Why teaching “respect” won’t end violence against women

gregodenAnother professional athlete has been arrested for hitting a woman. This time it’s NBA player Greg Oden, who punched his former girlfriend in the face. The police report described “blood, swelling to the nose, lacerations to the forehead and nose area” on the woman’s the face. Oden was apparently calm and cooperative, telling the police “I was wrong, and I know what has to happen.” And blah blah blah, blah blah blah.

Look. The details change, but the story remains the same: violence against women is an epidemic we refuse to take seriously. Sure, Oden is “taking responsibility” for what he did. Congratulations to him. But he still did it. He still punched a woman in the face. He doesn’t get a round of applause for taking responsibility after the fact. What comfort does that bring?

I’m tired of having conversations about domestic/intimate partner violence as if it’s inevitable and the only thing that can be done is people being “held accountable” and “taking responsibility” in the aftermath. The women who are disproportionately the victims of this type of violence deserve better. The women who will potentially be victims of this type of violence deserve better. 

As a society, we’re not serious about ending violence against women. We pay great lip service to the idea, but we aren’t willing to interrogate the ways in which we have accepted gendered violence in our everyday lives.

We teach boys this general message about how they’re supposed to “respect women” while writing off all behavior that is blatantly disrespectful (and dangerous) toward women as “boys being boys.” It starts young, when every hair pull, pinch, slap, push, and shove boys exact on girls is written off because “boys will be boys” and that’s how they flirt. No, that’s how they hit girls. Any message to the contrary only further perpetuates the idea that all of this is OK.

Then they get older and any time they get into a physical altercation with a girl, we spend more time asking about how they were “provoked” than what they should have done instead of putting their hands on a girl.

Then they become adults and the police and lawyers and judges downplay the seriousness of their offenses. And they get to say “that’s not the person I am” or “I take full responsibility” and voila, they’re completely absolved.

Where the fuck is the respect?

And yes, to all the devil’s advocates lurking behind anonymous accounts, we should be teaching everyone not to hit anyone, and that includes girls/women. Sure. But as I’ve said before, there isn’t the same history of women using violence against men as a means of systemic subjugation. Violence in any form from any person is an issue, but violence against women as an epidemic with far-reaching consequences on the life outcomes of more than half the population. I’m just saying, there’s a different weight to the problem.

So, Greg Oden will probably face charges and blah blah blah, blah blah blah. Enough. Let’s do something real to actually make women safer. Let’s remove the threat. Stop making excuses and talk to young boys about how to end violence against women and girls. Stop thinking this vaguely defined “respect” for women is enough. Stop encouraging or condoning harmful behavior with the ridiculous “boys will be boys” mantra. And, for all our sakes, quit it with the false equivalencies.

Violence against women is not inevitable. We can eliminate it. We just have to have the courage to take on that challenge.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon.

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