Type any sentence involving “women” into Google and see what you find. According to a set of UN Women ads, it’s not pretty.
Women shouldn’t have rights. Women shouldn’t vote. Women cannot be trusted. Women need to be controlled. Women need to be put in their place. Women should be slaves. Women need to be disciplined.
All disturbingly at odds with an era of supposed progressiveness, and all some of the most popular search phrases in the world’s most ubiquitously popular search engine. It’s almost tempting to dismiss them as ridiculous or radical or a result of someone else, someplace else – that the ugly, mottled hatred for half the world’s population seen stark against Google’s search box is an abstraction to show disapproval for and move on. The reality of violence in our country, though, necessitates that we pay attention.
It’s probably not a coincidence that these ads coincide with Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a project spanning October that attempts to highlight the real, present and intimate violence that one in every four women in America (with higher rates internationally) will face in their lifetime. The problem is that domestic violence is not a sexy thing to write about. Misogyny manifests in so many harmful social practices – just ask Daisy Coleman of Maryville, receiving national attention because of discrimination against her after she was sexually assaulted – that it’s difficult to a create a comprehensive picture of the multiple ways it intersects society to cause pain and inequality. Domestic violence, however, because of its status as the most underreported crime, as well as one tied to the increasingly obscured reality of economic disparities and insecurity, is easy – and extremely dangerous – to overlook.
Since simple compassion for fellow human beings and a belief in equality seems to be missing from a large portion of Google users, let’s break this down into what all the “women belong in the kitchen” or “women should know their place” thoughts cost in very real terms. Domestic violence is not just a personal tragedy that occurs quietly (or loudly, with wincing neighbors) behind apartment walls. It has a national, social and economic cost that is too high for it to be elided in the conversation about crime and gender equality. This analysis is America-specific, but thoughts on gendered violence worldwide are an upcoming issue.
• Social: Domestic violence leads to cyclical patterns of abuse. Studies show that children exposed to domestic violence have a far greater chance of committing it later in life, and that up to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household. One in three female victims of homicide are murdered by a current or former partner. On average, there are 16,800 annual homicides attributed to domestic violence, and 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
• Economic: The cost of intimate partner violence in America is over $5.8 billion per year, with about $4.1 billion in medical costs. Victims of domestic abuse lost an aggregate of 8 million dollars of paid work. Overall, domestic abuse results in more than 18.5 million mental health care visits each year, and is the third leading cause of homelessness among families. In total, including law enforcement funding, legal work, medical treatment, and lost productivity, domestic violence costs at least $37 billion per year.
• Systemic: Not only is domestic violence partly a result of systemic inequalities against women, it also helps maintain them. Domestic violence is experienced in disproportionately high rates by women of color, especially African American women, who are not typically represented in media coverage of sexual assault or violence. Convictions for raping a woman of color are extraordinarily low, and they are at much higher risk – one in three Native American women will face sexual assault in her lifetime, while sexual violence in prisons, whose inmates are also primarily women of color because of institutional racism and the prison industrial complex, is the status quo. The way that violence is transmitted through generations indicates that this is an ongoing problem; one that will continue to negatively detract from society and requires sustained intervention to fix.
• Human: Millions of people face terror, pain, stress and humiliation in their everyday lives because of the largely unaddressed problem of domestic assault. You’d think this would be more of a motivating factor, although the UN Women campaign suggests otherwise.
Experts and policymakers differ on what the root cause of domestic violence is, and how to fix it. The Huffington Post has run editorials from psychologists focusing on the individual psychological and emotional dynamics at play in domestic violence (including perceptions like “you’re not a man if you don’t control or,” or “she is making a fool our of you”). The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence advocates education of children to prevent further violence in society, while many organizations fighting domestic violence (some of which are compiled by Greatartist here) focus on visibility and education of bystanders about the crime. A 2012 survey also showed that in that fiscal year, 43% of shelters for victims of sexual abuse had to decrease services offered because of budget cuts, while 80% reported an increase in women seeking help from abusers. Most tellingly, it reported that 74% of women stayed with an abuser longer because of economic reasons – and that 62% of survivors could not find jobs because of the economic downturn. TIME Magazine also reported earlier this year that intimate partner violence is “highly correlated with unemployment and economic distress.” The US Department of Health also identifies “childhood observations of domestic violence… experience of victimization… exposure to school, group or peer violence… living in a culture of violence… e.g. cultural beliefs,” and additionally lists cultural values and poverty as major underlying causes of domestic violence.
It’s clear that domestic violence is a problem requiring change on multiple levels. On the economic side, it’s clear that improving public benefits for low-income or financially-dependent women and instituting programs that help them become economically dependent allows them to leave and report abusers. In policy terms, the Violence Against Women Act, originally passed in 1994, was reauthorized in March and includes several clauses now protecting victims of sexual trafficking, same-sex couples and Native American women, but has been undermined by the sequester and government shutdown and faces serious criticisms over its mandatory-arrest laws. Increasing funding to shelters may also help.
Overarching structural changes aside, individual actions can have a profound effect on the culture of domestic violence. Contribute to organizations dedicated to combating intimate partner abuse. Ask your legislator to fight for laws that empower women and survivors of domestic abuse, like funding for shelters. If a friend is a victim of abuse, support them by listening, validating their experience, and gently directing him or her to resources for those who are experiencing violence. Educate yourself about one of the huge beasts lurking beneath the veneer of a supposedly progressive society.
With the exception of improving economic conditions, however, everything outlined above is merely providing triage for the results of another root cause. Needed at the bottom of funding programs and laws around mandatory arrests is a fundamental reexamination of the way we view and talk about women. Change will not occur if the basic message of misogyny broadcast into the public consciousness is not challenged.
All of the factors influencing the epidemic of domestic violence against women we find in society today – from the individual psychological to the structurally economic – are built off the basic assumption of female inferiority. The assumptions differ from culture to culture, even within America, but the prevalence of domestic violence even at home makes it clear that this is an issue that requires a deep shift in perception about the basic equality of women and others that structural violence acts against. Women don’t need to be disciplined – we’ve had enough of that ideology throughout history, and unacceptable proportions of us around the world are still suffering from it today. We need, as the UN Women ads indicate, freedom from discrimination; to be able to make choices for our health and safety. The light at the end of the tunnel is that part of the solution – a shift in cultural values – means that every individual can be part of the solution. It’s a responsibility that should not be confined to women, but to every member of society who can see the tragedy of violence built into every layer of our existence. This is a battle worth fighting on all fronts.