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Tie a Purple Ribbon, Too

mspencers Icon Posted by Miranda Spencer

October 12th, 2011

Pink-illuminated skyscrapers greet me in downtown Philadelphia by night, and packages of pink-frosted cupcakes entice at my local Acme by day. It seems there’s no corner of our culture that’s NOT reminding us it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. First established in 1985 to encourage women to get mammograms, it has metastasized into a ritual of organizational self-promotion in which some portion of pink-product sales is earmarked for research into breast-cancer treatments. That growth has been accompanied by a Pepto Bismol-colored flood of mainstream media coverage, from trifling to trenchant.

In the past week alone (10/1/11-10/8/11), Google News turned up 8,620 hits with “breast cancer” in the headline and 4,890 with “breast cancer awareness month” in the body of the article or broadcast.

Less reported is October’s other “ribbon” issue, domestic violence (DV), which has had its own Awareness Month since October 1987 to connect those who work to end violence against women and their children.

Anyone who didn’t know this might be forgiven (including, till recently, me)– Domestic Violence Awareness Month doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia entry!

Yet DV statistics are even more devastating than breast cancer rates. A woman has a 1 in 8 lifetime chance of having breast cancer, whereas 1 in 4 women (and 1 in 13 men) will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and an average of three women in America die as a result of domestic violence each day. Add in psychological and economic forms of abuse that can follow even after the DV victim leaves the perpetrator – including physical and cyber stalking and even identity theft – and we’re talking about a preventable menace that could use a lot more public awareness and mainstream news-media coverage*.

So how many stories turned up in Google News the first week of October with “domestic violence” in the headline or “domestic violence awareness month” in the body? 1,720 and 677 respectively — only one-fifth the coverage or less.

In a nation where in some places DV isn’t even considered a crime, I’d say we need to take a much closer look at the issue.

It may be crude to suggest that as a mass media topic, breasts are more compelling than bruises. But it’s probably less risky for an editor to assign a fun story on the “Feel Your Boobies” campaign than one that reminds us that people of all genders, ages, and income levels are being bashed, intimidated, financially controlled, and even killed by their intimate partners. Or that explores what victims, perpetrators, and their loved ones and neighbors can do about it.

Or–- as I also recently learned –- what cops, courts, and victim-service providers large and small are supposed to do about it, but don’t.

Victims Left Behind
I asked Alexis Moore, a law student who runs Survivors in Action, a nonprofit that offers one-on-one assistance to crime victims with an emphasis on DV and stalking cases, which aspects related to DV need to see more press coverage, in October and generally.

Her reply: “The realities of victims of domestic violence who seek help.”

Moore is herself a survivor of six years of domestic abuse followed by nearly three additional years of cyber and conventional stalking. She says the bureaucracy and (non) response from the people and agencies charged with assisting people like her were as devastating and life threatening as the abuse itself.

That’s why she is an outspoken activist to reform the way DV and stalking cases are handled on every level: from shelters who turn away desperate women who “don’t’ fit the checkbox” to victim-support agencies who offer circular referrals but no actual services, and from insensitive police who pooh-pooh stalking reports to DA’s who won’t prosecute violent sociopaths.

In 2009, she and her colleagues even took the cause to White House DV “czar” Lynn Rosenthal, who told them she found the stories hard to believe, what with the wealth of resources already in place. So they started a petition drive that collected more than 10,000 signatures from DV and stalking victims. The survivors also sent Rosenthal, members of Congress, the US Attorney General and others packets of documentation about their individual cases, the extent of their search for help, and their inability to receive it. Except for a few form letters, they say there has been no official response to the campaign.

Do you remember reading about that in the news? Neither do I.

I’ve seen the evidence, and that’s why I agreed to collaborate on the book Moore is now writing on her experiences and the struggle to ensure real help for DV victims and accountability for public servants and private service providers.

In the meantime, DV Reform activists have issued a press release that should provide reporters and editors with plenty of investigative fodder.

No one wants to pit pink against purple ribbons. Both breast cancer and domestic abuse deserve ongoing, enterprising coverage. It’s just hard to feel good about all the support for breast cancer when an even more common killer remains in the shadows.

*I emphasize mainstream because the progressive and feminist press have always been out front in covering DV and related issues.

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