By Margot Brooks • January 13, 2016•Writers in Residence, Issues
Violence against women is a pervasive part of American culture, and for many, of everyday life. In their many forms, acts of sexual and domestic violence are so ubiquitous they have become easy to ignore, and the problematic implications of their prevalence make it more convenient to condone than to address them. As a current 1L student taking on law school as the first step in pursuing a career focused on sexual and domestic violence, much of my present engagement with these issues is intellectual – abstract and from a distance. From time to time, however, outside the library on the streets of San Francisco, I will encounter a situation that grounds my contemplation of these problems in physical reality.
The most recent of these experiences, and one of the more sobering, took place just as the past year was closing. It was the day after Christmas and I was visiting a friend’s house in one of the city’s quieter neighborhoods. As I was gathering my things to leave, the afternoon silence was broken by the sound of people yelling, growing louder outside the open window. I stood to look out and see what was going on. Just as the street came into view from our third-story vantage point, a man and a woman rounded the corner. The yelling was amplified by their change of direction, and as they moved up the block and better into sight, it became apparent that they were in the middle of an intensely heated argument. Each was gesticulating wildly at the other, and though it was hard to make out what was being said, from the sound, both were agitated, emphatically angry, and likely intoxicated. I asked my friend what she thought was going on. “I think it’s just a couple fighting,” she said. “Do you think we should call the police?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she answered, “I’m sure somebody will if they need to.” “But that’s what everybody says!” I told her. She didn’t seem very concerned. I, however, was unnerved, and decided I would call if things were still going by the time I got downstairs.
When I walked out the door, I was directly across the street from the fighting couple, and could now see that the man had the woman in a headlock. I froze for a moment, suspended in the urgent discomfort one feels upon witnessing something one finds morally averse, then walked to the end of the block, fished around for my phone, and called 911. The operator asked standard questions to retrieve basic information, and then requested that I stay on the line until the police arrived to keep them apprised of what was happening. Standing on the corner, I watched as the couple went deeper into a sort of physical confrontation that can best be described as resemblant of a WWE match. The man’s shouting became more audible – “You f—ing bitch, you f—ing c—!” Glass broke. At some point the woman’s shirt came off.
As I waited on the phone for minutes that felt like years, I observed a handful of passersby as they did just that – pass by. There were five individuals and one group of three who upon approaching the block and seeing the conflict crossed the street and continued on without raising their heads. A pair of girls walked past, stopped halfway down the next block, and turned around to observe the action. As I watched them staring, I was struck by how unmoved they appeared – their facial expressions untroubled, it was as if they’d come to the theatre and were waiting for their friend to bring the popcorn. For cars passing through, the four-way stops at the intersections on either end of the block provided ample opportunity to take notice of the incident. Some drivers glanced, and a few stalled, yet all but one simply continued on their way. The exception was a driver who, seeing me posted at the corner with my phone, pulled over and asked if I knew if anyone had called the police yet. I told him I was currently on the line, and he drove away.
Standing there on the phone, watching as the fight became increasingly violent, I felt fearfully useless. The operator provided an update that there were units on the way, and asked me to let her know when they arrived. Finally, after several of the longest minutes I have ever passed (I don’t know how many,) an unmarked SUV rounded the corner and pulled over up the block next to the couple. I have never been more eager to see a law enforcement official. Time sped up as one police car after another rushed in with sirens flashing, and suddenly there were seven units on the scene. I reported back to the operator, who thanked me, said I could go, and took my name in case they had questions. After confirming there was nothing more I should do, I hung up, looked for a final moment, then walked to my car and drove home.
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The advent of a new year traditionally serves as a time for reflection. While engaging in my own reflective rituals this past New Year’s, the previous week’s incident was still vivid in my mind. After spending several months over the last year volunteering as a domestic violence advocate for a local legal aid organization, I was familiar with the obstacles faced in overcoming abuse and had encountered a variety of gruesome stories, and witnessing the couple’s fight added a more tangible element to that exposure. It reinforced the bleak reality of how we so often ignore violence, and the further contemplation of this fact left me feeling frustrated and disappointed. I was, however, disinclined to settle in a solely pessimistic stance. Taking my reflections outside of myself to look more broadly at the current status of violence against women in our society reminded me that against the backdrop of everyday violence that blends into the unnoticeable, past the realm of our concerns, there are areas in which noteworthy progress has been made.
In recent years, awareness of the problem of violence against women has been spreading. This has in part been due to the increased attention given to cases of sexual and domestic violence involving public figures. Media coverage of high profile stories has expanded dramatically, starting to expose the reality of the problem. Unlike the everyday domestic disputes happening next door, high-profile stories have the capacity to command wide popular interest. Such events can function as looking glasses, allowing us a scopic view of our societal reactions to violence against women and revealing areas of progress or the lack thereof. Examining stories that captured public attention thus serves as a useful way to glimpse our cultural attitudes about these problems and take stock of how things have developed over the course of the year.
Some of the most visible displays of high profile incidents of violence against women this year came from the world of professional sports. Although the occurrence of sexual and domestic violence involving professional athletes is by no means a new problem, until recent years incidents received little publicity. The notorious situation that marked a major shift away from the pattern of condoning professional athletes’ violent behavior off the field happened in 2014 when a video was released showing NFL player Ray Rice beating his then-fiancé unconscious in a hotel elevator. An immediate response of outrage surged as public discussion flooded the media. Since then, incidents perpetrated by athletes periodically appear as front-page news. This past year, there were seven arrests of NFL players for domestic violence or sexual assault. Included in that group were players Ray McDonald, Junior Galette, and Josh McNary, whose controversial cases are demonstrative of the increase in public concern as well as the contrasting fact of continued inadequacy in the handling of such incidents by both the league and the formal legal system.
McDonald was arrested based on accusations that he assaulted a woman while she was holding a baby. Although the legal resolution is at present undetermined, McDonald was released from his team the same day of his arrest; this action exemplifies efforts by the NFL to treat incidents of violence more seriously, and is a hopeful indicator of a changing attitude. Other cases, however, reveal a disappointing stagnancy – Galette, arrested for simple battery against a woman, has had his case dropped by prosecutors. McNary, who was accused of rape, battery, and criminal confinement of a woman, was acquitted by a jury and permitted to rejoin his team. Under the harshness of the public spotlight since the Ray Rice incident, the NFL has initiated efforts to reform the attitude of accepting violence both in its teams and in the public audience. It has committed to a multi-million dollar contribution to support organizations working to counter violence against women, collaborated in creating PSAs, and revised its personal conduct policy. Although it is yet to be seen exactly how effective these efforts have been in contributing to the alleviation of violence and altering the tradition of professional sports culture to brush it off, at a time when the legal system frequently seems to fall short in processing involved cases, the NFL’s efforts to confront the problem and the trend towards dispensing more consequential punishments can be regarded as a step in the right direction.
Perhaps the most sensational high-profile story that has held our attention for the entire past year is that of Bill Cosby. Though allegations of sexual assault have been accumulating against him since 1965, they had been quite effectively kept quiet. Then, in late 2014, a wave of new accusations sprung Cosby into the public eye. Throughout 2015, more and more women came forward with stories of being assaulted by Cosby; at present, over fifty women have made allegations against him. These revelations shocked the nation, and the reaction was mixed. At first, the expression of disbelief was a predominant component of the public discussion, with many opinions maintaining that the women who put forth allegations were lying, looking for money or fifteen minutes of fame. Gradually, however, the tides have turned – media coverage has provided opportunities for victims to relay their experiences and cast new light on Cosby’s history, and the continually accruing body of information suggesting his malfeasance has led many who previously lauded his character to denounce him.
One visible example of this about-face comes from Whoopi Goldberg, who initially served as an unapologetic Cosby defender. Framing her position around the fact that had been no charges pursued to the extent of a criminal trial and thus no convictions or time in jail, Goldberg asserted that “innocent until proven guilty” was the bottom line. Then, in mid-July, Goldberg changed her stance after discussing the issue with ABC’s Chief Legal Affairs anchor Dan Abrams on the talk show The View. Abrams educated Goldberg about statutes of limitations in sexual assault cases, leading her to retract her previous support – after learning that jail time for Cosby had not been a feasible result and thus that the lack of a prison record was not a reasonable way to assess his culpability, Goldberg said she could no longer uphold the “innocent until proven guilty” stance, and further stated that in a court of public opinion, all information suggested Cosby’s guilt. In addition to exemplifying an important attitudinal shift, Goldberg’s change of mind is an interesting illustration of the importance of legal realities in sexual violence cases, such as a statute of limitations – seeing how even minimal knowledge of the implications of certain legal elements can alter opinions suggests that we could benefit from increased awareness of the legal system’s structure and functioning in this area.
The increased attention and public response to the allegations have also led to widespread shunning of Cosby in other cultural arenas. Again in July, a statue of Cosby in a Walt Disney World park was removed, as was a “Father’s Day” mural in Philadelphia that included his image. Cosby has also faced more formal scorn as many academic institutions rescinded the honorary degrees they had awarded him; at present, this has been done by over twenty institutions. Although the current dialogue is not unilateral in positing Cosby’s guilt and there remain regrettable displays of our culture’s ingrained habit of dismissing the experiences of violence endured by women who speak out, the fact that many who were initially firmly planted in the belief that “America’s Dad” could never have done the acts of which he is accused now look at Cosby with suspicion and even condemnation indicates that our society has become more amenable to receiving incidents of violence with an open mind.
Alongside the evolving cultural response, the legal proceedings involving Cosby have included both disappointments and progressive developments. A major frustration has been that the possibility of charging Cosby is barred by a statute of limitations for the majority of the allegations. In contrast to that obstruction, one critical event was the unsealing of Cosby’s deposition from the 2005 case of Andrea Constand in which he admitted to having given women drugs to facilitate sexual interactions. A crucial element of the legal significance of this development is that plaintiffs in other cases against Cosby may be able to include the deposition contents as evidence. For Constand, where the applicable statute of limitations was to end in January of this new year, the unsealing has been followed by a remarkable effort to pursue criminal charges for her assault. The impact of the deposition’s release has even extended beyond legal proceedings; one powerful instance of this is the measure currently underway to revoke Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last week, it was revealed that pursuant to the unsealing of the deposition, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) began working on legislation that would strip Cosby of the medal; referencing Cosby’s admissions of drugging women, the bill asserts that the government should not continue to recognize him with such an exceptional award.
Just as the past year was winding to an end, a striking development in the Cosby controversy occurred: on December 30, Cosby was indicted for three counts of assault against Constand. Many have celebrated this as a victory both for Cosby’s accusers and for victims of sexual violence at large, and some see it as a milestone in the performance of our legal system in handling such acts. Throughout 2015, the Cosby story has held our attention, repeatedly sparking surges of public discussion as events unfold. The professional sports world has been another prime forum for dialogue on sexual and domestic violence, as exemplified by the activities of the NFL and the periodic news of incidents involving its players. Due to their high profiles, the Cosby and NFL situations have not only spread awareness of these problems, but have allowed reflection into our cultural and legal response to their occurrence. In certain respects, evidence of progress can be found – there has been an appreciable increase in the level of concern we have shown for instances of violence against women. While this is itself laudable, in taking inventory of related happenings this year, the larger picture reveals mixed results, especially in terms of legal outcomes of cases processed in the justice system. 2015 was a busy year for the issues of sexual and domestic violence in our society, with accomplishments and shortfalls alike. As we move forward in the new year, we can use the energy of this progress to sustain us, and let the sting of disappointments only drive our efforts to counter violence against women further.