“Do you have a minute?” The voice is intense. “Can I ask you a question?” A hand is often laid on my arm, as if to implore me to say yes. In this line of work, the topic is never easy. No one wants my restaurant recommendations.
“My friend just died. He beat her up a long time ago, but she only just died from the injury.”
“I’m scared for my daughter.”
“My wife’s ex-boyfriend is stalking us.”
But sometimes, the same stories about violence against women are given a very different spin.
“My son is getting divorced and now his wife is lying about him being abusive.”
“My boyfriend is being accused of raping some girl he barely knows.”
“I know my brother didn’t do the things she reported to the police.”
It is this second type of conversation that I find so troublesome. Often, the friend or relative insists that they are trying to stay neutral. That there are two sides to every story. That while there are plenty of real abused women out there, the man they know and love is just not capable of this kind of violence.
To be clear, most men are not violent toward women. I know this perfectly well, both from the data and from my personal and professional experience. But I also know this:
Most perpetrators of violence against women are men. Most men accused of violence against women are guilty. Most women who make these accusations are telling the truth.
Laying claim to neutrality requires setting aside these basic truths. To insist that he said and she said and the truth is somewhere in the middle is to ignore a greater reality. When both claims are given equal weight, it is the abuser who wins and is protected. Domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking are all crimes which, by their very nature, are difficult to prove. They are also difficult to report, taking an enormous toll on victims who know that they will be met with skepticism. The notion of neutrality, then, reaffirms to the victim that her experiences are not valid without absolute proof.
The American criminal justice system provides diverse and sophisticated protections to the accused. The specter of the innocent man haunts our imaginations, while simultaneously fueling a culture that treats female victims with as much suspicion as their male offenders. We must break this habit. Knowing the scope and gravity of the problem of violence against women, shouldn’t we believe victims until we have an evidence-based reason not to?
By blinding ourselves to the potential for the men that we love to be violent, we are certainly protecting ourselves from an emotional pain that is hard to face. We are also, however, putting ourselves, our friends, and our family members at risk. Is it safe to stay in a relationship with a man accused of rape? Should children be placed with a father suspected of violence against their mother?
Neutrality in the face of claims of violence against women is a myth. There is no such thing as impartial in this war on women that is carried out daily, invisibly, by violent men who also happen to be sons, partners, brothers, fathers, and friends.