America’s daughters

America the beautiful, I am your daughter. I came to you not by birth, but by adoption; I am your daughter all the same. Oh sweet land of liberty, you nurtured me in my late adolescence, and I grew under your embrace. You promised me the freedom of my own life without constraint: you promised me that I could be something within your boundaries, that upon your shores I would find only opportunity. If I worked hard, if I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, I could achieve my wildest dreams, my quietest desires.

Your past adopted children arrived at Ellis Island with empty pockets and emptier stomachs, lured by your promises to welcome the poor yearning to breathe free. I came to you with well-lined pockets, and my only hunger was for the loving marriage that I thought I was entering into. If you could promise so much to the desperately poor, who came here because they had no alternative, then how could I fail? I was asking for so little.

And I did not fail, America. America the beautiful, America the bold, you failed me. You have failed all of your daughters.

Listen to them:

America, your daughters are crying out for you to hear us; to respect us; to give us the relief from oppression that Lady Liberty, whom you so adore, promises us.

Instead, when men hit us, you do not ask why they hit us. You ask us why we stay with them.

Instead, when men rape us, you do not ask why they rape us. You ask us what we did to entice them.

We are blamed for our own misfortune. If we wear the wrong clothing, we invite our rape. If we give ourselves to ‘too many’ men, our consent is assumed. If we don’t give ourselves to men, we are killed. If we become pregnant from rape, it is our fault. We see our sexual assaults mocked, we see our rapists get let off lightly or (much more commonly) go unpunished, we have our behaviour following rape questioned. One in five of us – one in five! – is raped in her lifetime.

In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we are brave just to be here; for our lives are in danger. In the past decade, more American women have been killed by their partners than American soldiers have been killed in war. I repeat: it has been more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier in a war zone. Women in America, going about their average daily American life, are more at risk than soldiers actively fighting on enemy land.

You might ask why I blame you, America. Why I feel that this country I hold so dear to my heart is responsible, when violence against women is everywhere; when it is not America itself that is landing the blows.

The answer is simple: because time and time again, America tells its daughters they are less important than its sons.

We birth your sons – your politicians, your athletes, your infantrymen – but you do not offer us maternity leave. You do not offer us prenatal care, if we find ourselves unable to afford that care out of pocket. We work alongside your sons, but you pay us less. We fight alongside your sons, and you do not give us justice if they hurt us while we fight to protect your borders. We make up half of your population, yet are only afforded a third of the voice of the highest court in the United States. Worse still, that miserly third is the largest Supreme Court voice we have ever had. Your male politicians make laws over what we can or cannot do with our bodies. You recently ruled that in some cases, our bosses can even determine which prescription medications we are allowed to put in our bodies (and our bodies alone). It is seeming more and more as if The Land of the Free is free only to the (white) man.

America, you raise us in an environment that repeatedly tells us that we are lesser; a society that tells us to pipe down and not be heard. Against this backdrop – in this society where 1 in 5 of us is raped and 1 in 4 of us assaulted during our lifetime; where, despite making up 50% of the population, we make up 85% of all domestic violence victims; where a third of all female murder victims were killed by their romantic partners – you have male celebrities leading a very fine example.

Ray Rice assaulted his wife more than six months ago, and received a paltry two-game suspension for his actions. Now that the video has been leaked and the whole world has seen Janay Rice be punched in the face with such force that it knocks her unconscious – then seen the presumably physically strong Mr. Rice drag her body out of an elevator as if she were a heavy bag of trash, rather than a person he valued – Rice has lost his job and entered into pretrial diversion. A practice which, in theory, I support. But the questions! The questions being asked are “why did she stay with him?” and “why did she go on to marry him?”. When Janay Rice released a statement lamenting what the media has put her family through, those who saw her statement for what it was – internalisation of abuse – were in the minority. I have seen her statement used in defense of poor old Ray Rice, who, GOSH, just wanted to hit his then-fiancee in peace; it’s time for the media to leave him alone now. I have seen it used in defense of his behaviour, because, DUH, she says right there that they love each other. I’ve seen it – and excuse me here, while I try to settle my stomach – used as justification. She says “we regret”. Clearly she’s also responsible.

A large crowd is crying out that Ray Rice should be in jail. There is a small problem with this. There are men out there whose hatred of women is so deeply rooted within them that they don’t even realise it exists. They don’t think you’re lesser, they will tell you, as they slam their fist onto the table because they don’t like the dinner you’ve prepared; it’s just that it’s your job to cook and you know damn well what they like and don’t like. They don’t think that they’re entitled to your body, it’s just that you’re their girlfriend/fiancee/wife; so they don’t need to ask your consent before they assume you want sex, and they don’t need to stop if you’re telling them no. They don’t hit women, they’ll explain; you were just really disrespectful and needed to be shoved up against a wall and throttled. For these men, prison is not the answer. Prison, in fact, may be the catalyst that takes that internal hatred and turns it into even more violence: after all, they will say, it was a woman’s blabbing that landed them in jail. For these men, the answer is changing the behaviour; getting to the root of that hatred of women and correcting it. That is the way to protect women from further violence. This rehabilitation is what pretrial diversion programs are designed to do.

The problem is the efficiency, and the perception. These programs state their intention as a means to teach offenders alternatives to violence. I have enough faith in the justice system to assume that they also teach that abuse is not always physical – that name-calling, threatening, belittling, and mocking are not acceptable alternatives to violence – but I wonder if they are effective learning tools that require dedicated concentration and commitment, or whether they are an ‘easy pass’. I think most of us, and certainly those who went to college in the US, will have taken a required class and know what I mean by an ‘easy pass’. If these pretrial intervention programs are like this – if all they need is for the offender to answer the right questions – they cannot hope to solve the problem of domestic violence. Of course, this is something that largely depends on the individual. Some will be genuinely remorseful and work at pretrial diversion; others will fob their way through, meeting all the requirements with none of the lessons learned. It is on the State to ensure that individuals are getting an effective education, and further violence is prevented.

Even if these intervention programs are effective, their perception gives me cause for concern. I’ve seen many comments, on social media and news articles and more, echoing the sentiment of “so Ray Rice is getting away with it”. These thoughts take the form of comments like “so he just has to go to a few classes?”. Regardless of whether pretrial intervention will be a learning experience or a get out of jail free card for Ray Rice, the idea that pretrial intervention is “just a few classes” is a dangerous one to spread. That message, to an abuser, says “domestic violence isn’t serious. The courts take it very lightly” and by extension “it’s okay to hit your partner”. To a victim of abuse, that message says “there is no way out”. It says “the court is not on your side”. It says “this is acceptable”, and that is the most toxic message of all.

As with many of the issues that I am passionate about, there isn’t an easy answer to this. There are domestic violence shelters in the US that need financial support (there aren’t enough shelters to begin with, and yes, that plays a large role in why women stay with abusive partners). I could point you towards them, but that won’t help the problem.  I’m sure that there are petitions out there for stricter laws or harsher jail sentences, but that won’t help either. The uncomfortable truth is it is on us. It is on us to recognise and teach that women are equal. Taken separately, these issues that American women face have little to do with domestic violence. The pay gap, for example, isn’t solely responsible, and closing the pay gap won’t just magic away domestic violence. The problem is all these issues as a whole, combined with high-profile cases where violence was inflicted on women and the punishment was lax; or where the offender is still lauded for his other achievements (like Chris Brown); or where horrific violence is swept under the rug (like Sean Penn); or where the media is more concerned about a rapist’s future than the rape victim’s well-being (like Steubenville); or when sexual assault is mocked (like Jada). The problem is in the way that we hold girls and women to a different standard, teaching them to be obedient and subservient while we teach that “boys will be boys”.

The problem is that we don’t ask “why does he hit her?”. We ask “why does she stay?”.

If you feel inclined to dismiss me as a feminazi, as a crotchety hag, as a hysterical woman completely overreacting, I ask you, earnestly, to go to Twitter and search for two trends: #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. Go and read. Listen to the women who have experienced this violence; the women who have seen their friends and family accept it; the women who have had to stay in abusive relationships because they did not have the resources to leave; the women who have been accused of lying; the women who have had laws prevent them from leaving. See how terrible things had to become for us to leave.

America, your daughters are crying out to you for the same love and protection and freedom that you give to your sons.

America, it is time to listen.

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