The Vicious Cylce of VAW

“I’m not Thomas Jefferson. He was a pussy.” Ah, the wise words of Charlie Sheen. Remember him? Just recently, the domestic violence offender (since 1994…) started his own television show, Anger Management. Sheen plays an ex-baseball player with problems controlling his rage. The infamous actor reached record-breaking viewership levels for FX in its first weeks. Viewers from around the world tuned in to watch what seems to be a semi-autobiographical story of Sheen’s violent nature.

Just last week, Daniel Tosh, a comedian and hugely popular host of Comedy Central, truly outdid himself. After being reprimanded by a female audience member for making a rape joke, Tosh responded “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl [referring to the audience member] got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?” So funny, Dan, so funny.

Now let’s backtrack to 2006. At the 78th Academy Awards, the band Three 6 Mafia became the first hip hop group to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” If you’re a little shaky on the lyrics, allow me to remind you: “You know it’s hard out here for a pimp…Gotta couple girls workin’ on the changes for me…Like takin’ from a girl don’t know no better.” Catchy, eh?

This June, I began my internship at Sanctuary For Families, a non-profit that serves women from domestic violence households and women who have been sex-trafficked. I learned of power systems, types of abuse, barriers to leaving a partner, and many, many other pieces of valuable knowledge. As a communications intern, I followed the news daily through newspapers, websites, Facebook, and Twitter. I kept our followers up to date on news in the realm of violence against women, domestic violence, and sex-trafficking.

As I perused the news each day, I found striking themes that I discussed with my coworkers. The media was popularizing these various forms of violence through different mediums. Our jaws dropped as we watched the Daniel Tosh performance and we rolled our eyes listening to the Three 6 Mafia lyrics. I was stunned at the public’s seeming apathy towards such offensive content.

The problem here is twofold. The first involves the media and its acceptance (and promotion) of content that involves a certain kind of violence. I’m not saying that all guns should be banned from television tomorrow (although some may argue otherwise), but I am saying that producers and networks need to be more discerning with their choices. By casting a previous domestic violence offender in a show about anger management, the media acknowledges the issue and chooses to popularize it on national TV. By keeping Daniel Tosh on the air, the media accepts rape as both humorous and negligible.

Small decisions send big messages to viewers across the country and across the world. As violence against women is accepted into popular culture, it becomes normalized into everyday life. We become immune to the deeper societal problems as we laugh watching Tosh.0 and sing along to Three 6 Mafia’s tunes. This numbing becomes problematic when the violence we see on TV becomes our own, or that of a friend. We accept it more readily, failing to challenge it as a troublesome, deep-rooted crisis.

But the media tells only half the story. Naturally, television networks respond to viewership, radio shows to ratings, Facebook profiles to “likes,” and Twitter accounts to retweets. We, the population of viewers, listeners, likers, and tweeters dictate what the media feeds us.

If we all chose not to watch “Anger Management,” FX would drop the show after a season. If no one laughed at Tosh’s jokes, he would not be standing on the stage telling them. But something about us responds, encouraging the violence against women that is so engrained in our culture.

And, thus, a vicious cycle emerges, one that takes more than collective action to break.  If we, as a society, recognized the systems of power and violence that we, ourselves, perpetuate, we might begin to see change. But until that recognition becomes true activism and protest, the high-powered producers, directors, talk show hosts, and musicians will continue to value this violence in programming and in popular culture.

We need more than diffuse, circulating anger in the air. We need regulations that prevent acts of violence against women from being aired, and, thus, becoming “cool.” Networks need criteria for selecting actors and actresses that excludes past offenders. Until we reshape the way the media presents violence against women, it will be difficult to reshape ourselves and the society around us.

An Unspoken Consensus

Recently, I interviewed my supervisor, Emily, to discuss her political upbringing and its relevance to her work today. She discussed her liberal household, one that encouraged her to vote regularly and educate herself about various candidates and their beliefs. She recognized a certain complacency in New York that bothered her. People expressed that one vote would not matter in the grand scheme of things. She questioned how such people considered themselves political if they were not willing to put in the effort to influence change.

She continued by asking me whether or not I believed the workplace was inherently political. My answer?

It depends. In corporate or financial environments it seems that politics are largely unimportant. Bankers don’t approach companies with certain political agendas nor do they choose clients based off of party affiliations. When corporations spend millions of dollars to support a campaign, it seems to me an act of self interest.  It appears that their financial backing of a candidate or their lobbying for certain legislation is a mechanism to maintain power (and, ironically, money). Corporations seem comfortable with the status quo and uncomfortable by the threat of change. In other words, corporations give political money to allow them to keep doing what they’ve been doing—regardless of the politics themselves.

But at a place like Sanctuary, it seems that a certain political alignment is inevitable and invaluable. Emily explained that they’ve never polled staff members on their party affiliations but that she would “be surprised” if there were Republican voters in the bunch. Sanctuary is unique in that it provides direct services to clients but is also involved in political decisions that influence these clients. Thus, the Sanctuary staff team seems to be a self-selective group of women and men who are interested in devoting their time and energy into a certain mission with certain political outcomes. Daily action is motivated by politics—an unspoken consensus, if you will, that if we are going to share a political mission, the means to this end will be political as well.

Catching Up

Having taken an introduction to public policy course this spring, I have begun to assess Sanctuary For Families using a certain type of analysis. As Sanctuary’s newest “tweeter,” my tasks involve tracking larger policies that are trending in the news, like VAWA and TVPJA. I tweet relevant news to our followers with the hope of spreading Sanctuary’s mission and informing the general public of problems such as domestic violence and sex trafficking.  As I learn more about these policies and bills, I begin to dig waaaaaay back in my brain to our class’s discussion of policy and politics and the interaction between the two. Working at Sanctury affords me the opportunity to observe how policy functions on a small scale. While certain laws may be in place, it is not always clear that the government is enforcing such laws.

Thus far, I have observed that Sanctuary must fill in the gaps that the government does not reach. While domestic violence and sex trafficking are illegal, Sanctuary provides services to victims who have not been protected by the State. Through various different clinical services, Sanctuary staff members recognize the need and act on it.  In addition, however, Sanctuary’s legal staff puts forth new laws and amendments to refine and improve the laws already in place.

At this juncture, I feel that Sanctuary is stuck playing catch-up, as it is forced to deal with the inadequacies of our government before it can pave the path in new territory.

My Trip to Jamaica

Julia is a rising sophomore working with Sanctuary for Families.

As I sat on the Manhattan-bound F train, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Finally a moment to myself to digest what I had seen, to take in the women, the conversations, the momentary snapshots I had witnessed.  I was tired, hungry, and eager to be home.

6:30 pm: My mom asks me how my day was. “Uncomfortable,” I respond.

2:45 pm: We walk up the steps of the subway station and onto Jamaica Avenue in the heart of Queens. My short, bright skirt sticks out. I yank it down, hoping to show a little less leg than I originally intended. As we walk up the street and around the corner, I can feel the gazes of men carefully studying us, undressing us.

3:00 pm: We enter the Choices Clinic facility and are warmly welcomed by Crumbs cupcakes and bottles of water.  The place is not at all what I expected—it is clean, expansive, and modern. There are flat screen TVs on three different walls and comfortable chairs surrounding each.  Two senior staff members lead us to the back conference room where Merle Hoffman awaits us.

3:20 pm: For 20 minutes, Merle gives us a BRIEF synopsis of her incredible life.  Interning in Queens, debates across the world, trips to Russia—all point to a certain passion that has driven her work for over 40 years.  This passion is reproductive justice: the capacity for all women to make personal choices concerning the decision to have children or not to.  “Ready to take a tour?” she asks. I was ready. I am pro-choice—why wouldn’t I be ready?

3:50 pm: I am not ready. As we pass through the halls of the Choices clinic, I can’t help but look at the patients in each step of the process. The women sitting in the large waiting room, those changing into their robes, getting their vital signs taken, the ones waking up from anesthesia, and the final women checking out from the clinic.  For each woman I create a story. A rape, a broken condom, a changed mind. For all women I feel a sort of empathy, an understanding that exists only because I am a woman and I, someday, may be where they are now.  I begin to feel nauseous as we finish the tour. I cannot identify where the feeling comes from, but it is there. Perhaps it is the nervousness of being in a medical facility or maybe that I forgot to eat lunch.

4:30 pm: Returning to Merle’s office, we begin to ask our own questions. She answers each with unwavering conviction.  In one of her responses, Merle explains that an abortion is “the most intimate” of procedures and “the most intimate” of decisions.

As I reflect on my time at the Choices clinic, I begin to understand my nausea and my discomfort. As I walked through the halls, staring at the patients, creating their stories, I breached this intimacy.  I violated the connection between mother and child, between mother and self.  I was an outsider, taking a tour of the most personal moment in a woman’s life.  While I learned a great deal from Merle’s discussion, I did not belong in the halls of that clinic. I had no place wandering the rooms, creating stories for women whose lives I knew nothing about.  At the beginning of our summer, Ada urged us to identify uncomfortable situations and to step into this discomfort.  At Choices, I believe I did just that.  I swallowed my discomfort and used it to ask questions and drive conversation.  Yet, at the end of our visit, I wanted to be comfortable.  I was tired, hungry, and ready to be home.

63rd to 13th: A New Perspective

Julia is a rising Sophomore who is working with Sanctuary for Families, an organization providing shelter, advocacy and support for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

As a New York City native, I approached my Duke Engage experience with a particular excitement. Rather than anticipating the thrill of craziness and confusion from being in a new place with new people, I found myself eager to see my city from a different perspective.

While my trek from 63rd to 13th street certainly changed my visual outlook, I see the Moxie experience as an opportunity to create various niches beyond the realm of my comfort zone.  My life in New York City, thus far, has been one of privilege; I have received an extraordinary education and have been supported by friends and family along the way.  This summer, my work at Sanctuary For Families will give me insight into lives of women vastly different from my own.

Already, I have heard the stories of victims who have been abused physically, financially, and emotionally by their domestic partners.  As I hear these accounts, I begin to see snapshots of my own life racing through my head and think, “this is not fair, this is not right.” Why such inequity? Why such a gap? Already these questions have flooded my mind and continue dwell with no answers or responses.