cisgendered women. But things have started to shift, most notably in that hetero-cis dynamic.
Experts are now breaking domestic violence into two different categories: intimate terrorism and situational couple violence. Collins explains:
So-called “intimate terrorism,” overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, is embedded in a general pattern of power and control; typically, money is part of it. The woman often can’t buy anything without the man’s permission and is socially isolated, every second of her time tracked. When she’s hit, it’s “her fault” for failing to obey her husband. This is the classic battered-wife syndrome, in other words. What I engaged in, and what women and men engage in roughly equally, according to Penn State sociologist Michael Johnson, PhD, is called “situational couple violence.” The author of dozens of papers and a book on domestic violence, Johnson says the situational type doesn’t permeate a couple’s life but bursts out when specific tensions ramp up. “Sometimes this involves some back-and-forth, but it rarely becomes life-threatening,” he writes. “Motives vary. A physical reaction might feel like the only way one’s extreme anger or frustration can be expressed.… It may primarily be an attempt to get the attention of a partner who doesn’t seem to be listening.” (Bingo, for me.)
The upshot, Johnson says, is that while sociologists talk in averages, those who are trying to stop domestic violence have to drill down to the level of the individual. Based on survey data, he says that out of any 100 cases of situational violence, roughly half are mild, maybe even a once-in-a-marriage occurrence, in which the violent party feels true remorse. The vast majority of the other half are couples who chronically mix it up but no one is injured. In a small portion of cases, however—one in six, Johnson estimates—the situational violence gets more severe with time.
In general, conversations around domestic violence are complicated to discuss, because it calls to mine so much of our personal histories with intimate partners or what we saw within our families. As we saw with the conversations around Rihanna and Chris Brown (and the lack of non-hip-hop world conversation around Joe Budden and Esther Baxter/Tahiry) responses to domestic violence vary greatly. Women are still doubted far more often than they are believed, which makes every second of public conversation precious. We may be far away from the era when domestic violence was considered a private matter between husband and wife, but a lot of the same attitudes still persist. The recent controversies have brought the normal tenents of the conversation back into sharp focus. Rich, powerful men like Charlie Sheen can brush off domestic violence charges as a big misunderstanding, despite attacking a girlfriend in 1996 and allegations he “menaced” his wife with a knife in 2010 (he only admits to mutual arm slapping and breaking her sunglasses). People in the public eye find themselves whirled into the public opinion. Rihanna and Chris Brown sparked worried whispers when they renewed public contact with each other over twitter while both considering very practical matters like the restraining order’s impact on his career. Allegations of domestic violence can haunt major stars (Budden is suspected) as well as deceased rap icons Big Pun and Notorious B.I.G. (who both were also known abusers), but not significantly impact their careers and their public personas adds to the problem. Here, I refer to major stars of color, since they are they people I pay most attention to – but the problem crosses communities.
However, there are so many stories that go untold in our current conversations.
First, there never seems to be any space for conversations about domestic violence in queer relationships. Collins provided a glimpse in her article but the stats are frightening. According to the University of Missouri’s National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center:
How common is lesbian partner violence?
About 17-45% of lesbians report having been the victim of a least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a lesbian partner (1,5,6,13). Types of physical abuse named by more than 10% of participants in one study included:
- Disrupting other’s eating or sleeping habits
- Pushing or shoving, driving recklessly to punish, and slapping, kicking, hitting, or biting.
- Sexual abuse by a woman partner has been reported by up to 50% of lesbians (12)
- Psychological abuse has been reported as occurring at least one time by 24% to 90% of lesbians
The research usually has been done with mostly white, middle-class lesbians who are sufficiently open about their sexual orientation to have met researchers seeking participants in the lesbian community. Subsequently, these findings may not apply to women who are less open, less educated, or of other ethnic backgrounds.
Why would a lesbian batter another woman?
Lesbians who abuse another women may do so for reasons similar to those that motivate heterosexual male batterers. Lesbians abuse their partners to gain and maintain control. Lesbian batterers are motivated to avoid feelings of loss and abandonment. Therefore, many violent incidents occur during threatened separations. Many lesbian batterers grew up in violent households and were physically, sexually, or verbally abused and/or witnessed their mothers being abused by fathers or stepfathers.
How is lesbian partner violence different from heterosexual partner violence?
There are several similarities between lesbian and heterosexual partner violence. Violence appears to be about as common among lesbian couples as among heterosexual couples. In addition, the cycle of violence occurs in both types of relationships. However, there also are several differences.
In lesbian relationships, the “butch” (physically stronger, more masculine or wage-earning) member of the couple may be as likely to be the victim as the batterer, whereas in heterosexual relationships, the male partner (usually the stronger, more masculine, and wage-earning member) is most often the batterer. Some lesbians in abusive relationships report fighting back in their relationship.
In addition, a unique element for lesbians is the homophobic environment that surrounds them. This enables the abusive partner to exert “heterosexist control” over the victim by threatening to “out” the victim to friends, family, or employer or threatening to make reports to authorities that would jeopardize child custody, immigration, or legal status. The homophobic environment also makes it difficult for the victim to seek help from the police, victim service agencies, and battered women’s shelters.
Gay men don’t have any easier – estimates again range from as low as 15% to as high as 45%. I had some difficulty finding the type of easily shared information as I found for lesbian violence, but in the resources at the bottom of the post is the Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project, which is geared toward helping abused partners safely exit relationships.
Transgender people also have a rough time reporting domestic violence as it happens. One of the main problems, as explained by advocacy group FORGE, is lumping bisexuals and transgender people in with lesbians and gay men, who are often the only groups represented in studies and surveys. Unfortunately, statistics are even harder to come by for the trans community. However, some information is known:
As an already oppressed minority, trans+/SOFFAs are often hesitant to address issues that many fear will further “taint” the community. The LGBT community often wonders why they need to take on this issue as well as the others facing the community. The “battered women’s” movement often avoids the fact that women batter, and men are victims. The pervasiveness of this myth has led police, hospital workers, and people in the criminal justice system to deny male victims or female perpetrators. (This is further “muddied” when people are not clearly “male” or “female”.) Transgender and SOFFA individuals may be cautious in approaching medical providers, police, or the courts due to past experiences related to gender. These individuals may fear revictimization through transphobia, degradation, hostility or accusations from these service providers/public safety workers. Shelters are typically “male-” or “female”-only. Transgender people and SOFFAs may not be allowed entrance into shelters or emergency housing facilities due to their gender/genital/legal status. There have been many custody cases lately involving trans+ people. The risk of losing custody of a child might influence a trans+ or SOFFA individual from coming forward about abusive behavior.
FORGE’s handout sheet is full of links to other papers and explorations, well worth a careful read.
Racial differences also aren’t discussed in many conversations about domestic violence, but the specific community break down is chilling.
The American Bar Association has a commission on domestic violence, and they provide the following information complied from dozens of community specific studies (all emphasis is mine):
Native Americans are victims of rape or sexual assault at more than double the rate of other racial groups. For Native American victims of violence, the offender was slightly more likely to be a stranger than an intimate partner, family member or acquaintance. Black females experienced intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races. Black males experienced intimate partner violence at a rate about 62% higher than that of white males and about 22 times the rate of men of other races. Approximately 40% of Black women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18. The number one killer of African-American women ages 15 to 34 is homicide at the hands of a current or former intimate partner. In a study of African-American sexual assault survivors, only 17% reported the assault to police. Overall, the victimization rates of Hispanic women peaked at lower levels than non-Hispanic women in every age group, but spread over a wider range of ages. 77% of all Hispanic Texans indicate that either they, a family member and/or a friend have experienced some form of domestic violence, indicating that approximately 5.2 million Hispanic Texans are personally affected by the epidemic of domestic violence. If the current prevalence rates remain the same, by the year 2030, more than 12.2 million Hispanic Texans could be personally affected by domestic violence. 40% of Hispanic Texans who reported experiencing at least one form of domestic violence took no action. 83% of all Hispanic Texans agree that a husband who abuses his wife is more likely to also abuse his children; yet only 47% indicate a belief that domestic violence passes from generation to generation. 12.8% of Asian and Pacific Islander women reported experiencing physical assault by an intimate partner at least once during their lifetime; 3.8% reported having been raped. The rate of physical assault was lower than those reported by Whites (21.3%); African-Americans (26.3%); Hispanic, of any race, (21.2%); mixed race (27.0%); and American Indians and Alaskan Natives (30.7%). The low rate for Asian and Pacific Islander women may be attributed to underreporting. Project AWARE (Asian Women Advocating Respect and Empowerment) in Washington, DC, conducted an anonymous survey in 2000-2001 to examine the experiences of abuse, service needs, and barriers to service among Asian women. Using a sample of 178 Asian women:
67% “occasionally” experienced some form of domination or controlling psychological abuse; 48% experienced it “frequently” in the past year.
32% experienced physical or sexual abuse at least “occasionally” during the past year.
28.5% of the survey participants knew of a woman who was being abused by her in-laws.
The AAPI community also has some specific break out groups and surveys done by various advocacy and research groups.
Cambodians In a study conducted by the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Boston, using a self-administered questionnaire at ethnic fairs:
44-47% of Cambodians interviewed said they knew a woman who experienced domestic violence, by either physical abuse or injury.
37% of the respondents know a man who is being beaten by his partner.
Chinese In a random telephone survey of 262 Chinese men and women in Los Angeles:
18.1% of respondents reported experiencing “minor physical violence” by a spouse or intimate partner within their lifetime, and 8% of respondents reported “severe physical violence” experienced during their lifetime. ["Minor-severe" categories were based on the researcher's classification criteria.]
In a survey of 214 Korean women and 121 Korean men in the San Francisco Bay Area conducted in 2000:
42% of the respondents said they knew of a Korean woman who experienced physical violence from a husband or boyfriend.
About 50% of the respondents knew someone who suffered regular emotional abuse.
A study of 160 South Asian women (who were married or in a heterosexual relationship), recruited through community outreach methods such as flyers, snowball sampling, and referrals in Greater Boston, found that:
40.8% of the participants reported that they had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners in their lifetime; 36.9% reported having been victimized in the past year.
65% of the women reporting physical abuse also reported sexual abuse, and almost a third (30.4%) of those reporting sexual abuse reported injuries, some requiring medical attention.
Clearly, this is an everyone problem. All communities, all sexual orientations, all gender identifications, all racial and ethnic groups, everyone. Any sort of person has the potential to become an abuser; any sort of person has the potential to fall into an abusive relationship. It’s amazing how many things we don’t discuss.
So what will it take to start breaking the silence? How do we provide space for all of these conversations?