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Ending The Culture of Violence Against Women: A Critical Healthcare Issue

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I was walking down the street in Berkeley many years ago when I saw a man with a knife holding a woman by her hair. He would release her, hit her, then grab her again, using the knife to make sure she didn't run. A small crowd was gathering around them.

"It's okay," he said to the onlookers. "She's my girlfriend."

That seemed to stop everybody in their tracks.

We never know how we'll react in situations like these until they happen. I stepped forward, as I would have hoped I'd do, and told him to let her go. That seemed to break the spell, and several men came forward to stand beside me. "You don't get it," the attacker said in a whining voice. "You're interfering. This is between us, it's personal." The police arrived in what seemed like seconds and persuaded him to surrender peacefully.

This story's been on my mind lately. Last week a man shot up a room filled with women taking a gym class, killing three and wounding several more. Why? Because he couldn't get a date. Murderer George Sodini was a devout follower of "seduction guru" R. Don Steele, a prime example of America's culture of objectifying women.

"Who Is R. Don Steele?" asks his Web site, "Steel Balls." (Pathetic ...) It says he's a dating expert and former Republican National Committee operative who has "a deep, abiding hatred for hypocrites, bureaucrats, poverty pimps and nearly all politicians." But who is R. Don Steele, really? He's a creep, a parasite, a sleazebag self-promoter who claims to specialize in teaching older men how to pick up much younger women.

He also must be lousy at his profession. For all his effort and investment in the "Steele" program, George Sodini never did get a date. The lonely, twisted man that fired that gun in the gym might -- just might -- have had a better life if he hadn't tried to find that young babe R. Don Steele told him he could have, and had looked for someone appropriate to his age and lifestyle.

To be clear, Steele doesn't advocate violence or anything close to it. But the culture of violence begins with the idea that women are objects -- the younger and sexier the better -- rather than fellow human beings with as rich an interior life as oneself. In a diseased mind, an object of manipulation can descend into an object of destructive impulses. Culture has a role to play in reversing the desensitization that comes with soulless sexual role-playing.

So when Chris Brown beat up Rihanna -- viciously enough to draw blood -- it was especially disappointing to see the rest of the hip-hop community act just like that crowd outside the restaurant in Berkeley. With the notable exception of Ghostface Killah, the typical reaction was like Ne-Yo's: ""I won't say who was responsible. I won't pick no sides ... I'm praying for the both of them."

I like Ne-Yo's musical and sartorial style. But why can't he do something that takes real guts and admit that domestic violence is always wrong? Isn't he brave enough? When one human being hurts another, that's the one who's responsible. Period. Full stop. Man up and do the right thing, Ne-Yo. It's not too late.

Domestic violence is a health policy issue. It adds to the cost of medical care while harming the public's health. Meaningful statistics are hard to come by -- which of itself reflects society's neglect of the topic -- but I recently received a compilation of domestic violence statistics from DASH, the District Alliance for Safe Housing in Washington DC, where my daughter was a law clerk this summer.

In the District of Columbia alone, with less than 600,000 inhabitants, the Police Department received 31,215 "domestic-related crime calls." That's one call every nineteen minutes, as DASH notes. Most of these incidents (this site estimates 85-95%) involve violence against women.

The last meaningful federal survey took place in 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration. A Department of Justice survey on the "Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence" found that nearly 25% of surveyed women said they had been raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, partner, or date. That equates to roughly 4.8 million violent attacks against women annually in this country. And many women were the victim of repeat attacks (an average of 6.9 assaults by the same partner).

The study also found that "approximately one-fifth of all rapes, one-quarter of all physical assaults, and one-half of all stalkings" experienced by women will not be reported to the police. That makes DASH's police figures even more staggering.

It's curious how blind we become to our own culture. We can criticize tribal Muslim societies for their abuse of women, yet fail to see how ours sometimes does the same thing. What can we do? We can support organizations like DASH, which provides alternate housing for victims of domestic violence. We can press for public policies that address domestic violence. We can speak out against the culture of violence -- a culture that's strengthened every time a women is treated like an object. (I'm talking to you, Mr. "Steel Balls.")

Oh, and as for the Berkeley attack -- she didn't know the guy. He had seen her through a restaurant window and had become obsessed with her. He just thought people would leave him alone if they believed it was a domestic dispute -- and he was almost right.

The police officer who took my statement said they'd picked the man up before for similar crimes against women, but that he was always released with a warning. He said they'd contact me if it ever came to trial, but not to be surprised if I never heard from them again.

I never did.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog