It is hard to miss the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. From my current perch at a local coffee house, I just need to look around to see several reminders. The bagel shop is selling pink ribbon bagels, the bookstore has a large “Go Pink” sign with its display of books about breast cancer and the local sporting goods store is selling pink sweatbands in their window. I love the color pink. I love the fact that a disease that women are a 100 times more likely to contract than men gets so much attention after years of underfunding. I love to hear the testimonials by women who because they saw the color pink, remembered to do a self exam which resulted in early detection of the disease.
However, despite the visibility of Breast Cancer Awareness another awareness month of October is nearly invisible-- Domestic Violence Awareness Month. With purple as their identifying color, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has promoted October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month since the mid 1980s. This is relatively the same time the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign began. And yet as I look around me, there are no purple bagels, no bookstore displays, no specially designed purple sportswear Indeed, I have been actively searching for signs of purple over the last few weeks and have seen none. I am curious about this discrepancy. Why have we as a culture rallied around the pink and ignored the purple?
It cannot be explained by numbers. Domestic violence affects significantly more women than breast cancer: 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually versus the 1.3 million domestic abuse cases reported by women yearly. A woman has a one in eight chance of developing invasive breast cancer and a one in four chance of being a victim of domestic violence. The difference in these numbers is even more staggering when you consider that domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes. Like breast cancer, domestic violence affects women from all social, racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Like breast cancer, domestic violence takes a huge toll on our healthcare system -- it is the cause of more than one-third of emergency room visits by women.
Again, I wonder, why we are not all rallying to raise awareness of this epidemic as we have shown we can do through breast cancer?
I have been thinking about this question a lot, and I have decided it comes down to blame and shame: blame of the victims and shame of ourselves.
Nobody blames a woman for getting breast cancer. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of domestic violence victims. “Why does the victim stay?” and “It would never happen to me” are the two comments I hear almost every time I speak about domestic violence. Inherent in these comments is a blaming of the victim – she could have avoided the relationship or she could always leave. Blaming the victim serves to give us permission not to act. Few people want or can be expected to help someone who has brought her problems on herself. Blaming the victim forces the focus to remain on the victim as the wrongdoer instead of the batterer. Never in my 30 years of speaking about and teaching about domestic violence have I been asked “Why does he hit?”
Which brings us to shame: When my son asked me about the pink flags thrown by the NFL referees, it was a pretty easy conversation to have. I talked about the history of breast cancer treatment, the possibilities of early detection, the research and possibilities for a cure. It wasn’t a conversation about personal culpability. No one is responsible for the cell mutations that cause cancer. Explaining domestic violence is a much more difficult discussion. The truth is, we are all complicit in the culture of domestic violence. We have all looked the other way when women were marginalized, sexualized or treated as “lesser than”. “Boys will be boys”, “she asked for it” , “it’s a private matter” are explanations and rationalization that we use all of the time – justifications to ourselves about why we are not involved. But I believe that deep down we know better. We feel shame, as we should, that we continue to pay money to support professional athletes that commit domestic violence. We feel shame that we support movies which reinforce sexist stereotypes and glamorize violence. We feel shame that we shrug our shoulders at violent pornography claiming there is no way to stop it. Promoting domestic violence awareness would force us to confront this shame. To be aware of domestic violence is to be aware of the role we all contribute and that is an uncomfortable awareness to have. Instead of looking through a microscope for a cure like breast cancer, to stop domestic violence we have to look at ourselves and that is a much more difficult task. .
So, continue to wear pink, to buy pink bagels and wear pink sweatbands, but maybe this week, throw on some purple socks. Remember awareness begins within. When you put on those purple socks, ask yourself what you can do to end domestic violence.