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Making Relationship Violence Sexy

The blogosphere was abuzz last week with talk of TV’s Gossip Girl where antihero, Chuck Bass, humiliated ex-girlfriend, Blair Waldorf, by tattling on her sexual past in front of her new boyfriend’s mother. He followed up by telling Blair she couldn’t be with anyone else because, “You’re mine.” Enraged, he wrestled her onto a sofa before hurling his fist through a window, a shard of glass cutting Blair’s face.

A reporter from E! Entertainment called the cut, “the most perfect, beautiful, dainty injury.”

Are Chuck’s violence and controlling ways meant to be seen as “perfect” and “beautiful,” as well, set within the passion of unrequited love?

As the story goes along, it appears that Blair isn’t the one who’s hurt. Chuck is. He loves Blair too much for his own good, according to the show’s producers and this week’s episode.

Unfortunately, sexualized violence is hardly a new story. Popular romance novels are commonly called “bodice rippers.” The hero fears his love of the heroine and the vulnerability his affection might bring. He must stay strong and resist, in part by treating the object of his desire poorly. Finally he gives in in a torrent of ripped clothing.

In these stories the heroine reforms the rouge and wins in the end.

What message do young women get while watching abusive lovers in Gossip Girl or reading romance? That a lover’s harm exposes his love? That she will ultimately transform him? That it’s all so romantic? That it’s all so normal?

Maybe. Along these lines it’s interesting that one-third of abused women expect to marry their abuser. Why? First, they take the jealous rage as a sign of deep love and passion. Second, they believe that marriage will end his abuse-causing insecurity. Yet after marriage, violence escalates.

Signs of an abusive lover include controlling behavior, pushing for quick involvement, persistent jealousy (especially jealousy that leads to verbal or physical attacks), constantly checking up, isolation (cutting off family and friends), blaming others for his problems, insulting yet easily insulted, unrealistic expectations (you must be perfect and meet his every need), and rigid gender roles.

Should you choose to leave an abuser, contact a shelter or hotline to form a plan of action. Do not tell the abuser you plan to leave, as this is the most dangerous time. Knowing he’s lost control, he may seek to take ultimate control: your life. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 800 799-7233.

Helping friends who are in abusive relationships can be difficult, for victims are often in denial about how bad the situation is, or about their ability to leave. Experts say that it helps if friends “continually counter with messages like ‘It’s not you. You didn’t cause this. This is not a normal relationship.’”

One battered woman who eventually left credited her friends, saying, “They saw the signs from the beginning. They would tell me I would go missing and my picture would end up on a milk carton. Over time, it slowly sank in.”

Of course, it might be a good idea to stop romanticizing and normalizing violent relationships in the first place.

Georgia Platts

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What Abusers and “Pro-Family” Conservatives Have in Common

Birth control sabotage has been revealed to be a common form of partner abuse. In a report released earlier this week by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 25 percent of women callers to the hot line, who voluntarily answered questions about birth control and pressure to get pregnant in their relationships, reported some form of reproductive coercion.

The callers said their partners hid birth control pills or flushed them down the toilet. Some refused to wear condoms or poked holes in them. One woman’s partner became furious when she recently got her period.

The study’s authors state firmly that reproductive coercion is a form of abuse. Family Violence Prevention Fund president Esta Soler says, “While there is a cultural assumption that some women use pregnancy as a way to trap their partner in a relationship, this survey shows that men who are abusive will sabotage their partner’s birth control and pressure them to become pregnant as a way to trap or control their partner.”

And physical and emotional abuse go hand-in-hand with birth control sabotage: Another study on reproductive coercion found that one-third of women using reproductive health clinics (of five studied), whose partners were physically abusive, also said their partners had pressured or forced them into pregnancy, often hiding or destroying contraception.

This tactic should alarm feminists and anti-domestic-violence workers. It also suggests a revealing political analogy.

It seems these ostensibly “pro-family” men, who are busily destroying contraception in pursuit of children, have a lot in common with the “pro-family” (read: anti-reproductive rights) political agenda.

So why aren’t we willing to call the anti-choice agenda abusive, too?

The conservative political agenda is anti-women working outside the home, anti-abortion, anti-birth control, and once upon a time, anti-battered women’s shelters (the better to keep women inside the home and attached to intact nuclear families). Each of these stances, in some way, disempowers women.

It’s easy to see how restricting shelters keeps women under the thumb of abusive men: It’s a no brainer. If there’s no safe place to go, you’re trapped.

The same holds for denying women access to birth control or abortion. If you’re pregnant with this man’s child, you’re attached–you’re trapped, again, by an unwanted pregnancy.

And women who don’t work outside the home tend to have less say within it. Not to mention that a lack of income makes it hard to leave an abusive partner.

The “pro-family” political agenda may claim to uphold “traditional” American values, but for for many young men claiming to want “normal” nuclear families, pregnancy coercion is a form of abuse and control. What kind of “family values” are those?

Georgia Platts

This post originally appeared in the Ms. Magazine Blog, February 18, 2011

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