Over the past 12 months you have been bombarded with stories of brutalized women. Chances are, you didn’t notice.
You don’t have to play Grand Theft Auto to be blind to violence against women. The local TV-news and print media feature so many dead women, they barely register as much more than cartoons. The Herald alone put pictures of 20 individual female victims of violence on its covers this year. And one of every five of the paper’s covers mentioned a story of violence against women.
All year long, stories of victimized women and girls were routinely plucked from the swarm of local and national news items that face editors each day and given front-page, talk-radio, top-of-the-hour treatment. The next one grabbed our attention as soon as we lost interest in the last: Rachel Entwistle gave way to Imette St. Guillen, who was followed by Jill Carroll and then Dominique Samuels. If we weren’t guessing whether John Mark Karr killed JonBenet Ramsey, we were debating whether Philadelphia Phillies star Brett Myers should pitch the day after allegedly beating his wife outside a hotel in downtown Boston. Even long-dead victims were back in the headlines: Christa Worthington, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Aislin Silva.
Yet while most of us became caught up in the salacious details of each new story, we failed to see them as part of a greater trend. It’s odd, given how quick we are to discern patterns and similarities in even the most distantly related news events.
Even worse, say those who make it their business to track and tend to violence against women, these recent storylines were often disproportionately cast as TV drama, with the victim struck down by some psycho stranger in terrifying isolation, when more often than not, domestic violence was involved.
This distorted way of looking at violence against women — when we recognize it at all — was crystallized in the controversial ads run by Republican gubernatorial candidate Kerry Healey, which made Benjamin LaGuer, convicted of rape 22 years ago, a household name. Not long after, we even learned of a rape victim within our governor-elect’s close family.
Jane Doe Inc., which tracks homicides directly attributable to domestic violence in Massachusetts, has identified 31 such deaths this year — 50 percent more than the average of the previous three years. And at least 34 women have been murdered in the state under all circumstances, according to Phoenix research, the highest total in several years. Although violence in Boston and across Massachusetts has been a topic of constant public discussion, it has gone unnoticed that rapes in the city have climbed 15 percent this year, and a stunning 61 percent since September 1, compared with the same dates in 2005. In Allston-Brighton, rapes are up 136 percent. Meanwhile, as the Phoenix reported in October, the arrest rate for rapes in Massachusetts dropped by nearly half during the past three years.
Yet most of us missed this bigger picture as we eagerly consumed the details of each new victimization — what online sexual shenanigans Neil Entwistle was up to, or where in the Ella J. Baker House the ex-con staffer allegedly raped a teenage girl.
This ever-widening gap between perception and reality has real consequences, say many in the field: it has made it harder to get public acceptance and support for programs and initiatives that law-enforcement officials and women’s advocates believe would help solve the growing problem. And even as these advocates advance their understanding of the problem — which they see as being largely rooted in domestic tensions — they find themselves understood, and heeded, less and less.
If anything, says Mary Lauby, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., “the attention and focus on keeping these practices and services and responses not just fully funded, but fully embraced, is moving backwards.”
Resisting the obvious
Advocates of women’s issues contacted by the Phoenix are hard-pressed to explain why the recent parade of stories about victimized women failed to register as such.
After all, it’s fairly obvious that most of these stories became big news in the first place largely because the victims are women. That’s why Jill Carroll’s abduction stood out among the dozens of reporters kidnapped in Iraq; why Christa Worthington’s murder still fascinates four years later; why the Dorchester murder of Nhaun Nguyen made the front pages, unlike the stories of so many young men shot down in the city.
And yet, we look for other storylines. For example, on October 2, a gunman took a group of girls hostage, killing five of them and injuring five more. You might not remember the incident by that description; the words “Amish school,” however, probably ring a bell.
Not only was that massacre transparently gender-driven, it came just a week after a remarkably similar event in Colorado, in which a gunman abducted and sexually assaulted six girls, killing one. Another school-based shooting, in Essex, Vermont, a month earlier, targeted women, leaving two dead.
As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert later wrote, this obvious targeting would have dominated coverage, had it been based on race or religion — and the incidents would have been labeled, properly, as hate crimes.