[I wrote this piece for publication as an op-ed in Vermont newspapers, in response to a recent upsurge here in murders by men of their girlfriends, and some minimizing coverage by media covering the stories.]
October was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you didn't know that, it wasn't your fault. For the most part, the media chose to ignore the issue.
So, perhaps it was not surprising that, in some of the press reports about the murder of the woman in Lyndonville by her boyfriend, this murder/suicide was described as a "domestic dispute." Think about it. She wanted to break up with him, and in an act of ultimate power and control, he kills her and then himself. If a man rapes a woman on a date, is this a "dating dispute?" If a man rapes his wife, is this a "marital dispute?" If a man doesn't let his wife work, or have money, or see her friends, or drive a car, or he regularly threatens her, can this possibly be a "domestic dispute?" The "domestic dispute" characterization minimizes and normalizes what is actually an ongoing epidemic of male violence against women.
Every 15 seconds in America, a man beats his wife or girlfriend. Every 45 seconds, a man rapes a woman or girl, most often one he knows -- a wife, a girlfriend, a co-worker, or a family member. In the last ten years in Vermont, half of the murders of women by men were directly related to domestic violence. In the last few months, that figure has gone up, because of the murders in Lyndonville and Essex.
Women have led the way in America working to bring the issue of violence against women to the attention of our media, our community organizations, our governments, our schools, and our religious institutions. The time has come for men to stop being bystanders.
Most men in this country are not violent, most do not beat their wives and girlfriends. Despite that fact, domestic violence is really a gender issue. Men commit 90 to 95 percent of domestic violence acts. I think most men instinctively know this is true, but most men find it really hard to talk about it, think about it, or much less do anything about it. Some men believe that because he is not violent or it's not happening in his family, he needn't do anything. Some men believe it is a "woman's" issue, so he can really ignore it. Some men can't imagine talking about this issue with other men, some of whom he might suspect are abusing women in their lives.
Let's face it. This is an embarrasing issue for men. It's much easier for us to simply let women try to take care of this problem. It's really hard for most men to admit that this is our problem. Violence against women is men's violence. Can we find a way to help men own this problem and work together to solve it? How can we end the pervasive silence? How can we help our communities get past the attitude that this happens someplace else, certainly not where we live?
Given the prevalence of male violence against women, why has this not been a very public men's issue. Isn't it really in men's self-interest to address gender violence? Don't most of us really care about the women and girls in our lives?
Most men have a woman or girl in his life who has been a victim of male violence, a mother who was beaten, a co-worker who was abused, a sister or daughter who was raped or killed, a friend whose daughter was attacked, a friend whose wife was battered in a previous marriage. How would things change if our male governmental leaders, our male religious leaders, our male media leaders, our male teachers, our male business leaders, all of us began to speak out, identify male violence around them, and begin working to end it? How can we empower men to learn more, stand up and be heard on these issues? Knowledge is the first step.
In conjunction with Meg Kuhner of Battered Women's Services and Shelter in central Vermont, I co-facilitate a program in the schools about domestic and dating violence issues. Some schools have invited us, some have not. The information we bring to junior high school and high school students, girls and boys alike, is challenging and gives the students an opportunity to talk and ask questions. It really is encouraging to see how well most of these young men and women respond to learning about and talking about dating and domestic violence. It's almost as if they feel some relief to be able to talk about it.
The important institutions in our daily lives -- including our newspapers -- can be among the first places where men begin to address men's violence issues. Knowledge, information and understanding are the first steps. Maybe one day enough men will say that letting a ten-year old boy take a baseball bat and beat to death a black female prostitute might not be something we want in our video games. Maybe one day enough men will say to boys that calling each other names using denigrating terms for women and female body parts is not creating a good image of women in their heads. Maybe one day enough men will know that it takes more strength and courage to speak out than it does to remain silent.