The Stark Facts About Violence Against Women

When the media reported that singer Rihanna was reconciling with R&B star Chris Brown after reports that he beat her in February, the horrible incident became the hot topic of every tabloid and entertainment show.

The 19-year-old Brown appeared in court on March 5 and was charged with two counts of felony assault for an incident in which 21-year-old Rihanna said he repeatedly hit, choked and threatened to kill her while they were having an argument.

For the most part, the media turned a serious topic into a sensation, exploiting every gory detail for no other purpose than to shock its viewers.

In the midst of the frenzy, talk show host Oprah Winfrey pulled together a show on dating violence in an effort to take the issue seriously, and reach out to women who might be living in violent situations.

Winfrey invited supermodel and talk-show host Tyra Banks to talk about her interviews with Rihanna, in which she described her parents fighting, and with Brown, who said he witnessed his mother’s abuse and swore he’d never put a women through what his mom went through. Banks also talked about her own experience of emotional abuse.

The show relayed the simple recognition that violence against women is rife in our society, and women aren’t to blame for it — observations that sadly not everyone shares. In a survey in the aftermath of the beating incident by the Boston Public Heath Commission, half of the teenagers surveyed, aged 12 to 19, boys and girls, said they thought that Rihanna was responsible for being beaten.

Statistics on dating violence and young women are shocking. According to the Family Violence and Prevention Fund, one in five female high school students reports being physically and/or sexually abused by a date, and 8 percent of high-school-age girls say that they have been forced by a boyfriend to have sex against their will. Forty percent of girls aged 14 to 17 say they know someone their age who has been hit by a boyfriend.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, every year women in the U.S. experience 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes. According to the Bureau of Justice, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner in 2005 — an average of three women every day.

During the show, Winfrey and Banks repeated the advice that women must find the strength to get out of an abusive relationship. They made it seem as if abused women simply needed to summon the confidence inside to get themselves out of a nightmare. “When you feel great, you draw greatness to you,” said Oprah. You might as well tell a battered woman to pull herself up by her bootstraps.

Nowhere in this discussion was there any recognition of how difficult it is — financially and emotionally — for most women to get out of battering relationships, much less a real answer to why battering takes place.

Women escaping abuse often find themselves without the funds, credit or work history to find stable housing. A 2008 Equal Rights Center investigation of 93 rental properties in the District of Columbia found that, overall, 65 percent of test applicants seeking housing on behalf of a domestic violence survivor were either denied housing or offered less advantageous terms and conditions than an applicant not associated with domestic violence.

Shelters for women who seek to escape abuse and their children are scarce and pitifully underfunded.

A 24-hour census of domestic violence shelters and services by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that more than 20,000 adult and child victims of abuse sought refuge in emergency shelters, and more than 10,000 adult and child abuse victims were living in transitional housing in a single day in 2008. According to the survey, on that same day, nearly 9,000 requests for assistance went unmet because of a lack of funding.

Of course, few people would look to Oprah Winfrey to provide all the answers to such serious questions as violence against women. But the discussion on her show with Banks says something about the way we are expected to view problems like domestic abuse and dating violence. The problem, like the solution, is always explained in terms of personal responsibility.

“Breaking the cycle of violence” is a favorite phrase of talk show advisors, but what does that mean exactly? That, by some force of nature, some men are batterers, and they pass this to their sons? The word “cycle” implies that violence is unstoppable and inevitable, until an individual man or woman makes it stop.

This isn’t to say that such individual solutions can’t and don’t happen — men and women change their situations for the better, despite the tremendous forces working against them.

But the “individual responsibility” way of looking at violence against women masks a greater, more systemic problem — that a society which treats women as less than equal opens the door for women to be abused.

In all sort of ways, our society views women as if they are of less value than men. This isn’t expressed only in music lyrics or sexism in popular culture, but in women’s overall status, including the unfair burden in the home that most women are expected to bear.

Add to this the difficult and contradictory relationships that can exist among family members. Inside families and relationships, the unexpressed frustrations of the outside world make themselves felt — and in some cases, the people closest and least responsible for the outside miseries become targets of abuse. It is little wonder that reports of domestic abuse have increased among military families, as the horrors of military services come back to haunt soldiers who take it out on their family members.

The answer to domestic violence lies in fundamentally changing the status of women in society. One first step would be to demand services, such as a safe place to live, for women who are facing abuse. Another is fighting for living wages, so that no woman feels the need to stay with an abuser because she cannot afford to leave. Likewise, free and accessible child care and health care would go a long way toward freeing women, and men, from the stresses and burdens of everyday life.

These things will come at no small price — and they certainly won’t be won by exhorting women to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

They have to be organized for and fought for — by women and men together, committed to ending women’s oppression.

Elizabeth Schulte is a correspondent for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Elizabeth, or visit Elizabeth's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. lichen said on March 19th, 2009 at 11:53am #

    The epidemic of violence against men is much worse, with far starker figures. Furthermore, yes, violence comes from violence; from violence/corporal punishment/abuse enacted on children by parents/guardians of both sexes. The fact that society views young boys as less deserving of protection, as in fact in need of violence makes them great victims of abuse by their mothers and fathers, as well as society at large. The fact that society views men and especailly young men as worthless and not in need of protection or facilities (absolutely zero battered mens shelters exist despite the fact that domestic abuse towards men is quite common) makes the problem of violence unsolvable, as it will remain to be until it is recognized as a human problem, not one for outdated ideologies to run a seive through and come up with nothing.

  2. Anonymous said on March 19th, 2009 at 2:13pm #

    lichen has said what I didn’t want to, regarding violence against men. Violence against women is surely a terrible thing, but it is unfair to focus on it with no mention of the other side of the coin. That said, the gender of the perpetrator of said violence is perhaps not as relevant on that side.

  3. Barry99 said on March 19th, 2009 at 6:34pm #

    About 85% to 90% of the violence is BY men directed AT women. The reverse is not only much more rare (10 to 15%, clearly) and generally much less severe. There’s no need for men’s shelters to protect them from women, women don’t hunt men down except in the movies.

    The abuse of males is found in a society that requires them to join militaries to make a living or to gain a sense of masculinity, to rule the home as if it were a personal fiefdom, to obtain satisfaction with killing animal for sport, or to feel inadequate if they have not made a killing on Wall Street or humiliated an employee.

    In a good deal of the world, females are last in line for education, for food at mealtime, and despised if the bride price is not sufficient or not at all. Women have their sex organs sewn shut – to the point that sex is painful, urination is painful, and conception difficult. Women live shorter lives in some countries than men, and are doomed to lives a back-breaking labor because they are regarded as less than human. Infanticide is the province of the female infant.

    John Lennon said ‘woman is nigger of the world.’ He may have not been the wisest man on Earth, but he was right about that.

  4. lichen said on March 19th, 2009 at 7:16pm #

    No, that percentage is blatantly false; it has no basis in reality, where the primary victims of violence are children, primarily male children from adults of both sexes. The abuse of males is found in the fact that they are constantly beaten while growing up, more than any females are, in the fact that they are, factually, the highest rates of homocide and suicide victims, the primary/’acceptable’ victims of war, and in the fact that, in the west, there is a saturation of services and ‘awareness’ about women as the eternal victim, whereas there sufferings (their very-high but undereported rates of being the victims of sexual abuse, of having eating disorders, of the fact that male genital mutilation is still legal the world over) are given no attention. So no, most violence is from individual humans to individual humans; it is a human problem, and one that 1970’s-style feminism has never done a thing to address.

  5. bozh said on March 20th, 2009 at 8:08am #

    lichen, you’re right
    all societies i know of have been misteaching/mistreating ?all of us for at least 10T yrs.

    so much and so often, that i postulate, meaness/brutality may have gone genetic by now.

    i also postulate which phenomena are most or even solely responsible for the change of our kind/gentle gene[s] into a brutal one [s].
    shamanism/cults/clergy, our ‘rulers’/’teachers’, soldiery, greed, lust for power, competition, fears, supremacism, come to my brain as some of the causes for our meaness.

  6. Brian Koontz said on March 20th, 2009 at 5:26pm #

    Barry99 has some good points, and to continue this line of logic:

    In a society which requires males to be violent, females ALSO require males to be violent. There’s a tragic relationship here between violence and love and between nonviolence and impotency. “To beat me means he cares” is an underlying belief of many women.

    Most women enjoy when their men are violent outside of work (in terms of increasing the wealth drawn into the family). For many women then, the price they pay for an effectively violent man outside of work is some violence inside the home. This might be summed up by the phrase “the beatings come with the territory (of caring for my children)”.

    More males than we suspect are very resentful over *having to* commit violence (violence usually is social or psychological instead of physical). This resentment fuels their beating of women, who they blame for their own degradation into violence (by logic of having to use violence to feed the family).

    There is also a lot more violence committed by women than is typically presumed – again, social and psychological violence predominantly.

    The reason Americans (even on the far political left) focus on physical violence is because the other forms of violence, which are far more prevalent and far more harmful, are utterly required to maintain an imperial state, while physical violence can be done away with. This is one aspect of the complicity of the left in imperial America.

    Examine the typical woman who “gains the strength” to leave an abusive marriage. She’s unexpectedly *old*. The reason for the advanced age is not the wisdom or self-knowledge that comes with age, but the lack of children who need constant care. Once a woman no longer needs to sacrifice her own well being for the well being of her children she “gains the strength” to leave the abusive marriage.

    The problem with America and much of the world is that violence *works*. This is a country founded and perpetuated through violence – without violence imperial America dies a very quick death. This is no secret to the men whose fists, or words, or insidious actions pound their women and the women who suffer it for the sake of their children and themselves.

    Hierarchical capitalism is built on violence and cannot survive without it.

  7. Barry99 said on March 20th, 2009 at 5:55pm #

    Lichen – If we are talking about physical abuse against spouses – it is overwhelmingly the female who is the victim – between 85% and 90%. I agree with much of what has been written here including the wider sociopolitical connection.

    If we are talking about emotional abuse that’s one thing – but physical abuse in relationships is male on female.

  8. kalidas said on March 21st, 2009 at 9:44pm #

    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
    J. Krishnamurti

  9. sastry.m said on April 30th, 2009 at 10:35am #

    Woman does with the body what man does with the mind. That woman bears the process of procreation with her body is a natural fact but what man desires to achieve in his offspring is an open question. Desires spring up in man’s mind and get seeded in time as sperm which impregnates ovum in woman’s womb and fertilizes into physical embryo and delivered as off spring. So what man wishes fancifully women reproduces faithfully. In the absence of a well balanced perspective of righteous desires by XY chromosomed male the squred curves of XX chromosomed woman greatly distorts the rationale of the XY and results in all sorts of abuse and violence. If man is trained to bear the responsibility of his desires with righteous actions and compassion woman will follow suit with patience and forbearance starting from pain caused by desire studded phallus followed through pregnancy delivered offspring raising into well brought up children of respectful adulthood in keeping with nature’s harmony. If reasonable answers and rational practices can be found to the open question of man’s desires the cause of all intrigues can be removed successfully and the result of harmonious living can be assured permanently.