Behind Closed Doors

It is really difficult to watch a woman get beaten up by her husband.  But ABC's Primetime broadcast July 31 brought that very image into homes across America as part of a series called Family Secrets.

Far from being exploitative, the disturbing story of domestic abuse was an intimate look into a pervasive societal problem that doesn't get nearly enough attention.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 5.3 million incidents of Intimate Partner Violence are committed against women every year.  Against men, IPV incidents occur 3.2 million times annually. That is an astonishing 8.5 million incidents of violence every year, or over 23,000 cases every day, 970 every hour. The CDC reports most of these incidents are “relatively minor” and involve pushing, hitting, grabbing, shoving or slapping. 

Such “relatively minor” incidents don't always look so insignificant when caught on videotape.  That is why ABC was right to rebroadcast an October 2006 story about a New York woman named Susan, whose 13-year-old son was forced to videotape her husband's verbal and physical assault against her several years ago.  The tape ultimately led to a 36-year prison sentence for Susan's husband.  Susan now uses the tape to train police officers on the realities of domestic violence.

ABC used the videotape extensively in reporting the story, even though it is extremely difficult to watch.  And that is a good thing.  Because in watching the tape and in listening to Diane Sawyer ask the victim difficult questions like, “Why didn't you just leave?,” the viewer learns some important facts about why so few domestic violence cases are reported, and why so many women stay with their abusers.

Sawyer's report laid out the timeline of Susan's spiral down through the depths of despair, and also showed how the judicial system can fail victims of abuse.  The piece includes interviews with prosecutors and police officers involved in the case.  They say the disturbing videotape of her assault wouldn't have been enough to insure her abuser spent more than a few months in jail. Had a jury had only that piece of evidence, her husband would have only been convicted of misdemeanor, because she had not sustained any “serious” physical injury even though the tape shows severe bruising and a cut on her face.

The viewer learns that Susan's employer had been concerned by what she had seen for several months and had, of her own accord, kept notes on a personal calendar of physical symptoms of abuse she witnessed.  This single act of compassion for another human being was the evidence that resulted in the conviction of Susan's husband on all of the charges brought against him.  It makes a strong case for being your brother's (or sister's) keeper.

Intimate Partner Violence is a serious problem in America.  Consider these statistics from the CDC:

    In the United States every year, about 1.5 million women and more than 800,000 men are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner. This translates into about 47 IPV assaults per 1,000 women and 32 assaults per 1,000 men. IPV results in nearly 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths nationwide every year. Estimates indicate more than 1 million women and 371,000 men are stalked by intimate partners each year. IPV accounted for 20 percent of nonfatal violence against women in 2001 and 3 percent against men. From 1976 to 2002, about 11 percent of homicide victims were killed by an intimate partner. In 2002, 76 percent of IPV homicide victims were female; 24 percent were male. One study found that 44 percent of women murdered by their intimate partner had visited an emergency department within 2 years of the homicide. Of these women, 93 percent had at least one injury visit. Previous literature suggests that women who have separated from their abusive partners often remain at risk of violence. A national study found that 29 percent of women and 22 percent of men had experienced physical, sexual, or psychological IPV during their lifetimes. Between 4 percent and 8 percent of pregnant women are abused at least once during the pregnancy.

The costs of such abuse are myriad.  Far beyond lost time at work and medical bills, the psychological damage to the victim and family members last for years and even generations.  Statistics indicate that children who grow up witnessing abuse often become abusers themselves.

Susan's story on Primetime serves to focus our attention on a national problem.  It also challenges us to be mindful of the people we interact with every day.  With 8.5 million incidents of IPV occurring every year, chances are it could be happening closer to home than we think.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.