Gloria Steinem, who is on a press tour for her new book “My Life on the Road” was asked by Teri Gross on NPR recently what she felt are the most pressing issues for women today.
Her answer laid bare a truth steeped in denial. Steinem said: “Competing for No. 1 (which she named as women’s reproductive rights) would be violence against females worldwide.”
Then she added: “The most dangerous place for a woman in this country is her own home. She’s most likely to be beaten or killed by a man she knows.”
As incomprehensible as that may seem, the numbers are clear. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 20 percent of U.S. women have been raped at one point in their lives. That’s 1 in 5 women. Raped.
Three U.S. women a day, on average, are killed in domestic homicides. That statistic alone bears repeating: by the end of today, three women will have been slain by a family member, most likely someone they trusted, someone with whom they were intimate, someone they thought they loved, someone they thought loved them.
Yet, we only hear about domestic violence — a term so sanitized it belies the inherent brutality – sporadically. Like when the famous are involved: Nicole Brown Simpson, Rihanna, Mike Tyson.
Last year, when the video showing Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice slugging his then-fiancée (now wife) in the face and dragging her out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes, I, like thousands of other reporters, sought out experts for a pithy comment so I could write my story and go home to my tidy life in the suburbs and forget all about domestic abuse.
But then I ran into Emily Matuszczak, who is the senior director of programs at Haven of Oakland County, a shelter and counseling center for abuse victims. Talk about pithy quotes. She likened a victim of domestic abuse to a frog in a pot of water. “The frog boils to death” she said. “Because it’s slow and insidious.”
And the reason the frog doesn’t jump out, i.e., why doesn’t the woman leave, isn’t as cut and dry as one might think. For starters, Matuszczak pointed out, that’s the wrong question to be asking. “That implies something is wrong with her,” Matuszczak said. “We should be saying why did he do it in the first place.”
A primary reason for not leaving is that the decision to leave puts them at the greatest risk. “When you read about the homicides and suicides it usually happens because the victim has said: ‘I’m done. I’m leaving.’ That’s when the batterer escalates.”
Also, batterers or abusers are not 100 percent evil monsters. “They are complicated people” she said. “One moment they are very attentive and saying, “I love you and I’ll never do this again” and in an hour they are yelling again. This Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde behavior can cause confusion. Because sometimes the victim doesn’t want the relationship to end; they just want the abuse to end.”
It’s certainly possible for a batterer to change, said Matuszczak. But it requires is a complete overhaul of their value system. “ For batterers to really change, they need to want to be a different person. They need to want to change for themselves. They have to want relationships based on respect and love instead of relationships based on fear and control and power. And they have to see the benefit in that because for some of them, it’s easier to just get their way. Compromise can be challenging even in the best of circumstances, but when you truly value someone and care about them, that’s what you do.”
Last year at a screening of the HBO documentary “Private Violence,” Steinem, who was the film’s executive producer, called domestic abuse “a justified, concealed and rationalized deep form of violence.” In kind Matuszczak stressed: “We live in a culture that wants to minimize this and water it down as if it’s an issue between two people in a relationship. This is cultural problem. So long as our culture objectifies women and values them as less than, men are going to have certain powers and privileges.”
That the most dangerous place for a woman in this country is her own home is heartbreaking. That most people are not aware of its prevalence is a national disgrace.