Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Precious lives, and the threat of violence.

I'll start with statistics.

From the Domestic Violence Resource Center:

One in four women has experienced domestic violence (physical, sexual) in her lifetime. Three in four Americans know personally someone who is or who has been a victim of domestic violence. 30% of Americans say that they know a woman who has been physically abused by her husband or close intimate in the past year.

From NOW:
Women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of nonfatal domestic violence. The poorer the household the higher the rate, and African-American women experience far higher rates of domestic violence than do their white counterparts.

Also consider that these statistics do not include the significant number of women who do not report domestic violence to the authorities.

Violence by men against women is a troubling and persistent reality. I knew this. But I knew it too often in the abstract. Two items this week grounded it in truth, and alerted me to the frustrating fact that many of these women --those who survive the violence and those who don't-- do not get to choose their fate. It gets chosen for them.

The first is my viewing of Precious, a piece of fiction, but a fact-based film about the real lasting impact of violence and sexual abuse in the home. It also, in subtle ways, a story about America, and American women. I watched the film last night. The young woman (Gabourey Sidibe)
who plays the title character is captivating. Her acting is true, her emotional scenes completely honest and unrestrained. She acts when she isn't speaking, and she never breaks character.

The title character is a 16-year-old, living in Harlem, still in junior high, and pregnant with her second child. Her father (no longer in the picture) is the father of both of them. Her mother, in a strong performance by Monique, allowed the sexual abuse to happen since Precious was at a very early age, and she resents Precious for bearing more children than her husband "gave her." Now, angry and scraping by on the scraps of welfare, her mother dishes out a daily torrent of verbal and physical abuse against her weakened daughter.

Precious accepts this because she knows no other reality. She knows it is not right. She knows she does not deserve it. She knows there is another way. Yet her reality has become so hard, so grounded, that she sees this "other way" in the form of glamorized, stylized distant fantasies -- as a celebrity R & B singer, or an actress on the red carpet. Fans covet her, and the men are kind and adoring. This is her escape.

She speaks to us, in voice-over, about a world of closed doors: "There's always something wrong with these tests. These tests is painting a picture of me with no brain. These tests is painting a picture of my mother, my whole family, as less than dumb. Just ugly black grease to be wiped away. Sometimes I wish I was dead... I'd be okay, I guess. Cause I'm lookin' up. [Laughing] Lookin' up for a piano to fall."

Precious finds reason to look up, in the form of an alternative school and an impassioned teacher that sees in her a bright spot and a need for love. She also finds strength in commitment to her newborn, which acts as a powerfully ironic symbol of her freedom from her family oppression.

The transition, as played out in the movie is a bit sudden; and it pushes Mother, hastily and perhaps unrealistically, to the sidelines of Precious' life. But it is a genuine change, and suggests promise for our heroine. I resist the cruel impulse to tell you the ending.

The second item is a personal story. This story was told to our Feminist Legal Theory class two weeks ago by Professor Pruitt. It is elaborated here. It is a touching reminiscence of a standout woman and former King Hall student. I will not add much to it, because to do so would be to subtract from its impact. You should read it. The post is a demonstration of the powerful effect we can have on each other. It is also a reminder of how a woman's life is precious -- men's violence can be swift and sudden, and it can be completely and maddeningly inexplicable.


AMS said...


I really appreciated this post. Domestic violence represents a very serious issue plaguing people (predominantly females) around the world. Such violence can occur to anyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or economic status. I find this shared vulnerability and the high rate of current incidence to be quite disturbing.

Unlike an illness restricted to a single community, domestic violence is an epidemic. Eradication of an epidemic requires much time and education. To me, it almost seems that eradication of this epidemic is impossible, for it would require a world-wide shift in human behavior that often occurs behind closed doors and involves dynamic, intimate emotions.

Might tackling this epidemic also risk the overprotection of women? This is not to say that we should fail to address the issues of domestic violence and attempt to eliminate it from our homes. Instead, it simply highlights what I see as a natural reaction to this serious problem. If caring, non-violent mom and dad really understand that their 20-something daughter faces a very high risk of violent treatment by her partner, they would surely take action. It wouldn't surprise me if mom and dad, for example, used their parental influence to keep their daughter from moving too far away to pursue an education (where she might fall in love with an abusive man that they can't closely monitor).

That said, I know that in our media and technology-driven society, movies like Precious will educate and camera phones will allow victims and their friends to easily capture abusers in the act. Consider for example the recent news in Nigeria ( See ). Although a case of rape, rather than domestic violence, social networks provided a forum by which people could condemn the filmed gang rape and demand justice for the victim. Hopefully these and other resources will give domestic violence victims the support they need to stop the violence and seek justice.

Ringo1985 said...

This post is very important because it addresses an issue that many women don't talk about. The fact that violence against women can manifest itself in discreet ways, including coerced sexual relations between couples, verbal abuse, makes this topic especially sensitive and difficult to combat. Last Thursday, I watched the film, "Subjectified," and was shocked to discover that many of the women interviewed mentioned (besides those who were still "virgins") reported what appeared to nonconsensual sex.

The most troublesome part of this documentary was the manner in which some women referred to these sexual experiences. For example, one of the woman interviewed described one of her first sexual experiences at a very young age. When she was 13 years old, she had sexual intercourse with a body who desperately wanted to sleep with her. Though at first she didn't want to, she eventually warmed up to the idea. Though this woman didn't resist, one has to wonder- is it consensual at age 13 if one is gradually pressured into having sex? When does this consent take on the form of coercion?

Another woman interviewed was raped when she was a toddler. Because she was raped, when she had sex for the first time, this woman didn't bleed. Her boyfriend at the time became upset with her for failing to bleed the way a proper virgin should. This woman perpetually became involved in abusive and hurtful relationships. In the history of men she described in the video, none of the relationships she described, with one exception, were men who treated her in the manner she deserved to be treated. Currently, this woman is married to a man who can be verbally abusive. When asked why she continued to have sex with her husband despite his despicable behavior, she said it was necessary so he wouldn't leave her.

Domestic violence, whether sexual violence, or other forms of physical violence, must be openly discussed in order to encourage women to support each other. Women need to be empowered, and taught at a young age, that violence is not relegated to strange, dark alleys and suspicious strangers. While I write with a tinge of facetiousness (because my above characterization of the typical abuser or rapist is a generic categorization), I truly believe that domestic violence continues to lurk beneath the surface for many women because it is still taboo, especially with respect to sexual violence. This is particularly true when women are financially dependent on their partner or vulnerable in other respects and unable to seek help even if they want to.

"Subjectified" highlighted many relevant aspects of sexual and interpersonal behavior between men and women that can destroy a woman's self-esteem and livelihood. The justification that one woman used for the verbal and physical violence inflicted upon her throughout her life showed how she had internalized the physical and emotional damage that followed this abuse. She did not have an outlet or any other resource to stop the cycle. If women have increased access to support systems, such as other women, public forums, literature, and other educational resources, this may be but one of many steps in ending the cycle.

hanestagless said...

Note: my post contains spoilers.

After reading your post I was eager to comment once I had also watched Precious. Before I even watched I was well aware of the themes and situations in the film. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the horrors the film depicts. After watching, I was so emotionally drained I needed to watch two Disney films before I could even process what I had seen—of course Disney films present many other feminist issues, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

The film showed me a troubling and perhaps common aspect of domestic and sexual abuse, the victim’s protection of the abuser. Even from the beginning, when the principal confronts Precious about being pregnant for the second time, Precious’s response is merely that she had sex, not that she was raped. Later, she lies to social workers so her mother can continue to collect welfare. Even when she accidentally divulges the fact that her father is also the father of her children, she tries to change the subject.

The film also showed me, and Ringo1985 mentions the same, the importance of support systems in assisting abused women and children. Precious only discovers an alternative to her own reality when she attends the literal alternative school. In the school, she finds love from a strong, educated woman, her teacher. She gains friendship from her classmates who vary in background, but all have their own personal struggles. Most importantly, she discovers her voice by writing in her journal daily and with her teacher’s encouragement. Ultimately, when Precious ran away from home, she turned to her alternative, the alternative school. And, with the help of her support system, she had the courage and ability to speak against her mother and to leave behind the abuse.

As you note, women and children don’t choose domestic abuse, rather fate deals them a cruel hand. The film shows how this abuse traps women into an inescapable prison. This is all the more reason that we, as society, must intervene on their behalf. We must speak for them until they’re empowered to speak on their own.