Violence is men’s fault, says Dallas mayor: “We’ve created those traditions”

rawlingsDallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said something pretty interesting a couple of weeks ago. Violence is men’s fault, he declared. Men have to own up to it. Men have to change it.

According to this story by KERA reporter BJ Austin, this is exactly what Rawlings said:

“This violence is our fault. It’s not the women’s fault,” he said. “We have been the violent gender over the centuries, and we must own up to it. Tradition has enabled the action we see around us, and we’ve created those traditions. The culture of male violence has only been perpetuated by locker room talk, radio talk shows, video games, how fathers talk to sons, and our inability to deal with anger living deep inside.”

I fully recognize that women are capable of committing violence and do. And men are often victims of violence. However, there’s no denying that men carry out most of the gun violence, the rapes, and the assaults on women and children, who are usually members of their own family.  This post, however, isn’t about blame. It’s actually about moving on from blame.

What’s most significant about Rawlings’ statement is that — for a brief moment — someone swung the spotlight 180 degrees in talking about violence against women and children. Why is that a big deal?

Well, as we say in the South, let’s take a f’rinstance…..Let’s say that the media reported — and the community talked about — convenience store robberies and assaults the same way we talk about family violence. First, the local media wouldn’t report each robbery. We’d do a series every year during Convenience Store Robbery Awareness Month. The story package would focus only on the convenience store clerks: “Over the last year, 56 convenience store clerks were robbed and assaulted in OurFairCity. Half were beaten so badly that they were hospitalized. Because they could not return to work right after the robbery, they lost their jobs and could not pay the rent. There are not enough shelters in the city to house them and their children.”

In real life, convenience store robberies are reported more regularly than family violence, and the focus is on the perpetrator: “Joe Shmo was arrested last night. He is alleged to have robbed the Corner Convenience Store at the intersection of Main and Central. Convenience store clerk Randolph Bacon said Shmo held a gun to his head and knocked him unconscious after he opened the cash register. Off-duty policewoman Sue Smith happened to be in the store and arrested Shmo after he grabbed the cash.” Shmo’s arrest photo accompanies the story.

So, let’s swing that spotlight around in family violence, often referred to as the larger catch-all, IPV. Interpersonal violence refers to any violence between couples, married or not. The traditional report?

About 28 million women experience severe interpersonal violence during their lifetimes (U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, report on Medpage Today, U.S. Census data). They are kicked, beaten, stabbed, and/or raped.

Now do a one-eighty: During their lifetimes, between 10 and 20 million men, given that some inflict pain on more than one woman, kick, beat, stab and/or rape women.

Next: Let’s dive into child sex abuse numbers.

Traditional: About 80,000 children are sexually abused every year. (A gross underestimate.)

The one-eighty version: Tens of thousands of (mostly) men sexually abuse children every year. Most of them know or are related to these children.

Traditional: About 45 million adults in the U.S. were sexually abused before they were 18 years old (one in four women and one in six men). (btw, That number is the population of New York, Florida and Louisiana combined.)

Do a one-eighty:  Tens of millions of (mostly) men sexually abused these women and men when they were children.

The men who sexually abuse children are our acquaintances, our neighbors, our friends, our fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, and nephews. About 60% are known to children, 30% are family members, and 10% are strangers. It’s not a ratio of one abuser to one victim — the trials of priests, coaches, teachers, and scout leaders have shown us that. But the ratio’s likely to be a lot closer to 1-to-1 than we might imagine, especially since most experts believe that child sexual abuse is grossly underreported.

In other words, in any concert, congregation, conference, you can’t throw five pebbles without hitting someone who’s been sexually abused.

The one-eighty version: You can’t throw five pebbles in a congregation, conference, or concert without hitting someone who has — or is — sexually abusing a child.

Thinking that way is very difficult for us. We recoil from it, says Mia Fontaine said in a recent post on Atlantic.com. America has an incest problem, she says. No kidding.

If you look only at child sex abuse, however, you’re looking at only a tiny part of a very large picture — and the main reason for the numbers of people in our prisons, the main reason why people abuse alcohol and other drugs, the main reason why they’re mentally ill, miss work, and are unhappy. A huge chunk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and auto-immune diseases can be attributed to child maltreatment, too. So….

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Traditional: More than 700,000 children are abused every year. (Another vastly understated number, because not all severe and chronic trauma — such as living with an alcoholic or mentally ill parent, or witnessing family violence — figures into this number. Also, not all of the sexual, physical and verbal abuse is reported, nor do child protective service agencies investigate all reports of abuse, because of severe funding cutbacks.)

The one-eighty version: (Mostly) parents…men and women…abuse way more than 700,000 children each year. Some people shrug this off because they believe that only the poor mistreat their children. Although poor families may have higher ACE scores on average, the CDC’s ACE Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) and the ACE surveys in 18 other states (here’s Minnesota’s, released last week) show that childhood adversity is very common: in families rich and poor, middle class and upper class, in families where both parents are PhDs, and where both parents have graduated only from high school. This is a universal problem, requiring universal solutions, i.e., targeting only organizations that serve the poor won’t solve our child abuse problem.

Traditional: More than 100 million adults experienced long-term, gut-wrenching brain-altering trauma when they were children.

Do a one-eighty: More than 100 million men and women created environments in which their children experienced long-term, gut-wrenching, brain-altering trauma.

ACESlist1The original CDC ACE Study in San Diego, plus the subsequent ACE surveys in 18 states, indicate that most people in the U.S. endured at least one severe and chronic experience during their childhood. This includes physical, sexual, verbal abuse; physical and sexual neglect; loss of a parent through divorce or abandonment; a parent who’s diagnosed with depression or some other mental illness, or who’s addicted to alcohol or other drugs; witnessing a mother being abused, or a family member in prison. (Of course, there are more: living in a violent neighborhood, witnessing a sibling being abused, war, etc.) And more than half of those have experienced two or more types of childhood adversity. The more types of ACEs you’ve experienced, the higher the risk of health problems, violence (being a victim or an abuser) and mental illness.

Note that we’ve moved from shining a spotlight on men to men and women. That’s because in perpetrator-victim interactions, the truth about who plays which role can be complex. Men may be the abusers. But women voluntarily (but not knowingly) walk into relationships with abusers because their own damaged childhoods don’t provide them a solid sense of self or a model of of a healthy relationship. And, as a result, their children suffer. And the beat(ing) goes on, generation after generation.
In other words: This nation is stuck in a multi-generational mire in which we are all complicit. Fontaine said it well:

 Intentionally or not, children are protecting adults, many for their entire lives. Millions of Americans, of both sexes, choke down food at family dinners, year after year, while seated at the same table as the people who violated them. Mothers and other family members are often complicit, grown-ups playing pretend because they’re more invested in the preservation of the family (and, often, the family’s finances) than the psychological, emotional, and physical well-being of the abused.

Most people — men and women — who directly abuse their children or create serious family dysfunction that traumatizes their children (this includes neglect) are often hopelessly stuck acting out the consequences of their own childhood traumas. They were the children — boys and girls — who endured severe and chronic gut-wrenching, brain-altering experiences and then grew up to become men and women. Children don’t “get over” childhood trauma, notes Dr. Vincent Felitti, one of the co-founders of the CDC’s ACE Study. They grow up to be adults, have their own children, and if there’s nobody to show them a different way, they will more than likely pass their traumas on to their children, or other people’s children, like a disease. They’re not “bad” parents or “bad” people. They need help just as much as their children.

What to do? What to do? The solution is NOT to throw everyone in jail. Our prisons don’t have room for another 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 million people. And it wouldn’t make sense anyway.
And that’s one very large reason why we have a very hard time owning up to this situation — because traditional solutions don’t work. They just create more trauma. Most people who suffered childhood adversity may be very angry, but they still love their parents; they don’t want them to go to jail. They don’t want to lose them. So they keep secrets. (A nod to those men and women who were so severely abused that the best course of action was to divorce themselves from their families of origin. But the best course of all is to prevent the abuse so that fewer take this difficult journey.)
In the last couple of years, many schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, child welfare agencies, prisons, courts, public health departments, centers for the homeless, the faith-based community, cities and states have tossed the blame-shame-punitive approach out the window in favor of compassion, support and healing. They’re using an ACE- or trauma-informed approach to prevent childhood adversity and/or make sure that their organizations don’t further traumatize already traumatized people. (I’ll be posting more stories of this movement here on ACEsTooHigh.com.)
They’re not asking “What’s wrong with you?” They’re asking: “What happened to you?”  ”What adverse childhood experiences have you had? How have they affected your health and your life? What help do you need now?”
The point is not to blame men or only men, but to figure out a way for all of us — men, women, parents, families, communities, institutions — to understand just how crippling and deadly — and ordinary — childhood adversity is. By dividing family-based adverse childhood experiences and its consequences into little pieces — child sex abuse, domestic violence, addiction, obesity, alcoholism, smoking — we stay focused on victims. By staying stuck in discussing family-based adversity by focusing on the victims, we don’t deal with the whole equation. By swinging the spotlight 180 degrees, we’re on the path to including everyone: abusers as well as the people who ignore or are scared or don’t have any way to talk about the problem. That makes it our problem, not their problem. There is no “their” there (apologies to Gertrude Stein). It’s our challenge.
As Dr. Robert Anda, co-founder of the CDC’s ACE Study has said: “It’s not them. It’s us.” All of us are responsible for making the changes…in our families, schools, churches, mosques, synagogues, clubs, workplaces, medical practices, mental health clinics, prisons, courts, police departments, child welfare agencies, in the media….everywhere.
To do that, we have to talk about child maltreatment — all of it, sexual or otherwise — without running around trying to find an “evil predator” or “evil abuser” while avoiding those elephants that occupy our own living rooms and communities. And to understand that we’ve all experienced trauma, or know someone who has. And to know that the solution to preventing trauma is to stop traumatizing, talk about it as openly as if you’re talking about a broken ankle, and replace it with compassion and support.
The public health department in Port Townsend, WA, began screening for childhood trauma along with alcohol, tobacco and other drug use in 2009. They look at it as a healing and a child abuse prevention strategy. The nurses explain to clients that most people have an ACE score (adverse childhood experiences score) of 1 or 2. They explain that alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, depression are normal consequences of higher ACE scores. “For somebody who is an ACE survivor, a sense of shame is going to be one of their fundamental feelings,” says Quen Zorrah, a public health nurse who led the department to integrate ACEs. “When we normalize it, explain it as a science-based thing, it helps them reframe to move away from shame.”
The client responses? “No wonder I’m so messed up.” “No wonder I’m sick all the time.” “No wonder I can’t quit using”…..drugs, alcohol, cigarettes.

When one woman in her 60s who was parenting her grandchild was told that her ACE score was an 8, she said: “These are very, very good questions. Nobody has asked me about this before.” Understanding her own past motivated her to agree to mental health services for her grandchild.

Mayor Rawlings has plans for a big rally in the spring in Dallas where he wants to inspire men to own up to their actions and take responsibility for changing the culture. Maybe he can have one for women after that. And, after that one, families. And after that one, the community.

2 responses

  1. Definitely some good points, but still missing vital links that are crucial for real improvement to happen.
    “But women voluntarily (but not knowingly) walk into relationships with abusers because their own damaged childhoods don’t provide them a solid sense of self or a model of of a healthy relationship. And, as a result, their children suffer. And the beat(ing) goes on, generation after generation.”
    I could argue the accuracy of this statement, as the vast majority of women do not “voluntarily walk into relationships with abusers…..” Very few (if any) abusers tell potential victims, “Hi there. I’m abusive and I want to beat you. OK?” However, in this context, pointing fingers at who STARTED what is moot…..the more important question is “How does this end?” I think that most of us will agree that if any person is to heal from an abusive situation, they first must be safe from the abuser. This is where we, as a society, are failing. If we want to solve this problem, then I strongly believe that it’s important to focus on the steps we can take in order to make real changes that work, as opposed to simply trying to figure out who’s to blame. We can start by educating the public, focusing upon shattering the myths that are so destructive. We can look closely at the family law courts and law enforcement, and make changes that will improve how those systems deal with IPV.

  2. Pingback: Childhood experiences and resilience « Uncategorized « Main site

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