I've been thinking about weighing in on the recent news that Oscar Pistorius murdered Reeva Steenkamp (the two were dating at the time). After all, my current research focuses on this exact topic. However, the analysis is complex, complicated by the story literally unfolding to the public by the hour. Adding insight into an already complicated story seems almost impossible; I don't have any more information about what transpired that night than the rest of the public does.
And yet, I do. I know that the likelihood that Pistorius killed Steenkamp as part of a relationship containing issues of power and control is highly likely. I know that it is a big red flag of an abusive relationship when I read that the police have been to his house on numerous prior occasions and that it indicates the previous violence was serious and escalating (it's hard to tell from the news reports if the prior police response was related to Pistorius' violence against Steenkamp or a prior girlfriend). I know that men obsessed with guns and with a history of abuse are incredibly dangerous. I know that women often flee to the bathroom for safety (ironically one of the most dangerous rooms in a house to take refuge since there is no alternative exit.) I know that almost exclusively, men who harm their partners will deny they did it or that it was intentional. I know when you interview family members of perpetrators of abuse, they overwhelmingly defend their son. I know that the friends and loved ones of perpetrators often never see warning signs of the abusive behavior, because, after all, the heart of abuse is control, and isolation is a powerful tool in that end game. (In fact, if you talk to survivors of domestic violence, most of them will tell you that to the outside world, their abusive partner appears "charming".) What else are you expecting family members to say other than they are shocked and in disbelief when they are grieving and coming to terms with the reality of the atrocious behavior their son, brother, friend committed?
Some may argue that Pistorius is innocent until proven guilty, that it would be irresponsible journalism to assume he intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp. Yet, the mass media is not assuming an unbiased stance, they're providing him an alibi and worse yet, framing the conversation away from the epidemic of violence against women. This reprehensible "journalism" sends a message to women every where that violence against them, no matter how brutal, will not be taken seriously. Need to maintain he's innocent until proven guilty? Fine. Put "allegedly" in your sentence before describing the heinous acts Pistorius committed rather than endlessly repeating an unsubstantiated self-defense claim.
Regardless of the assumptions one makes about what happened at their house, now is NOT the time to glorify and rehash Pistorius' accomplishments or his hardships in life. If it feels more settling for journalists to wait until Pistorius has had his day in court to talk about domestic violence, at least be silent on the issue of Pistorius' character until then and stop with the alternative explanations. Sympathizing with the perpetrator only makes you complicit with the violence. In the meantime, appropriate grieving for a woman killed too young, with much spirit and energy to offer the world, could fill in your "24-hour news cycle" vacuum. But, don't forget to come back to reporting on violence against women. Because failing to do so means Reeva Steenkamp died in vain.
Contextualizing this tragedy is important. In depth reporting is important. Only providing one explanation (i.e. the outrageous amount of gun violence in South Africa) is misleading. If it's okay to report the context of the location of this murder, I don't see how one could justify not situating this murder within the context of men's violence against women. I have read many news reports which included statistics about the homicide rate in South Africa and so far zero articles with data on the number of domestic violence homicides.
One of the most striking findings thus far in my own research of online coverage of celebrities and sports figures making headlines for involvement in domestic violence is that virtually no one seeks a domestic violence expert as a source for the reporting. Police, the perpetrator, the perpetrator's lawyer and public relations team, and occasionally the victim are cited. At best this is lazy investigative reporting. And so, here are my tips for reporting on domestic violence homicides:
1. Call it what it is. Label it "Domestic Violence", "murder", "homicide."
2. Do not interview the family, friends, or lawyer of the perpetrator for information.
3. Seek appropriate sources. Get in touch with an expert on domestic violence. They aren't hard to find. I'm sure you have Google.
4. Remember someone was killed. If it was you, or your family member, how would you want your life portrayed?
See more tips here.
I have been spending the day intensively coding for my research project on online news coverage of celebrities and sports figures making the headlines because of involvement in domestic violence. Not surprisingly, reading about the violence and the irritating tone of the articles are starting to make me a little grumpy. So, to cheer myself up, and you too, I thought I'd spotlight this hilarious video-clip from a Portlandia episode on wedding planning. Enjoy!
I've been thinking a lot about the progression of social change lately. Sometimes it is easy to overestimate how far we have come (marriage for same-sex couples by a popular vote!) and at other times, it is hard to believe it's 2013 given the public discourse (revisiting Roe vs. Wade). There have been numerous studies and articles published recently that seek to highlight both progress and traditionalism. Lifescience summarized a recent study that found heterosexual college students prefer men propose marriage, are appalled at the thought of the female taking the proposal initiative, and that while 60% of women were okay with adopting their husband's last name, about 60% of men were against taking their wive's last name.
It is not surprising then, that if even at a liberal campus students hold stereotypical gender beliefs when it comes to romantic relationships that a man in Florida who changed his last name to his wife's last name would be accused of fraud. In Florida (and I'm guessing a number of other states), only women can adopt the last name of their husband upon marriage, while men have to file burdensome and costly paperwork to do the same. What is new is that a male Florida resident is challenging this sexist law. In the past, there have apparently not been enough heterosexual couples where the man desires to adopt the female's last name that a policy change has been called upon. Time stands still. Yet, with more states legitimizing marriage for same sex couples, states will have to review their procedures as gender will not provide a go-to hierarchy for property ownership and an automatic loss of identity.
All this reminded me of the summary of the book "The Unfinished Revolution" written by Kathleen Gerson. Her data demonstrated that while more couples are striving for an egalitarian relationship, when confronted with barriers and needing to rely on a "fallback plan", men and women's plan B's are different: men prefer more stereotypical gendered divisions of labor and women prefering to be single. Which leads me to wonder if more progress has in fact occurred than we typically capture in data, but that a tipping point of collective action in changing the structural frameworks (such as policies that only allow women to change their name upon marriage or normalizing paternity leave) that maintain unequal relationships has not yet been reached. As long as the status-quo supports men's fallback plans, it's hard to document changing attitudes.
A further illustration of this notion of time and social change was an article published this month in the American Sociological Review. The researchers found that in relationships where men participate in doing more of the stereotypical female household chores, the couples' sexual frequency is less than compared to romantic partnerships with more stereotypical divisions of labor. Because the data that was used in the study was collected more than two decades ago, a conversation ensued about whether the results were still relevant. The optimist in me would like to believe they would not, as much progress in terms of gender equality has been gained in two decades (in fact, the first passing of the Violence Against Women Act was during the time of this data collection). However, as Salon reports, politicians are still siphoning off money from needed social welfare programs to promote the institution of marriage, as some politicians view the decline in marriage as the solution to women's poverty (See this blog post for another rebuttal).
In this sense, regardless of the passage of time, marriage remains the answer to women's poverty, not progressive ideas such as equal pay for equal work, affordable childcare, or flexible work hours. Social change remains slow and stagnant in those regards, and repeated calls for "traditional families" (or as Stephanie Coontz put it, "The Way we Never Were") resist real societal changes that might actually strengthen marriages (those equal partnerships that we know make relationships stronger, healthier, and happier). Confusingly, even as things appear to change, they sometimes stay the same. David Blankenhorn, known for opposing same-sex marriage changed his stance in 2012. While this seemed like progress at first glance, what he actually is doing is attempting to co-opt the LGBT activist cause of access to a societal institution and trying to repackage it in a way that pushes marriage as a solution to poverty. (You can hear his agenda on a recent podcast of "As It Happens" which starts at 33:25). Instead of fancy messaging to make marriage seem cool, why not investigate what people who are not married (whether by choice or opportunity) have to say on the matter? My guess is it's because we don't want to hear what they have to say. That might call us to real action.