A Canton, Georgia headline reads, “Couple, child victims of apparent murder-suicide.” The headline is sanitized and de-sexed, suggesting that everyone involved is a victim, as if none of the three were to blame. The headline does not tell us who shot who, but we all know. It is not just that 94% of murder-suicides are male on female. It is the headline that gives it away, by what is left unsaid. If the shooter had been female, the headline would read “Woman murders husband, leaves baby to starve.” As another example, consider two arrests that were made Easter weekend. The male-on-female murder was noted in this gender-neutral manner: “Arrest made in teens’ death.” But when three women were arrested for delivering a baby and discarding it, that headline read: “NY sisters arrested in baby’s death.”
Acts of violence by women against men are still extraordinary enough to rate “Man bites dog” news status. When Lorena Bobbitt was arrested for maiming her husband, that story was a great headline-grabber. News of the forced abortion and the continual abuse she had endured at his hands -- so horrible that the judge chose to acquit her for the attack -- barely made a ripple on the news radar.
The media gender bias extends beyond perpetrators; it is also evident in the treatment of victims. Consider the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal. The world was outraged at the discovery that priests were molesting altar boys. We barely noticed that they victimized girls, too. One priest raped numerous teenage girls upon the altar, yet it was boys who made the news. Defenders of the Roman Catholic Church note that children are more likely to be sexually victimized by school teachers than by their priest or pastor. Yet public outrage against student sex abuse has never risen to the level of calling it a scandal. The difference? Girls are the usual target.
Abu Ghraib stands as the strongest testament to the media neglect of female victimization. Emblazoned on our collective consciousness are the images of abused and humiliated men, out of context with Lynndie England’s thumbs-up and happy camper smile. But where are the photos and the stories of the women who were tortured at Abu Ghraib? Perhaps you’ll have to look it up, as I did, but women were (and still are) incarcerated in Abu Ghraib. Many women were stripped of their clothes, tortured, raped, and sexually humiliated right along with the men. A 70-year-old Iraqi woman was harnessed and ridden like donkey. But it was only violence against women, so it did not make the front page.
When mentioned at all, the abuse of women at Abu Ghraib is downplayed. The Taguba report makes no bones about the sadistic torture inflicted on male Abu Ghraib prisoners. As for the women, the report includes an innocuous-sounding admission of “a male MP guard having sex with a female detainee.” The legal term for such an event is rape, because the law recognizes that a prisoner cannot give meaningful consent to an armed guard. Acts against males that involved penetration were termed rape, but the rape of women was categorized as sex. The women who have been released alive went home tight-lipped. After all, this is a culture where a rape victim’s family often stones her to death in order to restore their “honor.”
Journalists tell us about violence against women in the passive voice, as if these things just happen. Consider “school shootings.” Schools don’t get shot; people do. And someone does the shooting. The shooters are nearly always male (boy students or sometimes a man from the community) and the victims are predominantly female. Sometimes the shooters even excuse the males and shoot girls exclusively. Very few media outlets have noted the gender component, preferring instead to imagine that school shootings are senseless or random acts of violence.
Another passive term the media likes is “domestic disputes.” This one sounds like two people on an equal playing field, who are having a bit of trouble working something out. Yet we most often hear this term after the discovery of a dead body (usually female), e.g. “The couple had a history of domestic disputes.” To me, a domestic dispute is what happens when somebody uses up all the hot water on a Sunday morning. The term does not adequately describe what it is like for a woman to be dragged through her house by her hair, choked, or threatened by a person who may be twice her size. Journalists should avoid using vague, sexless terms like “domestic dispute” and instead write strong sentences such as, “Police reports indicate this was not the first time the man choked his wife.”
Statisticians are also guilty of using this neutered, passive vocabulary. For example, they inform us that 1 out of 3 girls “will be sexually victimized” before age 18. Although sexual abusers are almost invariably male, we do not read that “Men sexually abuse 1 out of 3 girls before the age of 18.” Nor do we ever hear the percentage of men who abuse. We read about women in the military “getting raped,” not about “male soldiers raping their female comrades.”
If my rephrasing of these sentences disturbs readers, it should. We should be very disturbed that there are men in our midst, in this very community, perhaps at our church or our children’s schools, who perpetrate crimes against women and children we know. According to the CDC, men commit over 90% of the sexual violence in America against victims who are 78% female. Every year, American men kill 1,000 wives or girlfriends and rape or sexually abuse hundreds of thousands more.
Male-on-female violence is pervasive and is mostly ignored by our society. We cannot adequately address it by talking about how many women are abused. The problem is not abused women. The problem is abusive men.
-- Jeannie Babb Taylor
On the Other Hand