Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gendered Nature of Recent Violence Goes Undetected

In a moment where our nation is celebrating a historic triumph for women of color - the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina Supreme Court justice - I am disheartened by all the incidents of interpersonal and community violence targeting women on the national media front.  There are so few critical analyses connecting the dots between isolated cases of aggressive, fatal attacks against women and a culture of gender-based violence that continues to go unrecognized. 

On Aug. 4, a Pennsylvania man fired 36 bullets into a dance-aerobics class at a local gym, killing 3 women, wounding 9 and taking his own life.  The gunman, George Sodini, left an online trail of misogynist rants on his personal website and video posted to YouTube, documenting his hatred for and desire to kill women as a result of years of sexual rejection.  On Aug. 5, an LA Superior Court judge postponed the sentencing of pop singer Chris Brown for the brutal assault of singer Rihanna.  There are two stories that have not received much national media attention.  The first is the July 22 shooting death of Sharlona White of Tacoma at the Fort Lewis Post Exchange by her former boyfriend, who then turned the gun on himself.  The second is the July 30 shooting death of a 30-year old African-American woman in Trenton, NJ.  Following an argument, she was gunned down by her boyfriend in the presence of her three children.

The pervasiveness of crime reporting has desensitized our nation to gender-based assaults.  Feminist blogger Jennifer L. Pozner (http://twitterurl.net//X4409) called the PA shooting a gender-based hate crime, referencing other mass killings that targeted women and girls, including the Montreal Massacre of 1989, the 1998 Jonesboro massacre, the 2006 Amish school and Platte Canyon high school shootings, and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.  It’s only the killings that are characterized as a ‘massacre’, a public act of aggression, or celebrity violence that get mainstream attention.  While public displays of violence against women cannot go unnamed for what they are - a product of a culture of misogyny - it is the prevalence of private, often unreported displays of gender-based microaggressions that allow us to continually name misogyny as embedded within the fabric of our society.

Decades of research confirm that most incidents of violence against women go unreported and many governments fail to document these crimes.  The United Nations reports that at least one in three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some way, most often by someone she knows.  The World Health Organization studied women’s health and domestic violence among 10 nations and found that: between 15% and 71% of women reported physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner; about 5,000 women are murdered by family members in the name of honor each year; and worldwide, up to 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men report experiencing sexual abuse as children, who are more likely to encounter other forms of abuse later in life.  The most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report on intimate partner violence in the US show that 30% of homicides of females were committed by intimate partners, compared to 5% for males.

Are these recent news stories connected?  Absolutely.  Our increasing culture of violence, escalated during wartime, perpetuates an incessant desire to discuss, dissect, and be aware of violence and to live in a heightened state of fear.  We’re reminded of the ‘other’ as the enemy, often characterized along nationalist, racist, xenophobic, and class lines.  Mainstream media fail to acknowledge the gendered nature of these crimes, and report on them as if they are random acts of violence.

It’s no coincidence that many violent crimes routinely committed against women are at the hands of their male partners.  Crimes against women are connected in cultural patterns of misogyny and power. More systemic responses to violence must come from community, education, media, legal and criminal justice systems.  We must demand that these systems work together to connect the dots.

Mako Fitts, Ph.D., is assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Anthropology, Sociology & Social Work at Seattle University.  She is on the CARA board.

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