Rooting out domestic violence

Oct. 02, 2013 @ 06:55 PM

The website of the Indiana Coalition against Domestic Violence offers this historical factoid from about 750 BC:

“During the reign of Romulus in Rome, wife beating is accepted and condoned under The Laws of Chastisement. Under these laws, the husband has absolute rights to physically discipline his wife. .. These laws permit the husband to beat his wife with a rod or switch as long as its circumference is no greater than the girth of the base of the man’s right thumb, hence ‘The Rule of Thumb.’”

As barbaric as that sounds today, it’s worth noting that the criminal justice system and society as a whole tended to minimize or overlook men’s physical abuse of their wives until relatively recently. Not until well into the last century did courts and legislatures begin to abandon the 16th-century English legal doctrine that “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent a [sic] contract with wife hath given herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.” 

And not until the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s did active prosecution for marital rape and other spousal abuse become more the norm than the exception.

A generation or so ago, police often declined even to press criminal charges when called to a domestic dispute that erupted into violence. Now, law enforcement nearly everywhere, certainly in Durham, takes domestic violence deeply seriously.

But as far as we have come, domestic and sexual violence remain far too common, as supporters of the Durham Crisis Response Center reminded us with their event Tuesday evening to mark the start of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“One in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime,” according to research cited by the Domestic Violence Resource Center. And, the center notes, “Estimates range from 960,000 incidents of violence against a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend to 3 million women who are physically abused by their husband or boyfriend per year.”

(It’s true that spousal violence cuts both ways – but women account for 85 percent of the victims of “intimate partner violence,” the center reports.)

Those numbers are probably a significant improvement, but they still are staggering. And as Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden said at Tuesday’s event, “any time anyone suffers as a result of domestic violence, that’s one person too many.”

As important as laws and law enforcement are, wiping out domestic violence requires changing mindsets of many men (and some women) rooted in past cultural complicity.

“We need to educate our young people,” State Senator Mike Woodard of Durham said Tuesday evening. “We need to get the word out that girls need to protect themselves and boys need to respect the women in their lives. And I pray that one day, we’ll be able to eliminate the problem completely.”

To which we firmly say, amen.