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To End Domestic Violence, First Ditch Outdated Gender Stereotypes

Caryl Rivers: "We must at last rid society of the notion that men have to be in charge and women have to obey, even when they are being brutalized." Pictured: Ray and Janay Rice enter the Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse on Thursday, May 1, 2014. After the couple got into a physical altercation on Feb. 15 at an Atlantic City casino, both were charged with simple assault-domestic violence. (Mel Evans/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Caryl Rivers: "We must at last rid society of the notion that men have to be in charge and women have to obey, even when they are being brutalized." Pictured: Ray and Janay Rice enter the Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse on Thursday, May 1, 2014. After the couple got into a physical altercation on Feb. 15 at an Atlantic City casino, both were charged with simple assault-domestic violence. (Mel Evans/AP)

The young man squirmed in his metal chair under the bright fluorescent lights of the church basement. He was trying to explain to other men at a meeting of Emerge, a group for men who have battered, why he had beaten his wife.

“The Bible says that women are supposed to obey their husbands. She didn't obey me. So I had to hit her.”

Why hasn’t domestic violence been taken seriously?  Why do we read these stories again and again?

I heard an echo of those words in the statement by Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, after he'd been seen in a video knocking his wife unconscious in an elevator and then dragging her inert form across the floor.

He displayed little remorse. He told ESPN, “I am supposed to lead my family, to lead my wife.” He sounded more like an Old Testament patriarch than like a guy who had punched his then-fiancée senseless.

Why hasn't domestic violence been taken seriously? Why do we read these stories again and again? Because the sentiments voiced above have deep roots in our society, our faith, our history.

Aristotle viewed women as morally, intellectually and physically inferior to men. The Bible decrees, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet." (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

It is widely accepted in American society that men are supposed to be in charge and women are not, period. Psychologist Alice Eagly of Northwestern sums up the research this way: “People generally think that it is a good thing for women to be nice, nurturing and kind. And for men to be strong, assertive and ambitious.”

Ray Rice certainly fits the male imperative. And he showed no obvious remorse over his actions. Instead, he displayed what Harvard psychiatrist William Pollack calls “The mask of masculinity.” The author of "Real Boys," Pollack says that our strict “boy culture” demands emotional rigidity of males. By second grade, it erodes the interpersonal skills that come naturally to boys very early on. They have to learn to suppress emotions; rigidity is not in their nature.

Girls, on the other hand, are expected to tolerate a “boys will be boys” attitude. They learn in preschool to accommodate, excuse and support boys. An acquaintance of mine told me that every time her daughter built a block castle in preschool, the same boy knocked it down. Teachers’ lack of intervention signaled tacit approval. The boy’s parents shrugged it off. The woman tried to develop strategies with her daughter to find ways to foil the boy, only to realize that she was sending her daughter the message that it was a girl’s job to find ways around a boy’s bad behavior.

That’s exactly what Janay Rice is doing. At a press conference in May, she apologized for the incident in the Atlantic City elevator, as if she were to blame for being punched out. Alas, this isn’t uncommon for battered women.

It is widely accepted in American society that men are supposed to be in charge and women are not, period.

Of course, women are not angels. Dr. Murray Strauss of the University of New Hampshire reports that in domestic disputes, women start fights as often as men do.

But women suffer far greater consequences. A woman may slap or shove a man, but he throws her against the wall and breaks her nose or ribs. Janay Rice may have spit at her husband in the elevator, but his response was criminal.

Will anything really change? Media pressure forced the football establishment to suspend Rice indefinitely. But will a “boys will be boys” mentality prevail as far as domestic violence is concerned? How many more men will say he had a right to hit his wife because she didn’t obey him?

We must at last rid society of the notion that men have to be in charge and women have to obey, even when they are being brutalized. Unfortunately, it’s an idea that will take a long time to die.


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