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Although the harrowing consequences of DV frequently grab headlines, "intimate partner violence" remains one of the nation's nasty secrets. Nationwide, battering is the major cause of injury to women aged 14 to 45, resulting in more injuries than auto accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.
In New York State, estimates are that someone is victimized by physical violence in the home every three minutesthat's about the time it takes to brush your teeth. Forty-nine percent of female homicide victims in New York City are killed by an intimate partner.
DV is not just about causing serious or lethal physical injuries to a partner. Abusive behaviors can include name-calling, yelling, constant criticizing, or preventing contact with family or friends. Abusers also exert control by denying access to bank accounts or credit cards, threatening harm, or pushing, punching, kicking, and biting.
On October 19, health-care and social-services providers gathered at Mount Sinai Medical Center's Conference on Domestic Violence and Its Impact on the Community, sponsored by the center's community board.
Charlotte Watson, executive director for the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, made it clear that reliance on laws alone to prevent domestic violence isn't enough. "Despite massive legal reforms, social sanctions [against DV] have yet to follow.
"Domestic violence is not a disease, disorder, or defect," said Watson. "It's rooted in misogyny. It's about maintaining the position of 'king of the castle.'
"Every man must act to stop men's violence against women. Don't let [other men] put women down. Take down the porn in the locker rooms. Don't use women's bodies to sell products. Challenge statements like 'I wouldn't let that bitch tell me what to do!"
Watson said studies show that batterers' programs have very low success rates because "[DV] is not about anger. He doesn't hit the boss or the cab driver when he's angry. He hits her because he can.
"We ask women to leave home to be safe, to give up everything that they know and love. But we don't ask men to stop battering or controlling their partners."
Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Sanctuary for Families Center for Battered Women's Legal Services, said, "More rights and remedies are meaningless if more judges aren't sensitive to victims of DV." She recounted the 1997 case of a South Asian woman who had testified before a judge that her husband strangled her while she and her baby were in bed with him. Ignoring that the woman had been choked, said Leidholdt, the judge scolded her, yelling that having the baby in bed with them was "unacceptable."
Leidholdt said that when she first came to Sanctuary for Families, "I was astonished that judges accorded more respect to defendants in criminal cases than battered women." Several years ago, Leidholdt and other DV lawyers formed the Lawyer's Committee Against Domestic Violence, which meets monthly in each of the boroughs (except Staten Island) with administrative judges and judges who handle domestic violence cases. Consequently, she says, more and more judges are being trained in handling DV cases.
A misconception is that DV occurs only among younger women, yet older women are also abused by spouses or partners, their family, or caregivers. Lesbians and gay men who are battered face hurdles in getting assistance if police and court personnel are not trained in handling same-sex violence. According to a 1998 report by New York City's Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (whose DV clients include transgender and bisexual men and women), 71 percent of DV victims served by the agency did not report incidences of DV to the police; in 66 percent of cases where AVP clients had reported a complaint, no arrest was made.
Mount Sinai's conference ended with three women and three men from the Nite-Star Program/STAR Theatre acting out a scene in which a young woman's cell phone goes dead while she's in a bar with two friends.
Her boyfriend, who is watching a televised basketball game with two buddies, is trying to reach her. When she doesn't return his calls, he rushes to the bar and angrily demands to know why she didn't call; eventually, he drags her, cowering, out of the bar.
Afterward, the "couple" and their "friends" were grilled by the audience about what each might have done to stop the violence. It seemed that these were questions that we all could be asking ourselves.