March 1, 2011
News says: “Husband tortured Wife.” We say: “Teachable moment lost.”
A recent segment on Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell found on cnn.com provided an opportunity for us to respond to a story of surviving a horrendous act of intimate partner violence. The video segment was about Lola Hornoff, a survivor of domestic abuse (Warning: violent imagery and language. Video also embedded at end of post). The story may have been an attempt to expose the realities of intimate partner and domestic violence to a wide audience; however, we felt that the clip did a disservice to audiences and survivors everywhere.
Specifically, the discussion completely left out the role of sexual assault in intimate partner violence. In fact, despite repeated proclamations from the host that she was not blaming the victim, her statements did exactly that when she demanded that abused people take control of their situations. After hearing the Hornoffs’ neighbor describe how Ms. Hornoff’s husband did not allow her to leave the house, and Issues’ own experts trying to discuss the terror involved in these situations, Ms. Velez-Mitchell tells women that the most important lesson to be learned from this story is:
“If you’re in an abusive relationship and you feel like you can’t get out, whatever you do, get on birth control so you do not have children and put them in harms way as well.”
This call to action reflects and continues a serious lack of understanding about sexual assault and domestic violence.
Here are some alternative points the story could have used in order to strengthen its impact:
Abusers use a variety of tactics to terrorize and ultimately control their spouses/partners’ ability to leave the house, run errands, have money, obtain health care, maintain a support network, and access a wide variety of resources. In addition, as described in this New York Times article, studies have found that birth control sabotage is a common tool for abusers. Abusers hide or destroy pills, poke holes in condoms or diaphragms, refuse any method of protection, and pressure their partners to become pregnant against their will. In many cases, the abuser ultimately determines whether the spouse/partner has birth control.
Furthermore, an abuser who commits domestic violence against a spouse/partner often commits acts of sexual assault, including rape, against the spouse/partner. Unwanted sexual activity that results in an unwanted pregnancy and an unplanned child is another way an abuser can exert control over the spouse/partner. Pregnancy increases a woman’s vulnerability, and murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. If a person is being forced into sexual activity through either brute force, coercion, threats of harm, or any other fear-inducing manner, the last message they need to hear is how they should have been protecting themselves with birth control.
Abusers aim to maintain power and control over their spouses/partners, and they employ physical, emotional, psychological, financial and other tactics to effectively eliminate any and all means their spouses/partners might use to leave. The situation becomes infinitely more complicated once an abusive relationship includes a child, even if that child is not the product of a rape. Abusers commonly threaten to kidnap or harm the child to keep the spouse/partner from leaving. A person’s life is actually in the greatest danger when leaving an abusive partner.
While including any of these points would have strengthened the impact of the story, perhaps the most important point we can convey is the need for asking the right questions. Instead of blaming the victim by asking why she stayed or why she reproduced with an abusive partner, we should be asking why her husband was abusive. Better yet, ask why there are people in our country who are violent towards others, who disrespect their partners in the most extreme ways, and who think it is acceptable to perpetrate such terrible abuse against another human being. These are the questions that need to be asked and answered, along with discussing how we can prevent someone from becoming a perpetrator in the first place.
NYSCASA composed a letter to cnn.com and to Jean Velez-Mitchell, highlighting these suggestions as ways their story could have been stronger. Although we have not received a reply, we hope they will think of these points the next time they report on the subject.
We also hope that by putting these points out into the blogosphere, we can all think about what we’re really saying when we talk about abuse.