The scope of the problem (Updates below)


(Charlotte Bunch)

As more and more scrutiny accrues to Roger Goodell in what may be his undoing as NFL commissioner, what’s taking something of a backseat is the scope of the problem of intimate partner violence in particular and of sexual violence more generally. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) compiles a survey based on over 14,000 interviews in an attempt to create a statistical profile of these forms of violence. The survey shows that while women are not the exclusive victims of such violence, they are the preponderant ones and that a very large number suffer from these crimes.

Some data from the CDC survey, courtesy of the Boston Globe:

1) One in six women has been stalked.

2) One in five women has been raped at some point in her life (about one in fifty men have reported being sexually assaulted).

3) One in four women has been “severely physically assaulted” by a partner.

Collecting reliable data on sexual violence is notoriously challenging. Most advocates and experts dealing with these issues believe the existing data *understate* the extent of the problem. To the extent that Ray Rice’s attack on Janay Palmer Rice is bringing attention to the scourge of partner abuse and, in particular, the common experience of women who must live with the fear and actuality of violence in their lives, that’s a good thing.  But regardless of the numbers, the deeper challenge to confronting domestic violence is removing the idea that what happens behind closed doors is no one else’s business. The ultimately very public way in which Rice attacked Palmer Rice – with security cameras trained on him – distracts attention from the particularly vexing difficulty of transforming what often continues to be deemed a private matter into a public concern. After all, had Rice committed the same offense in their home, the fallout from this case would undoubtedly be very different, though the consequences for the victim would be every bit as detrimental.

Thirty years ago, the scholar Charlotte Bunch wrote a foundational article on the extent of abuse of women’s rights and highlighted what was, at the time, the human rights community, neglect of those abuses:

“Significant numbers of the world’s population are routinely subject to torture, starvation, terrorism, humiliation, mutilation and even murder simply because they are female. Crimes such as these against any other group would be considered a civil and political emergency as well as a gross violation of the victims’ humanity.”

Some time in the coming weeks and months, the furor over Ray Rice’s transgressions and Commissioner Goodell’s handling of the case will fade. If the pro sports leagues use this episode as an opportunity (even if a self-serving one) to adopt much harsher penalties for their denizens who are guilty of such crimes, that will be all fine and good.

But what will remain is a “civil emergency.”

Updates: Sara Bernard has an extraordinary article in the Atlantic, “Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness,” about the prevalence of sexual violence in much of that state and the obstacles to combating it. It’s a sobering piece.

Speaking of sobering, my buddy Danny sent me this graphic comparing the number of women killed by their husbands or boyfriends, between September 2001 and late 2012, on the one hand, with the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, as well as the death toll from the 9/11 terror attacks, on the other.

Later update: Katie Nolan, of Fox Sports 1, has an excellent commentary about the (limited) role of women in sports discourse. She says that women in sports media are generally allowed to “read headlines, patrol sidelines, and generally facilitate conversations between their male colleagues.” Not having “played the game” is deemed presumptively to disqualify women from discussing the weighty matters of play on the field. But nothing bars the likes of Keith Olbermann, Mike Francesa, Stephen A. Smith and Dan Patrick from opining about anything they choose, including profound matters such as racism, corruption and sexual violence, all while the women on set, if they appear at all, are supposed to “just smile and throw to commercial.”

Yes, there are some exceptions, like Jemele Hill. But the general division of labor Nolan describes is not debatable. Nolan concludes, “the truth is, the NFL will never respect women and their opinions, if the media it answers to doesn’t.”


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