Commentary: The other domestic violence
Some problems just never go away. Israel and Hamas. Climate change. Men hitting women.
The last issue was in the news again last week. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on tape dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator. Rice appears to have punched his now wife, Janay Rice, knocking her out.
Perhaps our nation has made some progress in this area. Perhaps we’re more aware of the problem of domestic violence and provide more resources for women whose husbands and boyfriends beat them up than we did in the past.
But the pendulum took a swing in the wrong direction last week when the National Football League suspended Rice for only two games, a punishment that struck many as mild for such a significant offense.
ESPN sportscaster Steven Smith gave the pendulum an extra, unnecessary nudge when he said, Sure, men shouldn’t hit women; on the other hand women need to be careful that they don’t do anything to “provoke” men.
Smith apologized. Ray Rice apologized. Janay Rice stopped short of apologizing. And the NFL hasn’t apologized, at all.
A statistic or two undercuts the attractive ideal of the American home as a place of refuge and security. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 25 percent of women will experience some form of domestic violence and about a third of all female homicide victims are killed by their intimate partners.
Many women aren’t nearly as safe in their homes as they should be. But consider this form of domestic violence — men hitting women — in the context of another — men and women hitting children.
Of course, children shouldn’t be abused, physically or in any other way. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that 1,600 children die annually from abuse and neglect. Close to 700,000 suffer from nonfatal abuse. And the Department of Agriculture reports that 15 percent of American households are “food insecure,” yet another type of abuse.
Then there’s the spanking. We use the term to describe a variety of practices that range from a gentle, open-handed pat on a young child’s behind to extended thrashings of older children with hairbrushes and coat hangers.
However we define spanking, we do a lot of it. A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published in 2010 by Child Abuse Review, indicates that 80 percent of children ages 3 to 5 years are spanked. A prominent study by Elizabeth Gershoff of Columbia University reports that more than 90 percent of Americans were spanked as children.
In fact, outside of sports such as boxing and hockey, the only members of our culture that we can hit with impunity are also the most vulnerable, the children.
Maybe there’s some boundary that separates controlled disciplinary spanking from child abuse. But since many spankings — probably most, really — are administered in anger and frustration, we probably shouldn’t have too much confidence in parents’ ability to make the distinction.
In any case, Gershoff’s analysis of 88 studies of corporal punishment excluded obvious physical abuse like beating, kicking, burning, punching and shaking. Nevertheless, her study found an overwhelming association between “ordinary spanking” and later aggression, violence, disruption of the parent-child relationship, anxiety, depression, delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, and many more undesirable behaviors.
I don’t know if football player Ray Rice was abused as a child, but as with most American children, the chances are that somebody hit him.
I suspect that psychiatrists would decline to suggest any simple cause-and-effect relationship between how Rice was treated as a child and how he treated his fiancee. Let’s just say that childhood spankings are the first experience in which children learn that anger, frustration, and power can be expressed by hitting. Then they grow up in a culture where violence is prominent and celebrated, in movies, videogames, real-world news, and even our national game, football.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Ray Rice hit his future wife. Maybe it would be a healthy step if the rest of us resolved to quit hitting the kids.