Psychologists, lawmakers and women themselves face the issue of violence


October 02, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington They were both attractive, successful, dynamic, bright. "From the outside looking in," says Leslie B. Ford of Baltimore, "we appeared to be the perfect couple with the perfect relationship."

But from the inside looking out the view was far less idyllic.

"I remember countless episodes of how my husband blackened my eyes, bloodied my lips, how he dislocated my shoulder from time to time . . . how I miscarried our child after he beat me," she recalled yesterday at a Capitol Hill press conference at which proposed legislation regarding violence against women was discussed.

Ms. Ford called the police several times, only to see the officers put an arm around her husband's shoulder and tell him to take a walk around the block to cool down.

She left her husband three times. But each time, "he harassed me, he threatened to injure or kill members of my family to get me to return home. I stayed with him out of fear."

And then in 1982, after seven years of marriage, she shot him.

Ms. Ford was convicted in 1983 of attempted murder and served a 5 1/2 -year sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. "I was not able to raise the battered women's syndrome as part of my defense at my trial."

But now, in her work as public education coordinator for Baltimore's House of Ruth battered women's shelter, she raises the subject of spouse abuse and domestic violence every chance she gets.

Domestic violence is only one part of what many point to as a growing national problem -- violence against women.

"Women abuse is a national epidemic," said Mary Pat Brygger, executive director of the National Women Abuse Prevention Project, at yesterday's press conference. "It's a secret women have carried with them for so many years."

In Baltimore County, reports of rape more than doubled in the first six months of this year compared with the same time period last year; in Washington, reports of forcible rape increased 66 percent. And sexual assault and domestic violence centers in both Baltimore and Washington report an increase -- 100 percent in D.C. -- in hot-line calls this year over last.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., saying he suspects most women in this country don't enjoy the "essential human freedom" of freedom from fear, introduced legislation in June that would address prevention and prosecution of rape, acquaintance rape and domestic violence. Soon after, Representative Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced that legislation, which aims to make streets, parks and homes safer for women and protect their civil rights, in the House.

"Violent crime against women is rising," Ms. Boxer said yesterday. "Every six minutes a woman is raped. Every 18 seconds a woman is beaten. . . . The grim fact of the matter is that in the United States one out of two women is a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence in her lifetime."

But debate continues among those familiar with the subject over whether the escalating numbers reflect an increase in actual incidents or merely more vigorous tracking and reporting of such crimes.

As crimes against women become more highly publicized -- from the attack on the Central Park jogger in April 1989 to the alleged rape of a teen-ager by several members of the Washington Capitals hockey team last May -- "it becomes a little more acceptable and less frightening to come forward," notes Denise Snyder, executive director of Washington's Rape Crisis Center.

Whether the rise in numbers reflects a real or perceived increase in violence, many psychologists, health and legal experts say such figures confirm the fears of women that they are vulnerable to attack -- fears that dictate "the way we live our lives," says Ms. Snyder.

Further exacerbating women's fear of, and sensitivity to, violence is a new wave of anti-female sentiment, say some involved in women's issues. Colleges, for instance, have reported more "hate" graffiti and sexist slurs hurled around campus. In popular culture, entertainers have made headlines in the last year with material thought by some to be offensive and disparaging to women. Even last week, a female sportswriter was harassed and, as she said, "humiliated," by members of the New England Patriots football team in their locker room.

"It does seem that expressions of violent impulses toward women are tolerated more widely today," says Sally Goldfarb, senior staff attorney at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "People fail to recognize the link between violent sentiment toward women and violent acts. People seem to be more astute about crimes motivated by race hatred than when the crime is motivated by gender discrimination."

Both sorts of hostilities -- toward racial minorities as well as women -- are met with greater tolerance these days, believes Brenda Smith, senior staff attorney for the National Women's Law Center: "I think people feel more comfortable expressing prejudices and biases in a way they didn't feel comfortable years ago."

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