When I first moved to North Carolina in 1992, I served for a year as a court advocate for survivors of domestic violence. Again and again I watched women gather their courage to take out restraining orders against violent partners—and then go back into abusive situations. Among them was a middle-aged woman whose husband had chained her naked to the doghouse in the backyard one night, and a young one whose boyfriend had raped her with a gun, threatening repeatedly to pull the trigger.
Hearing their stories and witnessing the crumbling of their resolve to leave was heartbreaking. Most had been threatened with death if they tried to escape, and fear is a powerful motivator. So is economic insecurity. One woman explained what I knew was true for many: “I’d rather get beat up than worry about my kids starving on our own.”
That predatory male behavior and sexual assault have erupted in the forefront of our news in October, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, is a tragic irony. The statistics remain staggering. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), more than 10 million people in the U.S., most of them women, are physically abused by their partners each year. Every nine seconds in this country, a woman is assaulted or beaten. One in five women in the U.S. has been raped. Nationwide, an average of three women are killed every day by those who claim to love them.
Though it grieves me deeply that sexual violence and “locker room talk” are still with us, I welcome the attention on this often-neglected plague in our midst and the conversations being generated about it—just as the recent response to killings by police has shone a spotlight on racist violence. Racism has been called “America’s original sin,” and surely we must repent and take responsibility for the painful truth that the history of our nation includes genocide against one people and enslavement of another. But I imagine that a number of the men who targeted their native neighbors and brutalized their slaves were also beating their wives on the boats on the way here.
Advocates for women have claimed that the common phrase “rule of thumb” was carried here from England, originating in a law that limited the size of the stick that a husband could use to beat his wife to the thickness of his thumb. The scholarship is sketchy and some have discredited this theory, but it had enough currency that in the late 19th century in my state a ruling referred to it in an effort to end the practice of husbands whipping their wives with switches of any size. Over a century later, we still need such legal protections.
Sadly, violence is a story as old as human history. No sin seems “original” to me, and all are interconnected in a strangling web by those who misuse power and prey on fear. My hope for our nation—shaky as it seems these days—lies in our finding common ground, standing side by side, and doing our best to make sure that no one gets targeted or abused.