Today, Thursday October 19, 2017, is Purple Thursday- an awareness-raising designation that urges people to wear purple to shine light on the epidemic of domestic violence. I’m wearing purple to work, as are my coworkers, and we will share some impact stories on social media to bring attention to the intimate partner violence that occurs right here in our own backyards.
Earlier this week I attended the Domestic Violence Awareness Symposium at Cabrini University, which was an especially poignant event this year as they launch the Center for Children of Trauma and Domestic Violence. The event featured, first, a discussion with Janine Rajauski, the sister of Nicole Peppelman. Nicole was murdered by her abuser two months after their divorce in 2015, and Janine shared stories of the early warning signs, Nicole’s many attempts to leave, the family’s feelings of helplessness, the substantial police involvement, and Nicole’s ultimate death at the hands of her ex-husband.
The latter half of the program consisted of a panel presentation delivered by local domestic violence professionals, a counseling center lead, and the head of a foundation started by a father after his daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.
As a professional who works almost exclusively with women, I have heard hundreds of stories of the systematic and debilitating abuse that women suffer- which spans the scope of verbal, financial, emotional, physical and sexual abuse- and I’ve learned a lot about how to help women identify the early signs, create plans to exit safely, and identify community resources to help rebuild their lives.
Of course, this is only possible if they are not dead.
Social service agencies are scrambling to meet the needs of women seeking refuge from the abuse that has often whittled their lives down to nothing and their self-esteem to even less.
But as we discussed at the Symposium the ways to help women avoid or survive this abuse, I became increasingly restless and agitated. Instead of asking how we can keep women safe, I thought, why aren’t we asking how we can keep men from abusing?
Then, literally, a voice spoke. It was the voice of John Jordan, who, with his wife Barbara, has dedicated his life to ending domestic violence.
“Considering that 99% of rapes are perpetrated by men and 95% of domestic violence is perpetrated by men, we must insist that domestic violence and sexual assault are not women’s issues: they are MEN’S issues,” John articulated from the panel. He then addressed the male students in the room- less than 10% of the audience, by my visual estimation- and made an appeal to them to stay involved in these issues, to call out violence or disrespectful attitudes toward women when they witness them, to abolish “locker room talk” and to bring male friends with them to next year’s symposium to increase the activism by men against domestic violence.
After the symposium, coworkers and I rehashed, and agonized over this big question: How do we eliminate domestic violence in our culture?
The risk factors for perpetrators of domestic violence are of a depth and breadth that is astounding. We know that witnessing violence, having mental illness, abusing substances, having negative attitudes toward women, experiencing poor parenting and having low self-esteem are all correlated with abuse perpetration (cdc.gov).
The protective factors are less clear.
There is a promising technical packet published by the Centers for Disease Control on Preventing Intimate Partner Violence Across the Lifespan (interestingly it was developed by seven graduate-level professionals; all women). This packet has broad and applicable implications for public health interventions administered through various contexts across the lifespan to reduce or prevent domestic violence.
But for the sake of providing my readers with a glimmer of hope and a useful take-away, I will posit that after reviewing the recent literature, working with victims of domestic violence throughout my career, and in my experience as a parent to a boy and as a former preschool teacher, the most impactful thing you- yes, you!!!- can do to prevent domestic violence is to teach boys empathy.
Teach. Boys. Empathy.
According to research published by Christov-Moore et al in 2014 (Empathy: Gender effects in brain and behavior, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Vol 46, Part 4, October 2014, 604-627), there is some evidence to support a difference in the capacity for empathy between men and women- men have a lower capacity for empathy. What remains to be seen is how big the difference is and how much of it has been programmed throughout evolutionary process based on social/cultural “training,” but the biological constructs for empathy modern men are fundamentally different from women.
To me, origin almost doesn’t matter. Nature vs. Nurture almost doesn’t matter.
What matters it that we know too much violence exists in American culture, and the vast majority of ti is perpetrated by men.
Men who were once boys.
As a professional who has worked exclusively with girls’ and women’s issues for over a decade, I know a lot about what girls need to thrive and I know what resources are available to them.
While boys and men may have privileges and access that girls and women don’t, particularly in the professional and financial spheres, I see very little evidence that men are “doing well.” To me, this epidemic of male-initiated violence shows us that boys and men aren’t getting what they actually need to thrive.
The issue is far more complex than “cultural expectations” or “media messages,” but I think those examples point to the primary source of this violence.
Boys are allowed to be “boys,” but they’re not allowed to be fully themselves.
This restrictive, oppressive environment generates grown men who feel like caged animals.
Research points to a lack of empathy as one risk factor in perpetrating violence, and boys can’t consistently develop such empathy if their needs, emotions and reactions are stifled and shut down.
My inclination is to posit that to reduce male violence against women, we need to raise boys as fully-developed humans, capable of anything, permitted to express themselves, and expected to respect other life. We need to have empathy for boys and foster empathy in boys.
These attempts have to be inclusive, comprehensive, and relentless, because our boys are up against generations of harmful messaging and our men need recovery from this part of their experience.
Domestic violence and sexual assault have long been on my radar as women’s issues, and I’m understanding more and more that boys and men need a different approach if we are ever to see this epidemic wane.
I’m hosting a community roundtable discussion on November 21st in Havertown, and I hope you’ll join me. I will share the details and registration momentarily.
Please help us heal this world. We need you in the room for this.