A Valentine's Day Call To Arms

Love, Sex and Violence Against Women... Five Ways To A Better Tomorrow For 1 In Every 3 Women

Love in the time of R-numbers

Yep, it's that day again, folks. The one that makes singles wistful, fuckbuddies nervous, Instagram couples ooze, and the long-married shrug. The day that is equivalent to The Purge for poets and sweet tooths. And to Jurassic Park if you just don't get it or give a crap (cue: traumatic flashbacks to heartshaped kale chips).

I mean Valentine's Day, of course.

It's hard to feel cute about it this year, isn't it, when an Honest Valentine's card would read, "Love... to finally see the lower half of your face sometime". Even the already coupled, assumed to have it easy on the Day Of Love, may this year have a closed border, compromised immune system or disappeared income to divide them. Meanwhile, those couples without these impediments have probably same-householded so much lately that their Honest Valentine's card would read, "Love... to finally see anyone's face but yours right now".

The reasons I personally am not feeling cute about Valentine's Day this year go beyond the pandemic, though. This month I'm emerging from a yearslong run of research I've undertaken in preparation for the two novels I'm finishing this year. One of them, an intersectional novel of short stories (yes, that's a mouthful but also accurate), is flecked with sexual and physical violence, and in particular the aftermath of it for women. It's not a theme exactly, so much as a quiet insistence.

My book did not end up this way by design. My only conscious goal at the outset was to create a "mosaic novel" about contemporary Los Angeles. It was only when reviewing early drafts of the 6-year manuscript that I noticed I'd unlatched my mind to anything and everything, and sexual and physical violence had repeatedly crept in.

Because I am not a victim of sexual or physical violence myself, once I recognized where my novel was leaning, I resolved to listen. I would seek out women who had been through what I was merely imagining and fold into my stories the insights I gained from them. So began a grim journey in which vulnerabilities I have never known reflected back to me privileges I have never owned, until now.

The World Health Organization numbers for physical and sexual violence against women

I could tell you here some of what I've learned over the past few years about sexual and physical violence against women - about Adèle, Vanessa, Jessica, Marguerite, Chanel, among others who prefer anonymity. But as any summary would feel flimsy for the scope of their experiences, as well as unfairly selective, I won't. I want instead to focus here on a single fact, one that starkly telegraphs where we are on this issue and how far we still have to go.

Here it is:

Global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

So writes the World Health Organization. For context, WHO continues:

Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (30%) of women who have been in a relationship report that they have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner in their lifetime.

Globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.

Okay, stop. Just stop.

Scroll back up and read that first excerpt again. In fact, never mind scrolling. Here it is again:

1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

One in every three.


Every three.

You might wonder how, if I've steeped myself in this topic so long, this number still shocks me. I'll tell you. In my head for most of this time, I've had 1 in 5. That's the figure I would encounter most frequently in reporting and commentary on the prevalence of the abuse of women. I would note variations – it might be 1 in 4 if the focus was physical domestic violence, or 1 in 8 for rape in France – but 1 in 5 bobbed in view the most persistently as an overall summary figure.

1 in 5 itself truly horrified me. So much so that, as though it were breaking news of an assassinated president, I remember exactly where I was when I first read that stat. With that 1 in 5, my understanding of the world rearranged itself before my eyes, like the lines of a map shifting so that now it shows I'm standing in a graveyard, not a flower garden (prior to then, I would have guessed maybe 1 in 15).

What I only understood with further reading is that 1 in 5 figure is United-States-specific and rape-specific. Each of the numbers I was encountering, in fact, was nuanced with geospecificity and by how exactly the number-crunchers were defining abuse.

And so I've come to understand that, actually, my God, the number I would call the most meaningful – intimate abuse, across the globe, physical and sexual – is so much worse than 1 in 5. Indeed, it makes me think nostalgically of 1 in 5. The map has rearranged itself yet again. Graveyard? Excuse me, no. It's a warfield.

Our collective responsibility to those 1 in 3 women

You might be thinking: 'Sure, globally. But I live in [insert gated community here], with a female mayor and no sex crimes in the newspaper since 1992.' I don't believe the last part, but lucky you.

Under that overarching global figure of 1 in 3, of course the numbers vary from region to region. The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey found, for example, that 10 of the 25 nations with the highest recorded rates of femicides are all in Latin America. It is not my intention to make women fear for themselves by misapplying a global number to their own leafy street.

But why would it comfort me exactly to know that the United States or Britain or France might, if individually measured for "physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in [a woman's] lifetime", come in somewhat lower than 1 in 3 women? First, we're talking about the difference between 1 in 3, 1 in 4, and 1 in 5, which is rather like the difference between 20%, 30% and 40% body coverage for first-degree burns – all of those are appalling and urgent. Second, for our local rate to be lower than 1 in 3, other women out there in the world must have it higher.

To sit in a sunny spot of an uneven distribution of suffering and call a problem not a problem because it's not your problem is cavalier to the point of complicit.

I prefer to picture those global numbers as a single neighborhood to which we all belong. Think about that neighborhood with me for a moment. One in every three women. That means in every elevator we might stand in, there is one woman who has been physically or sexually assaulted. In every subway car, there's five. In every backed up freeway, fifty.

One in every three women. Imagine if one day those women all wore a bright red sweater so that there was no mistaking them or the numbers of them. Imagine on that day standing at the heights of the Empire State Building and looking down at the streets below, and seeing that bright red at such density it could be bloodflow writ large. Now imagine, in the face of that visual representation, doing nothing.

I can't. Can you?

My Valentine's plan: thinking about those women

This Valentine's Day, I'm making a start on not doing nothing. It seems fitting. After all, Valentine's is a day about love and sex. The day would not be honest if the dangers into which some women are led or cornered by those two pleasures were not in some way acknowledged. (Hallmark won't approve but, no worries, the feeling is mutual.)

This Valentine's Day, I'm going to think about five things we might do for all those women criminally betrayed by love and sex. I'll post my thoughts here, on this webpage, in the future. (Closer to the time my novel is published.)

Let's be clear: this isn't about men. (No really, it isn't about men. Or, at least, it's not only about them. If it were, lesbian relationships would be a petal-strewn haven from domestic violence. In fact, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in 2010 found that women in lesbian relationships were almost as likely as straight women to have experienced intimate partner violence: 29.6% of lesbians versus 35% of straight women. (If the data includes any relationships lesbians had with men before they exclusively dated women, their likelihood of experiencing intimate partner violence is slightly higher than straight women, highlighting that some lesbians may, in fact, be at the frontline of domestic abuse even as they are largely excluded from the popular narrative about it.) The assumption only men are batterers is flawed, and objectionable not only in its sexism but also in the barriers to research and help it creates for women in same-sex abusive relationships.)

This is about the minority of men, and the minority of women, who rape and hit. The integrity, compassion, beauty and grace of most men, and most women, should not be tainted by the violence of a few. At the same time it is notable that weak men, men who would themselves never rape, have nonetheless enabled those who would, time and time again. So have weak women.

No man has ever hit or assaulted me. No woman has either, for that matter. I often think about why I've somehow gotten away with it when so many of my loved ones haven't. My feelings are something like survivor's guilt, because I am, believe me, no better, shrewder or stronger than any of them; I'm just the girl who won the manifest lottery when the plane went down. When confronted by numbers like those from the World Health Organization, I know that those 2 in every 3 women like me who have somehow dodged this statistic, and every man–every last man–has a duty to reject indifference. When a woman is assaulted, humanity is assaulted.

Come back here in the future for five ways I see that we can change the world for those 1 in every 3 women.