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Intimate Partner Violence: A Scourge Hauled Out Of The Shadows

It Was Never A Secret, But Fully Recognizing The Pervasive Scourge Of Intimate Violence Was A Crucial First Step

By CLAIRE POTTER

April 4, 2010

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In the late 1970s, as an undergraduate at Yale University, I knew a woman whose boyfriend hit her. I never witnessed it; friends heard it through the walls. Sometimes you could see the bruises.

We were shocked and embarrassed by this. As a result, no one asked her about it. We didn't tell a dean or our parents.

It never crossed our minds that it was a crime.

Reflecting on this as an adult feminist, I think that we — several women and men — had no language to describe what we knew. The phrase "domestic violence" was just emerging, even in policy circles.

It was not until 1990, when I took my first academic job at the University of Pennsylvania, which had a powerful women's studies program, that I learned to name violent experiences common to college women. The obsessive letters from a man I had met exactly once, first professing love and then evolving into dark threats? That was stalking. The classmate who invited me over to study, proposed sex and then tried to assault me? That was attempted acquaintance rape.

As a historian, I now view the 1970s as transformative, a decade when feminists saw naming violence as critical to ending it. In 1975, Susan Brownmiller's book, "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape," persuaded men and women alike that rape was a common female experience.

State v. Rusk, first litigated in Baltimore in 1977 and won on appeal in 1981, established that a conviction of rape may rest on a victim's reasonable fear of the partner rather than proof of the use of force or the victim's physical resistance. And in 1978, British feminist Erin Pizzey galvanized the domestic violence movement (now known as intimate partner violence to acknowledge that it is not just a heterosexual, male phenomenon) with "Don't Let The Neighbors Hear You Scream."

Legal reforms and community resources created in the 1970s — shelters, hot lines, counseling and Take Back The Night marches — did not survive the backlash against feminism of the 1980s intact, but they survived.

And yet, a few years before I went to work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1990, a mixed-sex crowd had watched as fraternity brothers serially raped a woman. No one called the police or tried to stop it.

In 2010, the beat goes on. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, women are most likely to be raped in college; 84 percent of assaulted women know their attackers; 57 percent of rapes occur on dates; 32 percent of college students are battered by an intimate partner. Further, 25 percent to 33 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender relationships are believed to be violent; 13 percent of college women have been stalked; and when women are murdered, they are likely to have been stalked first.

These terrible statistics underline the point: None of this happens secretly. I was reminded of this last year when a female student, Johanna Justin-Jinich, was tragically murdered in the Wesleyan University bookstore. With the school in lockdown immediately following the crime, we faculty scrolled through student discussion boards and blogs to learn who had been killed and by whom. And guess what?

Like so many bereft friends and family members across the nation, the students already knew.

•Claire Potter is a professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University. She will be a panelist April 27 at Wesleyan at a Key Issues Forum, "The Person You Think You Know; Signs and Solutions of Campus Violence."