By Jim Berson
Special to the Times
As most of us sit home, practice social distancing and try to wait out this global pandemic, we, men, also need to think about our role in reducing an epidemic that long preceded the arrival of the coronavirus.
That epidemic is domestic violence.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 women will experience physical violence by an intimate partner at some point during their lifetime. About 1 in 3 women experience some form of sexual violence. Most, though not all of these acts, are perpetrated by men. While men can also be victims of domestic violence, the data shows women are disproportionately impacted by this kind of abuse, most often at the hands of men. While most men are not violent, most men remain silent about this issue. That is why I became involved in Ten Men, a statewide prevention initiative of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and it is as critical now as ever for us as men to speak up.
All of us should be concerned about the disturbing signs domestic violence is increasing while we are sheltering in place, confined to our homes for the foreseeable future. Early data is alarming - the Seattle Police Department (the first community impacted by the coronavirus in the U.S.) reported a 21% increase in domestic violence reports in March 2020. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has cited similar increases around the globe.
While there are multiple reasons why domestic violence may be on the rise, we have to look at why we, as men, are the overwhelming perpetrators of this kind of violence and why, particularly now, we need to be extra vigilant in our efforts to prevent it.
One of the roots of domestic violence committed by men is our need for control, instilled in us at an early age. As young boys, many of us are taught by the men in our lives, on the field and on the screen to “walk it off” if we are hurt, to “man up” and that “boys don’t cry.” As we enter our teenage years, we learn to not express our emotions, even though we could explode inside. We learn we need to prepare for our responsibilities as men in the world - by being powerful and dominating, fearless and in control, strong and emotionless.
And now, the world has been upended by a virus, and we are completely out of control. Many of us have lost our jobs and fear we may be unable to provide for our families. We are thrown out of our routines, worried about the future, afraid and under tremendous stress to keep it together - yet we continue to try to show up each day as “men,” unafraid and in control, as if we have “got this.”
Ironically, the essential qualities we believe make us “real men” leave us ill-equipped during these unprecedented times. The types of strength and power we think we are supposed to have are woefully insufficient to help protect ourselves and our loved ones from this virus. In fact, we as men will need to do exactly the opposite of what many of us were taught growing up in order to help take care of ourselves and our families during this crisis, and to prevent domestic violence in our communities.
As a start, we need to try to be more honest with ourselves, our partners and families that the uncertainty and stress of this pandemic are affecting us. By acknowledging the threat is real and we are vulnerable, it opens avenues to talk about our feelings - feelings of fear and anxiety, dread and grief, anger and hope. I know firsthand how hard this can be, but how important it is. Becoming more honest about and expressing these feelings - with ourselves, other men, our sons, our partners and our families - we can begin to acknowledge we cannot control this situation or will ourselves through it. It is OK to admit that, “we don’t got this.” Because none of us, alone, do.
Ultimately, this is a time we as men can begin to help redefine what it means to be a man - to be our full selves, re-establish what it means to be strong and recreate our relationships based on mutuality, respect and vulnerability. We can act to share information, support advocacy organizations, talk to our peers and remain silent no more. Domestic violence is not just a women’s issue. We, men, have an essential part to play.
Jim Berson lives in North Kingstown, is a consultant with Fio Partners, LLC, a consulting firm that works with nonprofit organizations, and is a Ten Men alum. For more information about Ten Men and the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, visit www.ricadv.org/tenmen.