On the eve of October and Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I saw the news of another domestic violence arrest: a woman claiming she called the police because she had been attacked, and then was surprised that she was the one being arrested. The next day, one of my UC Berkeley students in our seminar on “Intimate Partner Violence and the Law” remarked: “And people still have the audacity to ask, ‘Why don’t survivors stand up for themselves?’ ”
This woman was not an average arrestee: she is a Hollywood and TV celebrity. The media around this arrest focused on how this actress, once a star in the comedy “Clueless,” had been arrested after the police allegedly saw physical marks on her husband and none on her.
The first news reports revealed that the actress had allegedly called the police herself — she had allegedly reported trouble in her home and claimed to have been put into a “chokehold” by her husband. Subsequent reports said the actress was bailed out by her husband, denied having alleged any abuse and demanded privacy. None of this bewildered the students. Nor did they find it tabloid-worthy or speculation-worthy. They found that it fit right into the type of violence they are studying, which they relate better to as “intimate partner violence” that can be in a domestic setting or an informal, undefined or differently defined relationship. The bottom line is that someone who is meant to be closer to us than anyone else is causing us pain, fear or harm. Thus, there are complicated reactions to such harm.
Intimate partner violence is a painfully prevalent part of the real-life script of too many more than we dare acknowledge. Domestic violence-related calls are often the single largest category of calls received by police. Yet the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that only about 1 in 4 victims ever report domestic violence. And then the ultimate statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: about 1 in 2 of the women killed in the United States is killed by a former or current intimate partner.
The violence, seemingly driven by a desire to dominate and control another, is often reinforced by gender hierarchy. This same hierarchy often makes victims question their own reactions and reality. Whether a victim emotionally shuts down or emotionally erupts, they are often seen as unstable and untrustworthy. When a victim wants to cooperate with legal systems, they are often seen as vicious, with an ax to grind, and untrustworthy. When a victim refuses to cooperate, they are often seen as inconsistent and untrustworthy. And when a victim physically responds to the violence, their self-defense can be treated with contempt, at times even criminalized through arrest (infamously another Florida woman Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years after firing a warning shot at her husband after he allegedly abused her again nine days after she gave birth in 2010). The gender hierarchy remains intact through societal and systemic approaches that signal a mistrust of victims.
Intimate partner violence can be invisible (emotional abuse, financial abuse, psychological abuse), or less visible (rape takes place in at least 40% of violent relationships) or visible much later, as happens in many cases of strangulation. Another student commented on how the news coverage about the Florida celebrity arrest almost sent a message to abusers that “strangulation is OK and even a good thing because it would probably save them from arrest.” I hated to tell her that abusers already know this, and took the opportunity to clarify some facts about a common method of physical violence that often gets mischaracterized as “choking.”
Strangulation is often employed to illustrate to a victim the abuser’s potential to quickly kill, and thus to increase the abuser’s dominant role in the relationship. Evidence shows that while strangulation causes few or no injuries visible to the naked eye, it is an important predictor of later homicide (making death in a violent relationship more than 800% more likely). As the students learned how to pronounce “petechiae” (burst capillaries resulting in red spots in the eyes of a strangulation victim), I pushed aside the twinge of sadness that young people are spending their time learning something so dreary.
The young people I work with know. And they often teach best. A student very incensed by this news cycle had shared just weeks prior how she had a long call with her father after one of our classes. She told him that while she had heard him speak in support of survivors of violence in the past, she also always heard him ask, “Why doesn’t she stand up for herself!” She explained to her father why while this may seem empowering, it is in fact often trivializing and becomes an excuse for our own failure to take action against the hierarchy that allows violence. So, if even well-meaning encouragement is out, what is the solution? Instead of offering victim-survivors alternate ways of thinking and doing, we need to offer our trust, our support, our openness to behaviors we believe (or wish) we would never exhibit in the face of violence. We need to be willing to read between the lines of news stories: After all, marks of violence such as strangulation often only become visible after the news cycle dies. Students were quick to note that when even someone’s celebrity status, political beliefs or petite frame do not make her believable, we have to think about how much worse the legal and social systems are for women much further from the concept of an “ideal victim” (visualized as obviously scared, alone, refusing to fight back, desiring to be “saved”). This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, my ardent hope is that more enraged and persistent young people will have honest learning conversations with their parents and peers, beyond the he-said-she-said news cycles.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Law.