I’m going to back off my promise not to comment on the Tiger Woods story, because there’s one facet of it that’s got me ruminating on what we mean when we talk about “domestic violence,” “battering,” and “abuse.” We will probably never know what transpired between Tiger, his wife Elin Nordegren, and a golf club. The media are assuming or alleging that she whalloped him with a club in a fit of rage. Now Amanda Marcotte has weighed in against the trivialization of assault when it’s alleged to have been committed by a Swedish supermodel. I absolutely agree with her that women shouldn’t get a free pass on assault. A woman who commits violence within the family should be subject to prosecution, just as a man would be.
But not all intimate-partner violence is the same, and that’s where things get sticky, because the law generally doesn’t differentiate very finely in this area. A one-time assault is not equivalent – morally, practically, psychologically, or politically – to systematic battering. Legally, however, this distinction has been erased.
Current laws on domestic violence were formulated to redress the historical problem of it being swept under the rug by family members, communities, police officers, and courts. As Hanna Roisin writes at Slate,
Because of Florida’s domestic-violence laws, [Tiger Woods] admitting to the police that Nordegren in any way harmed him would virtually guarantee that the glamorous Elin would be led out of their mansion in handcuffs, even if he protested it.
In 1991, Florida became one of many states to set up a pro-arrest policy in domestic-violence cases. For years, feminist advocates had complained that police treated domestic-violence cases as private family matters and assumed the abused spouse would never follow through and press charges. Beginning in the 1990s, laws began virtually to force the police to take action. The new statutes direct police to figure out who was the “primary aggressor” in a domestic dispute. They make a call based on a checklist (bruises, disparity of physical size), and then they make an arrest. Howls of protest from the abused spouse are to be ignored: “The decision to arrest and charge shall not require the consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties,” the Florida law reads.
The consequences for Nordegren could be grim, as Mary Elizabeth Williams adds at Salon:
If he says his wife went ballistic, she would be arrested — whether the golf superstar presses the matter or not. But there’s still more — Nordegren is married to a U.S. citizen, but she is Swedish born. I spoke Monday to a friend who works in Florida EMS who mused, “Is she an American citizen? If she’s convicted of a felony she could be deported.”
That’s pretty much my understanding of the law in Ohio, too. (I’m still not a lawyer but I’ve absorbed a smattering of knowledge of the DV laws through contact with a couple of lawyers this year.) In Ohio, according to a defense lawyer I know, once the police have been called out to a suspected domestic assault, the need to file only one form in order to make an arrest but three if they don’t.
I understand and support the “better safe than sorry” philosophy behind this. Under the old regime, a lot of women suffered in silence at the hands of their partners. Yet we also need to recognize that the laws have gone from being too lax to quite rigid – with sometimes disproportionate consequences. On the one hand, the current law isn’t enough to keep an offender from repeating. Protection orders are often a worthless scrap of paper. I know one survivor who’s been repeatedly harassed by the guy who hurt her, but the courts seem to be hamstrung when it comes to enforcing the protection order. At the other extreme, the laws include some cookie-cutter features such as the requirement to prosecute against the spouse’s wishes no matter what, and mandatory prison terms (as here in Ohio) that remind me of those used against drug offenders.
Now, I also get why those provision were written into law. A spouse might be intimidated into dropping charges. Courts have a long, long history of treating domestic violence as a peccadillo.
But let’s go back to the Tiger Woods case. Here, we have no reason to believe his wife could intimidate him, and yet it appears very likely (as Roisin argues) that he’s kept mum to protect Nordegren from possible prosecution. Despite all the nattering about this case, no one in the media is alleging that Nordegren abused him regularly.
While violence is never okay, I don’t think it makes sense to conflate a single act of rage with the sort of systematic abuse that batterers dish out. Such abuse occurs over months and years. It’s certainly more common for a man to abuse a woman in this systematic way, but the reverse also occurs, as does battering between same-sex partners.
The crucial variable that defines battering and abuse is not, to my mind, gender; it’s the systematic, pervasive, long-term character of abuse. It’s the desire to control one’s victim.
This distinction isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be in Amanda’s analysis, and it largely disappeared in the subsequent comment thread, apart from a couple of folks who insisted not all violence = battering. Amanda does draw a lot of other useful distinctions:
Is Elin Nordegren a batterer? I’m not really sure it’s exactly the same kind of domestic violence, if she did attack Tiger Woods in response to his infidelities. I would argue that assaulting a cheater is motivated by the belief that you own them sexually. …
But I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Nordegren is a classic batterer, like I suspect Chris Brown was. I doubt she isolates Tiger Woods from friends and family and controls his movements. I doubt she’s invested in her image of herself as a masculine dominator or thinks that Woods is her inferior that should cower and obey. I doubt she worked up to this beating by softening him up with a constant barrage of put-downs interlaced with chivalric displays of charm in order to cause him to question his own sanity and ruin his self esteem. I’m not excusing her behavior in any way. If she beat him, she should face the criminal justice system and an end to her marriage, like any other abuser. But it’s important to see the distinction between incidents like this and the epidemic of battering that so many women face.
Why? Because if we refuse to see these distinctions, we won’t know how to fight violence, because you can only fight violence if you understand root causes. Violence like Nordegren’s alleged behavior can’t be addressed in the same way as more typical batterer-style violence. Freaking out over infidelity can be slowed by fighting the idea that monogamy gives you ownership rights to your spouse. But battering needs to be fought by putting rest to the idea that women exist to serve men’s desires and needs and that men are better than women. Battering can only be fought culturally by rewriting our scripts for masculinity so that dominance and power over others don’t define the man. Different causes require different approaches.
I agree with a lot of what Amanda says. Most batterers are indeed men, and we could expect their abusive behavior to diminish if misogyny goes into decline. However, the problems of abuse and battering isn’t only gendered. Some women control men, too, through their physical violence. Their numbers are small, but not vanishingly so. Women who beat men can often count on them not to fight back, thanks to being socialized not to hit a girl. (Back in 2002, Salon published a moving essay by a man who had tolerated years of violence from his alcoholic wife out of a mix of decency, fear, and shame.) Emotional abuse, though not usually lethal, can be quite devastating, and it doesn’t require physical strength.
In the end, Elin Nordegren’s gender has no bearing on why I believe it would be wrong to convict her on domestic violence charges and deport her back to Sweden. I’m troubled because I think jail and deportation would be utterly disproportionate to the alleged crime. If she had hit another woman in a bar fight, the potential consequences would have been substantially milder. (I have a few former students who’ve been in bar fights, and I don’t recall any of them doing hard time. Community service, yes; prison, no. Also, the bonus punishment of having to tell their prof that they had to miss class for a court date.)
Problem is, we can’t always distinguish one-time meltdowns from the first arrest of a serious, systematic batterer. So I’m not sure how we should try to improve on the legal status quo. I don’t know how we can introduce reasonable flexibility into the law without putting some victims of battering at greater risk. At the very least, though, I think we are responsible for acknowledging that the current law is unduly harsh toward some offenders – and for saying that this is a real problem.
As for Tiger? I suspect he sees it similarly, and that’s why he’s protecting his wife. But I do give him credit for decency and generosity in shielding her from the full force of the law. That is neither to endorse her alleged attack on him, nor to give him a free pass on his rampant cheating. It’s only to see that both of them are real, 3-D, flawed human beings capable of occasional noble acts. Just like the rest of us.