Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Ray Rice affair: should assaults on women be afforded a greater penalty than assaults on men?

Recently, a bipartisan group of 16 female senators wrote a letter to the NFL urging a zero-tolerance policy on violence against women. "If you violently assault a woman, you shouldn’t get a second chance to play football in the NFL," the senators wrote. “It is long past time for the NFL to institute a real zero-tolerance policy and send a strong message that the league will not tolerate violence against women by its players, who are role models for children across America.”

The implication is curious: the severity of punishment can vary depending on the gender of the victim. Implied but not stated: zero tolerance is reserved for female victims, and if an NFL player violently assaults a man, he can get a second chance, for all these 16 female senators care.

What happened to Ray Rice's then-fiance, now wife, was unacceptable by any measure. The NFL suspended Rice indefinitely.

What happened to the bar employee allegedly punched in the mouth by Bengals running back Cedric Benson was also unacceptable by any measure. Benson entered a plea deal that sent him to jail for a few days for that assault. How did the NFL respond? NFL Commissioner Goodell got very tough with Benson: he gave him a good talking-to, that's what he did -- and no suspension. "Like most public figures," the very understanding Commissioner Goodell explained, "Cedric and other NFL players occasionally may find themselves facing risks that other individuals do not. They must exercise good judgment and restraint when confronted with those risks."

Not long after that, what happened to Cedric Benson's former roommate was also unacceptable by any measure. Police say Benson repeatedly hit the roommate in the face, causing him to bleed from the mouth and possibly lose teeth. This time, the NFL got really tough on Benson: it suspended him for three whole games. See here and here. Wow.

The Ray Rice story made headlines across America, but chances are, you never heard of either of the alleged assaults involving Cedric Benson.

Is violence against women something we should be concerned about? Of course it is. It happens far too often.

Is violence against men something we should be concerned about? Of course it is. But we aren't, despite the fact that it, too, happens all too often. The talking heads of mass media and our elected officials trip over one another to out-zero-tolerance-talk one another when it comes to violence against women. Those same yakety pundits and politicians are strangely silent when it comes to violence against men, unless, of course, there's a good racial story to be concocted from it, and only if the black teen male victim is actually murdered.

In this culture, intimate partner physical abuse is regarded as a significant public health concern when its victims are women, but as a punch line when its victims are men. Some women's rights bloggers and feminist activists even spend a good deal of time trivializing domestic violence against men because, they think, acknowledging it somehow hurts women. This, despite the fact that a significant body of credible scholarship shows that women and men inflict comparable levels of domestic violence. Men are stigmatized into not reporting their victimization because complaining about it isn’t considered “manly.” When men do seek help, they are often discriminated against by domestic violence service providers and law enforcement systems. It surely doesn't advance the cause of domestic violence against men when the only domestic violence that U.S. senators care about is that committed against women.

Put all that aside, exactly why are we compartmentalizing violence? A bash to the head is a bash to the head whether it's inflicted on a fiance, a roommate, or a complete stranger -- and regardless of whether it's considered "domestic violence" or just plain old "violence." A blow of the the same severity still requires the same number of stitches. And when we look at violence overall, men win the Oppression Olympics by a long shot. "Men are 150 percent more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than women are. . . . Men are more likely to be victimized by a stranger (63 percent of violent victimizations) . . . ." J. Friedman, J. Valenti, Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape at 23 (2008).

So it doesn't work to say that domestic violence against women is deserving of a zero tolerance approach because only women are battered. Men are battered more.

Should assaults by men against women warrant a greater penalty than assaults by men or women against men?  What message are we sending our children when we elevate one class of victims over another, or when the only violence that is considered a national crisis is that committed against women (with the aforementioned rare exception of black teen males murdered by a white cop or white vigilante). When it comes to violence, most men are invisible -- especially black males killed in the inner city by other black males. Shouldn't we be promoting a violence-free society for all citizens? Shouldn't we be teaching our children to be respectful of all people? Should victims be afforded less recognition, less deference -- indeed, less justice -- merely because they were born male?

Let's put it in real terms: when Cedric Benson's victims were assaulted, it surely gave them no consolation that they were born with penises, and they surely would not have cared if the person who inflicted the assaults was male or female.

Spilled blood doesn't flow faster or slower based on group identity politics.