Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why we all must help carry the weight

Fact: According to the NCADV, one in every four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Fact: More than three women per day lose their lives at the hands of their partners.

Fact: An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

Fact: Almost one-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner.

Fact: Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.

Domestic Violence Fact Sheet

I've often been asked why feminism  is so important to me. A week ago in my journalism class, I was called out by my professor for being a champion of this cause. She said, “often times people who have experienced oppression themselves, or fought the battle for others day in and day out, are the ones who become the voices who speak from the margins.” As she spoke, I began to consider why my investment in these issues is so powerful. It was not long before it became clear to me that it is easily encompassed in one word sentences:

Frozen. Powerless. Silent. Overcome.

But, how does a person facing oppression, or powerlessness, or silence, or abuse, become empowered to speak from this marginal space? In a world that values NFL stats over human well-being, Heisman Trophies over justice for rape victims, and right to privacy over victim advocacy, how do these marginalized voices find the strength to speak?  

The answer can be found at Columbia University, where students are helping rape survivor Emma Sulkowicz “carry the weight” of her mattress until she no longer has to go to school with her rapist. Stated another way, the answer is found in community, shared struggles, and above all, speaking out against the problematic assumptions our society is still making about the value of certain human beings.

Questions surrounding gender and disempowerment, and the ethics of domestic violence cases, are becoming particularly pressing in light of the infamous surveillance video of former Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his wife Janay Rice in the elevator.

I've heard it said that the video never should have been released, that Rice has a right to privacy that was violated by the release of such a private moment. I've heard it said that Rice should not have lost his job; he should ‘of course’ face punishment, but everyone commits crimes. I've heard it said that feminists are using these instances to further affirm their hatred of men, and that we should probably be talking about more important issues in the world.

I’d like to respond to each of these assertions, highlighting the ways that silence surrounding issues of domestic violence is in fact deadly for those experiencing it. With each day we choose not to act, or not to see, more and more women and men are silently being injured or killed at the hands of an intimate partner.

The New York Times recently published an article that highlights the numerous professional athletes who have continued to play their sports after being charged for assault Link to full article. The author discusses the ways that professional sports outlets have asserted that, “there is a presumption of innocence and that it is not [the league’s] role to supersede the criminal justice system.” Many advocacy groups have highlighted the ways that, unlike other crimes, victims are not always eager to seek justice, and for complicated reasons, charges are often dropped.

But this doesn't mean the assault didn't happen.

The video of Ray Rice confirms what is often so easily denied or covered up: particularly within hyper-masculine arenas like professional sports, masculinity is coded through violence and power, and this puts numerous women and children in jeopardy (both those who are directly involved with these players and those who look up to them). This video forces institutions so quick to defend its players (the essential source of the vast amounts of money generated in professional sports) to admit that a problem exists, and must be addressed.

Finally, videos like this one become a form of witness for all the stories that have been silenced, prompting people to speak out like never before for more stringent forms of accountability and justice in these situations. Awareness creates community, and promotes change. To paraphrase sportscaster James Brown, whether or not Janay Rice considers herself a victim of domestic abuse, many other women are, and this is why the video must be shown.

When considering the argument that Ray Rice should not have lost his contract in the face of these charges, it is important to note that this decision represents an outlier in the way women are treated, and valued, in the sports world. Last year, I overheard a conversation in which two men were discussing the case of Jameis Winston, an FSU football player slated to win the Heisman Trophy and lead Florida State to the national championship. A woman had asserted over a year ago that she was raped by a stranger outside of a Florida bar, implicating Winston, and it was found that both University and law enforcement did little to validate the charges until after the year’s football season had ended. Later, in the face of a championship, most were quick to dismiss the charges in favor of a win for the team. On the bus that day, the men I was sitting next to asserted a variety of things about the victim: that she accused a well-known figure as a means of turning the public spotlight her way, that she was drunk and therefore at fault as well, and that, whether the story was true or not, the game was ultimately the most important thing to consider.

If professional leagues do not set the example for fans by instilling greater standards of accountability for the players they employ, confronting these issues rather than burying them in rhetoric of victim blaming and “presumed innocence”, nothing is ever going to change, and women will continue to fear the consequences of speaking out. It is deadly to continue blaming the victim, for each time the message is sent that this form of masculinity is permissible, the fans who look up to these men they call heroes learn that treating other people like this is okay. And thus, the cycle of violence continues.

Overall, the Ray Rice video represents a call to action, both for professional athletic leagues and those of us outside of the sports world. 

We need to address the problematic relationship between masculinity and violence that is largely accepted in this country, reversing the stereotypes that to be a man is comparable with being the most strong, the most stoic, and the most dominant. We need to be better role models for our boys, having conversations  about the dangerous lessons they learn at school or from mainstream media about what constitutes manliness. We need to teach youth that when you shame others for what their bodies look like, or bully people just because they are smaller or weaker, this is not a demonstration of strength or an assertion of worth. Having conversations with fathers about the example they are setting for their kids, and the kind of masculinity they are modeling, is crucial not just for children, but for partners who might find themselves in harm’s way.

Domestic violence is a problem that must be addressed because it perpetuates (often gender-based) power hierarchies through terror. It facilitates silence through the most eviscerating forms of violation, paralyzing those who experience it by masking hate in words of love and intimacy. It is a trap that is almost impossible to escape, because nothing is harder than leaving those you love behind. This is why we must stand with the victims, and speak out against these dangerous forms of masculinity. 

If you find yourself in his situation, please seek help. You are never alone. 

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