A Disquieting Silence

On December 19, 2008, one week after a photograph went public of Obama’s chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, groping the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reported an increase of incidents of sexual violence by 25 percent from 2005 and an increase in incidents of domestic violence by 45 percent. Sarah Tofte, researcher for the United States Program with Human Rights Watch, writes in her article, "Violence Against Women: These Numbers Require Action" on huffingtonpost.com: "The release of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) this week showing huge increases in the incidence of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault barely made the news…[these numbers] demonstrate that the problem of sexual violence is serious and widespread in the US and will require immediate attention from lawmakers and the Obama administration…. Prevention of and protection against all forms of domestic and sexual violence must be a top priority for policymakers. The lack of news coverage this week of the rise in sexual and domestic violence is of a piece with the dynamics of sexual violence in this country." President Obama remains silent on both counts so far.

It is not surprising that there was little to no coverage of the NCVS’s finding when we understand the reality that major media conglomerates profit greatly from pornography and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Images that sexually objectify and degrade women serve to legitimize the inequality of women in the minds and hearts of men. Gail Dines writes in "Pornography Is A Left Issue" (ZNet, December 2005): "News Corp. is a major owner of DirecTV, which sells more pornographic films than Flynt. In 2000, the New York Times reported that nearly $200 million a year is spent by the 8.7 million subscribers to DirecTV. Among News Corporation’s other media holdings are the Fox broadcasting and cable TV networks, Twentieth Century Fox, the New York Post, and TV Guide. Murdoch also owns HarperCollins, which published pornography star Jenna Jameson’s best-selling book How To Make Love Like A Porn Star."

A "Jane Doe Walk "photo by Ellen Shub

Societal acceptance of violence against women is a necessary element in securing the profits of most major corporations in the wholesale degradation and sexual exploitation of women. What is and has been an epidemic suffered almost exclusively by women at the hands of men is all but dismissed, relegated to the back corners of our consciousness so as to not interfere with the constant stream of Hollywood celebrity happenings, the latest and greatest blockbuster movies, and the ever increasing popularity of reality shows, all built on the fundamental exploitation and humiliation of women that’s become a staple consumption for the average television watcher and mainstream media consumer.

With NCVS’s findings, violence against women is a national crisis. The projected number of violent crimes committed by intimate partners against women in 2007 increased from 389,100 to 554,260, while incidents of violent crimes against men decreased. Specifically, at minimum, the number of women raped or sexually assaulted increased from 190,600 in 2005 to 248,300 in 2007. This is not fringe violence. It is a societal epidemic that relies on sexist and misogynist attitudes to reinforce behavior. These attitudes are perpetuated by our collective willingness to minimize, brush off, and stay silent on these offenses. These attitudes are the very same exercised by Jon Favreau in his act of sexual degradation, its own singular act of violence against women. Silence gives the air of a boys-will-be-boys mentality, which is the very same permissiveness and encouragement of violence against women that underscores this grossly ignored epidemic. Those who remain silent are complicit.

Lydia Sargent raised the question in "Waiting in the Wings" in Z Magazine’s December 2008 issue, in reference to the reality of two women being on the electoral ticket, "What was its effect on the women’s movements’ goal of changing the nature of the patriarchal (and classist and racist) institutions that continue to define and oppress us?" I further the question by asking, have we succeeded in raising awareness to recognize this stark truth: we live in a patriarchy, and that patriarchy continues to degrade, exploit, objectify, dehumanize, oppress, and abuse women. Also, when this reality is so evident, how is it that we have a population, indeed a president, who doesn’t care?

A full-page ad in the special commemorative "President Obama" section of the New York Times the day after his inauguration showcased a Svedka vodka ad featuring their "Fembot Fatale, Svedka-Grl" an image of a Vodka bottle modeled after a woman, sexualized in hustler style, with full breast implants, buttocks accentuated by a thong, a waist the size of her wrist, and eight-inch stiletto heels. This particular ad read, "The Future Starts Now." The company brands their vodka with the words, "You are now being transported to the future of adult entertainment." While the offensiveness of the ad speaks for itself, the lack of discernment on the part of the New York Times is disheartening, at the very least. In a global society where women are targeted in shocking numbers at every turn—sex trafficking, sexual enslavement, prostitution, pornography, rape, battering, harassment, exploitation, objectification, and utter dehumanization—I have to wonder if the women’s movement needs to begin again.

I am left with this deafening silence, this staggering realization that the powers that be and the institutions that serve them benefit from patriarchy’s deep rooted grasp and they have no wish to see it go, even at the cost of women’s lives.


Dominique Bressi is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s trauma and the effects of sexual violence. She is a writer and long-time activist for the freeing of women enslaved by institutionalized exploitation.