by Emilie Egger
After days of countless press outlets expressing pity for “nice guy” Jovan Belcher, who suddenly “snapped” and committed a murder-suicide, and even the indirect blaming of Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend whom he shot nine times and killed, certain media outlets are finally coming around to examining the actual victims in this case. Namely, Perkins and her now orphaned 3-month-old daughter. As analysis of this dark story spreads, we can at least be glad that it has sparked a resurgence of discussion around Domestic Violence in the United States.
However, even much of this ‘fairer’ news coverage is missing the larger point. The U.S. has serious qualms about taking seriously the safety of women, who are at a much greater risk for domestic violence than men, and a general refusal to acknowledge issues of race and class that put poor women of color at even greater risk for abuse. Women’s agency, and control of their own bodies, has always been a controversial subject in the U.S.
In one article that appeared in the Washington Post in the wake of the Belcher murder-suicide, Sharon Katz, the executive director of SafeHome, the domestic violence shelter in Kansas City where Belcher and Perkins lived, asserted that “[Domestic violence] isn’t a woman’s problem. It is a human problem.” While Katz’s words are true in the sense that both women and men are at risk for becoming victims of abuse, the implication that domestic violence affects men and women equally obfuscates the overwhelming prevalence of abuse toward women in our culture.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women and 1 in 4 women will be abused during her lifetime. The United States Department of Justice has found that most of these victims are abused by someone they know, often an intimate partner. Violence is a threat for new and expectant mothers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between four and eight percent of American women are abused while pregnant, Furthermore, a 2005 CDC report found that this risk for abuse continues after pregnancy into the early months of motherhood.
For new and expectant mothers of color, like Perkins, the risk for abuse is even higher. Black mothers have a seven times increased risk over white mothers for death by homicide. For women of color under the age of 29, that number is eleven.
Abuse of pregnant women also extends beyond physical violence to verbal and emotional abuse. Women report their partners making them feel guilty about how they conduct themselves during their pregnancy or how they choose to mother their child once s/he is born. Beyond the adverse effects of these kinds of abuse on pregnant women, which include depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, etc., the stress associated with verbal, emotional abuse can have adverse effects on a fetus, changing the hormonal balance of the womb and leaving it more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as a child and adult.
Often, abuse surrounding women’s reproductive rights begins before pregnancy. A 2009 study of young women in Boston found that many domestic partners manipulate birth control as another way of controlling their partner. This is especially prevalent among poor women, 26 percent of whom, in the Boston study, reported that their partners attempted to control their access to contraception.
These statistics and examples of abuse are indicative of a larger national anxiety over the rights of women to make decisions regarding their reproductive health and the lives of their children. The Guttmacher Institute reports that since 2010, 32 states have restricted abortion rights in some capacity. And the intense focus on birth control during the 2012 presidential campaign reminded women that seemingly basic rights could be at risk.
Some officials seem to be on the right track in addressing the true roots of this problem. In the same Washington Post article, Sharon Katz calls for a re-examination of healthy romantic and domestic relationships, including the need for positive role models for boys, many of whom have learned to associate masculinity with varying degrees of abusive control over their female partners. In this, Katz is calling for a critique of the power structures that exist between men and women, especially during the vulnerable state during pregnancy and the early postnatal months. However, it is a shame that she and others like her do not explicitly connect the dots between the inherent power differences for males and females under patriarchy and the disproportionate rates of violence women face.
On the legislative front, it is politics as usual, as members of Congress fail to pass laws with tangible protections for vulnerable individuals. It is in this arena that groups like LGBTQ folks, Native Americans, and immigrants face another hurdle in their fight for protection against domestic violence. Republicans continue to refuse reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which for the first time would include protections for these groups. The new version of the bill would provide provisions for Native American women, 40 percent of whom will be physically or sexually abused; LGBTQ individuals, as the new law would make discrimination at domestic-violence shelters illegal; and undocumented immigrant victims of abuse, who, under the 2012 VAWA, would be granted legal status while cooperating with authorities to confront their abusers.
Even though the bill has enough votes to get through the Senate, House Republicans refuse to pass it because of these very provisions.
Of course, legislation can only do so much. We must take seriously events like last week’s tragedy, examining what role everyday power dynamics take in such unthinkable events. Real progress will only come after people recognize the connections between cultural anxieties over women’s bodies and agency and the violence directed against them.
Emilie Egger is a student in Sarah’s Lawrence’s women’s history program.