femmanism

My name is Emma. This is my feminism.

Sin By Silence – 2009

on April 29, 2012

This is a documentary about women who are serving life sentences for killing their abusive husbands.  They have created a really warm community in jail where they are all able to talk about their experiences and relate to each other.  One thing that many of the women commented on was how empowering it was to learn that they were not the only one who had suffered in their marriage.  They had had no idea that other people were going through the same things as them. 

I think, like these women, people who have never experienced domestic abuse underestimate its prevalence.  In fact, I think most people tend to think it doesn’t actually exist.  Maybe I’m being naive here, but if people really knew that it happened, how could they joke about it?  Or maybe they logically know that it happens, but they have effectively distanced themselves from it enough to think that it only happens to “them.”  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m just giving people too much credit.

I know that for me personally, what had more impact than even this documentary (which still allows me to really distance myself from the issue), is an experience that a relative of mine recently had.  She was on vacation, and heard a woman screaming for help in the room next door.  It was obvious that the woman was being beat up by her male companion. 

I was completely shocked by this story.  Which is stupid.  I read a lot about feminism and feminist issues, and I know that women are regularly the target of rape and violence, but somehow it never became real to me.  But the fact is that at any point there is a possibility that a woman in the same room as me has experienced something this terrible.  So, just like with rape jokes and victim blaming, be so so careful what you say.  You never know who is looking for a way out, and who has already decided that you will not be that way out because of some joke you have told.

I also realized as the women in the film talked about the early warning signs*, that I have seen those signs.  Once in my first boyfriend, and once in a male friend who I knew had feelings for me.  I have heard descriptions of these signs in other men that friends were involved with.  And I’m sure you have seen some of these signs as well.  Luckily for me, it never turned physical.  But I often wonder about the women who got involved with these men after me.  I often wonder if I should have done more.  But I think that any woman who is involved with a man who has the potential to be abusive has tried everything she can to change him.  I know I did.  So I really don’t know what else I could have done to protect the women that came after me.  Maybe all we can do is make sure the women in our lives know that they deserve respect, and that we will help them if they need it.  I have definitely made that a priority, especially in the past when I knew a friend was involved with a potential abuser.

Despite the fact that I was surprised to realize how common such extreme violence really is, if you look at this lovely culture that we have created for ourselves, it is really not all that surprising.  I tend to think that whenever there are examples of extreme misogyny or racism or heterosexism or any other social problem, they are really just a magnification of the social issues that face women, racial minorities, and non-heterosexuals daily. 

For instance, a number of women in this documentary said that their husbands would tell them what makeup they were allowed to wear.  Women are often similarly policed in public by being mocked or called names for wearing too much makeup.  I don’t think this would usually happen to a woman’s face, but by hearing comments, or even making them, we reinforce ideas about what is the right makeup to wear, what is ‘slutty,’ etc.  Some examples:

Of course, as comes into play in these examples, we also police and control other aspects of femininity, like clothing, hair dye, and tanning.  Such control is rarely imposed on men (we police masculinity in different ways).  Men** are also taught to see women as objects to which they are entitled.  One example that has been on my mind recently is bikini contests in bars, and bar atmospheres in general.  You can read my recent post on this for a more thorough explanation, but generally it is quite clear in bars that the men tend to feel that they have a right to the women.  If you are a woman who has ever been to a bar, I’m sure you can relate to how this feels.  If you chose not to dance or drink, men will come up and pressure you.  If you are dancing with a man, he might continually touch very private parts of your body to which he has no right, despite the fact that you continue to move his hands away.  A group of men might line the wall and grab your ass as you walk by.  If you refuse to give a man your number, he might get angry and aggressive.  All of these have been very common experiences in my bar-going career, and all of them are related to men’s feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies.

Add all this to ideas of masculinity as power, control, anger, strength, aggression and violence, and it really seems quite obvious that this culture would produce men who abuse their wives/girlfriends, and women who will ‘accept it.’

When I say ‘accept it,’ I don’t mean that they allow it to happen.  One thing that this documentary pointed out to me is that victim blaming in domestic violence situations is no different than victim blaming in sexual assault situations.  It is no different.  This seems obvious, but it can be so easy to say “I know it’s hard, but*** she should have done whatever she had to to get out.”  Women are at a greatly increased risk of death for the 2 years after they leave.  And when there are children involved, what is worse?  If the woman is killed, they are left alone with their father.  Is that a risk you would really take?

I think the movie Enough does a really great job of showing the complexities of domestic abuse.  Just like many of the women said in Sin by Silence, in Enough the relationship starts out like every girl’s (socially scripted) dream.  He is a great guy, and you can totally understand why she falls in love with him.  Then it gets scary, and eventually she tries to leave.  She packs up in the middle of the night on one attempt, risking everything on the fact that he will not wake up.  He does.  When she finally is able to get out, she realizes that she has no money, no where safe to go, and that her husband is looking for her. 

It is not impossible to get out.  But it can be extremely difficult, and extremely dangerous.  Especially when, along with the physical abuse, there has been psychological abuse which has convinced you that you have no power, nobody cares about you, you don’t deserve better, this is your fault and you need this relationship.  I think that is the most important thing I learned from this film.  Have respect for women who are dealing with this.  If you are lucky enough (and yes, I do think it has a lot to do with luck) to have never experienced domestic abuse, try to put yourself in their shoes.  Remember that they once did, and still do love the man who is hurting them.  I think almost everyone who has been in relationships has stayed in one that they knew was bad for them.  As with anything like this, it all comes down to compassion and empathy.

I would really love to watch a documentary about the men who abuse; the ones in this situation for whom it is more difficult to have compassion and empathy.  Sin by Silence talked a little bit about the men’s perspectives, but it mostly focused on the women.  Since the men are the ones causing this problem, like with rape, I think we really need to learn more about what drives their behaviour and focus on how to change that instead of how to help women escape it. 

The last thing I want to say about this film is that it reinforced what I have been thinking lately about the use of the word ‘trash’ to describe lower class people.  Think about that for a second.  Trash.  Literally referring to people as garbage totally discounts anything they have to say.  Usually, these are the people who have really lived a hard life.  For instance, one of the women sharing her experience in this documentary immediately made me think ‘white trash.’  She has suffered abuse, not only at the hands of her husband, but of other family members as a child as well.  She is now in prison and is working with other women to change laws and change themselves.  She has stories and knowledge and wisdom that anyone would be lucky to have access to.  I feel very honored to have been able to hear some of her stories through watching this film.  Who else do we discount as ‘trash’ that might have something amazing and powerful to offer if we just gave them a chance?

*extreme jealousy, possessiveness, controlling attitude, low self-esteem, unpredictable mood swings, alcohol and drug use, explosive anger

**I do not at all want to imply that all men think this way.  I am simply pointing out that this is a cultural value that we are taught.  Just as many women reject the ideas, so too do many men.

***I used to watch Dr. Phil a lot, and I am often reminded of what he used to say about the word ‘but.’  When you follow a statement with a ‘but,’ you are completely negating it.  “I love you, but…” is not really an ‘I love you’ at all.  “I know it’s hard, but…” means really, you have no idea how hard it is.

http://www.sinbysilence.com/

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