After a year’s worth of near-constant revelations about the routine forms of harassment and assault confronting women throughout the American workplace, The New Yorker exposed the horrific interpersonal conduct of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The article, by journalists Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, prompted Schneiderman’s resignation just hours after it appeared online. Readers were stunned by the near-incomprehensible disconnect between Schneiderman’s private actions and his longstanding position as an influential legal supporter of the anti-domestic violence and #MeToo movements. Now we’ve learned that all the while the attorney general was turning his personal sexual and romantic relationships into brutal, humiliating attacks on women in which he demanded emotional subjugation and violent sex. In a particularly ironic twist, Schneiderman was well-known for drafting, as a state senator, a New York law classifying strangulation as a form of criminal assault—something his accusers say was one of his preferred modes of predation.
The fact that such a prominent public figure, advertising his own feminist bona fides, could pursue these types of degrading and threatening practices in his private life is more than just another study in powerful male hypocrisy. The Schneiderman case also demands exploration of at least one of the central themes of the #MeToo movement: Why, after decades of activism and legal reform, do so many of our legal, media, and political leaders continue to prioritize the reputations and careers of the men who perpetrate domestic violence and sexual harassment, while trivializing the experiences of the women who are harmed?
In our collective, longtime experience as an attorney and a researcher in the field, we can confirm the existence of a gauntlet of indifference that routinely greets survivors of domestic violence—and that follows the same basic script as the one that marginalizes complainants in workplace harassment cases. In the workplace context, even in cases where the perpetrator’s pattern was an open secret, or where incontrovertible proof existed, women faced human resources departments and senior management officials who dismissed the importance of their experiences; they were ignored, demoted, fired, or silenced with non-disclosure agreements. In direct contrast, the (mostly) men who preyed on their (mostly) female colleagues rarely suffered any serious consequences. Perpetrators typically escaped unscathed, reputations intact, free to continue their discriminatory abuse.
Advocates for survivors of domestic violence have greeted these backstories of #MeToo complainants with weary sighs of recognition. For far too long, clear evidence that a man has physically abused his intimate partner has rarely slowed his rise to fame and fortune. A few examples apart from Schneiderman drive this bleak point home in no uncertain terms. According to numerous former senior employees, Morgan Stanley executives knew about their high-performing wealth manager Douglas Greenberg’s violence against women for at least two and a half years. His physical abuse of former wives and girlfriends had escalated to the point where four of them had been forced to obtain protection orders against him. One claimed that he choked her hard enough to leave a mark; another alleged that he had threatened to burn down her house while she was inside. Since 2014, Greenberg has twice been charged with violating domestic violence restraining orders. But no action was taken against him in his workplace—he was even permitted to remain in the firm’s “Chairman’s Club,” reserved for top money producers who meet with the bank’s standards of conduct. It was only after The New York Times published an extensive front-page profile detailing both Greenberg’s abusive behavior and the firm’s knowledge about it that he was finally let go.
Likewise, the Trump White House has doubled as a professional safe house for known domestic abuser Rob Porter, the president’s erstwhile staff secretary. Porter won his plum appointment even after an FBI background check confirmed that he had assaulted both his current and his former wives. Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, gave agents a graphic photograph of a black eye she received at Porter’s hands. Chief of staff John Kelly, White House counsel Donald McGahn, and other administration officials reportedly knew about the allegations against Porter for months, but it didn’t matter: Porter was offered the job, took it, and set about coordinating the president’s working itinerary. Even after news of Porter’s criminal violence against his partners began to surface in the media, White House officials closed ranks and denied that they had any validity. Kelly called Porter “a man of true integrity and honor.” White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed that he was “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.” Again, it was only when the photo of his wife’s injury—taken, oddly, by Porter himself—was circulated in the popular press that Porter finally stepped down.
Society cares far less about women’s experiences of abuse than it does about protecting the careers and reputations of the men who hurt them.
It’s also notoriously rare for professional athletes accused of abusing girlfriends or family members to be seriously called to account. In the fall of 2014 Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punched his then-fiancee Janay in the head so hard he knocked her unconscious; he then dragged her limp body out of the elevator where the assault took place. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s initial response was to suspend Rice for only two games: a lighter punishment than other players have received for objectively less egregious offenses, including taking fertility (non-performance enhancing) medications without prior authorization, or improperly selling football memorabilia for cash. Although NFL officials deny it, substantial evidence exists that they received a security video of the entire incident soon after it occurred. Once again, it was only after the videotape was made public by the celebrity news site TMZ that Rice was indefinitely suspended from the NFL. (This decision was later overturned in an arbitration proceeding.) Despite the subsequent formation of domestic violence commissions to advise both the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association (disclosure: the first author has recently resigned from the NFLPA’s commission) the League’s dismissive attitude toward the importance of women’s experiences at the hands of physically and culturally powerful athletic icons persists. Last spring, for example, at least a half-dozen new players were invited to join NFL teams despite outstanding court cases involving physical or sexual assaults of their intimate partners. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted running back Joe Mixon, despite publicly-available videotaped footage of Mixon punching a woman—who allegedly refused to respond to his catcalls in a restaurant—so hard that he broke four bones in her face.
The theme here is hard to miss: society cares far less about women’s experiences of abuse—whether it’s sexual harassment in the workplace or domestic violence in the home—than it does about protecting the careers and reputations of the men who hurt them. And in the domestic violence arena, this tendency to discount the importance of women’s experiences of abuse goes far deeper than individual cases can illustrate. It’s actually baked into many of the policies and on-the-ground practices observed by some of our most important social service and justice systems, the very systems to which so many survivors turn to for help. All too frequently, influential figures in a legal proceeding or administrative program choose to enforce policies and engage in practices that disregard the harm inflicted on women survivors and, ultimately, actively re-victimize them. Women get the message that the system is relatively indifferent to the reality of their experience and the risks that shape their lives. Consider the perverse treatment of domestic violence survivors within our public housing bureaucracy and criminal justice system.
Subsidized Housing and Public Shelters
Access to affordable housing is essential to many women seeking to escape abuse and to remain safe after leaving an abusive relationship. But the routinized discounting of survivors’ experience within this system has transformed the already daunting and draining quest for public housing into a form of ritual humiliation for survivors—yet another official reminder that their experience doesn’t register and their suffering doesn’t count.
Here’s the background: At state and local levels, crime control or nuisance ordinances require public housing landlords to evict tenants for “disorderly behavior” if, within a specified time span, a particular apartment unit is the source of three calls to 911. Fifty-nine counties, cities, and other localities have such ordinances in place; in 2014, Pennsylvania alone passed thirty-seven. These laws apply in all of the twenty largest cities in America. And they carry heavy and immediate penalties: any landlord failing to comply can be fined and have his rental license suspended. This means that landlords have zero discretion in enforcing this draconian measure—tenants have no realistic opportunity to explain their plights, or otherwise appeal to their landlords’ empathy. To stay in business, a landlord must evict after three 911 calls.
To be clear, the underlying goal of these laws is the reduction of crime and the resulting safety of all residents. But in practice, these ordinances are disastrous for survivors of domestic violence. Thirty-nine of them explicitly include calls to 911 from domestic violence victims as a basis for prohibited activities that can result in eviction; only four ordinances explicitly exclude such calls. And who ends up getting evicted? Not just the perpetrators, but the survivors, too. The ordinances make no effort to distinguish between abusers and victims—if a victim chooses to use 911 emergency services to protect herself and her children on three or more occasions, she’ll lose her home.
“She called the police several times to ask for protection to keep her safe from her former boyfriend. They did not protect her and she was attacked by the man, and then she was literally banished from the city for six months.”
Matthew Desmond and Nicol Valdez , who researched eviction patterns in Milwaukee, found that close to one-third of the “excessive” 911 call citations in their two-year sample were based on emergency reports of domestic violence; fifty-seven percent of these calls resulted in the victim’s eviction, with another twenty-six percent received formal threats of eviction. A 2015 ACLU study of two upstate New York ordinances found that domestic violence comprised the largest category of incidents resulting in nuisance enforcement, with citations frequently resulting in eviction of the victim. In his recent book, Not a Crime to be Poor, Peter Edelman describes the experience of one victim, Rosetta Watson, in St. Louis: “She called the police several times to ask for protection to keep her safe from her former boyfriend. They did not protect her and she was attacked by the man, and then she was literally banished from the city for six months.”
But these myopic laws continue to be enacted as local communities try to find effective measures to address issues of crime and safety. And despite a series of federal lawsuits challenging the plainly discriminatory impact of these ordinances, hardly any of the affected communities have voluntarily created an exception for domestic violence victims. Such systemic discounting of women’s needs and experiences is—of course—devastating to survivors of intimate partner abuse. It’s difficult to comprehend how a legal system that professes to take survivors’ experiences seriously could force them to make the Hobson’s choice between emergency police protection and affordable housing.
And this problem extends far beyond the public housing context. In the quest for emergency shelter—for homeless or otherwise displaced survivors of domestic violence—we see that a nearly identical dynamic has taken hold. In 2014, for example, Vincent Gray, then the mayor of Washington, D.C., requested (for the second time in two years) emergency authority to limit access to shelter for local families. Gray proposed that applicants be granted only provisional, two-week stays in the city’s overstretched shelter system. The thinking here was that caseworkers would use this time to determine alternate sources for the shelter’s client population, such as short-term plans to stay with friends or relatives. In the event that such options surfaced, caseworkers would then give the client in question just 24 hours to vacate the shelter. In the words of the mayor’s office: “Our goal is to get people out of shelters. . . or never into shelters in the first place, even if that means living with a grandmother, a sister, whatever.”
But such a policy turns a blind eye to the risks facing domestic violence survivors. For them, “whatever” all too often means that they have no choice but to return to the home of an abusive partner. Although the mayor ultimately withdrew his request, his successor in office, Muriel Bowser, proposed a similar rule in 2017, as an amendment to the city’s Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act, this time requiring applicants to city shelters to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that they had no other housing options. Advocates testified, once again, that victims of domestic violence were “routinely being denied shelter” if their names were on a current lease with, for example, their abusive partner.
After concerted protests from local advocates, the D.C. policy was revised to include an exception for survivors of domestic violence. But the reintroduction of shelter laws with such draconian provisions, year after year, demonstrates a deep-seated tendency to discount the importance of survivors’ experiences and to trivialize the immediate and devastating harm that such policies represent for survivors of domestic violence. And this same pattern of discounting and minimizing can be found in the criminal justice system as well.
The Criminal Justice System
In the aftermath of the 1994 federal Violence Against Women Act, police and prosecutors alike have become more attuned to the specific challenges of identifying and punishing domestic violence. Despite substantial improvements in access to justice and enforcement of the criminal laws, the underlying institutional dynamic in police encounters and court proceedings is strikingly in line with what we’ve seen in the affordable housing and emergency shelter stories: the realities and risks women face are frequently discounted, relative to systemic interests in perpetrator accountability. Take a basic fact of life for any complainant in a domestic violence case: for decades, the research literature has consistently shown that taking part in a criminal prosecution is by itself a strong risk factor for retaliatory violence. Somewhere between twenty to thirty percent of perpetrators re-assault their targets before the criminal court process is over. Data also show that women are at greater risk of homicide at the time of separation from their abusive partners—and criminal prosecution typically creates such separation. It’s therefore hardly surprising that a major reason cited by survivors for withholding cooperation from prosecutors is fear of future harm.
Nonetheless, prosecutors around the country often subpoena, arrest, and even jail survivors in an effort to ensure that they will testify against their abusive partners at trial. These government lawyers are in no way acting out of malicious intent: they hope to use the power of their office to hold perpetrators of abuse accountable, and they believe that mandating victim participation is—regardless of an individual survivor’s own analysis of her situation—the best way to accomplish this goal. But in the process, the justice system all too often disregards the secondary harms visited on victims as a direct result of pursuing a court case. Jail sentences for perpetrators tend to last only a few days or be limited to a term of probation; in sharp contrast, survivors of abuse have been jailed for much longer periods based on contempt charges arising from a refusal to comply with a prosecutor’s subpoena to testify in court. To obtain testimonial compliance, prosecutors threaten to refer victims to child protection agencies, where they could risk losing custody of their children. A 2016 investigation in Washington County, Tennessee showed that women were routinely imprisoned for as long as a week for failing to testify against their abusive partners. In the words of defense counsel representing one of the women: “I mean, it’s kind of chilling. Here’s a woman that called the police because she needed help and now a couple months later she gets a voicemail that says now you might be the one that’s going to jail. Think about that.” The local prosecutor refused to apologize for the practice, claiming that “I think we were doing the right thing.”
By discounting the importance of survivors’ experiences and their risks of harm, officers discourage women from seeking police assistance in subsequent emergency situations—and one near-certainty of life with an abusive partner is that there will be subsequent emergency situations.
There’s likewise a distressing strain of official indifference running through the responses of police officers in domestic violence cases. A 2015 ACLU survey shows that officers responding to such complaints show an alarming tendency to trivialize the risks faced by survivors: of the service providers polled, eighty-three percent said that police failed to take allegations of domestic violence seriously “sometimes” or “often.” Although no written policy dictates that police downplay such complaints, this on-the-ground practice has significant real-world consequences: survivors trying to get their complaints processed and heard risk retaliatory violence from an abusive spouse for initiating a criminal complaint, but their complaints may well simply end up gathering dust in the files of their local precincts.
What’s at stake for survivors facing this institutional hostility becomes painfully clear in the personal stories of women survivors collected by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which conducted an independent national survey on the issue in 2015. In the words of one respondent, “I think [the police] feel that I do not matter, that as an ex-wife, I have to withstand the harassment and stalking.” Another put it this way: “They sympathized with him and said he [just] needed to stay away from me. Then they pointed me in the direction of [a city] and said to call someone when I got there, and they left me by the side of the road alone in my car with my daughter and afraid.” Yet another said: “The cops acted as if they did not care. . . . They sat in the drive while my ex poured gas all over the decks to my home and took what he wanted. Even though I had an [order of protection] and told them he could not enter the home.”
By discounting the importance of survivors’ experiences and their risks of harm, officers discourage women from seeking police assistance in subsequent emergency situations—and one near-certainty of life with an abusive partner is that there will be subsequent emergency situations. As one respondent noted in the ACLU’s 2015 survey, “Clients often do not call the police because they have had experiences in the past in which they have received a negative response, in which the incident is minimized, the client is blamed, or the police simply take no action.”
In addition, the criminal justice system tends to devalue violence that is inflicted by an intimate partner as compared to a stranger. A 2005 Department of Justice Report on Family Violence Statistics reveals that seventy-seven percent of inmates sentenced to prison for nonfamily assault received sentences that were longer than two years. In sharp contrast, this was true of only forty-five percent of those sentenced to prison for family assault. In all of these ways, the criminal justice system discounts the importance of women survivors’ experiences and devalues the meaning of the harms they suffer at the hands of their partners.
As these stories demonstrate, even when a woman survivor seeks help from the bureaucracies administering criminal justice, subsidized housing, or public shelter, she ends up all too often feeling as she does in her abusive relationship—like a functional nonperson. Even if she gets lucky, and finds sympathetic advocates within this network of bureaucracies, other institutional gatekeepers are likely to respond with studied—and institutionally buttressed—indifference.
Such findings, alongside the reports from Schneiderman’s former intimate partners, are shared points on a culture-wide continuum of gendered abuse. Schneiderman’s partners, too, were told that their experiences didn’t matter. Several of them reported that variations on “you know you want it” was a common refrain of their abuser. In essence, this is just another way of saying “I—not you—get to determine what counts as harmful.” Schneiderman’s partners were also made to feel like nonpersons—he insisted on calling one of them, who is of South Asian descent, his “brown slave.” He controlled what another woman ate until she had lost thirty pounds, and then called her “chubby.” He forced one to drink against her will by holding her mouth and pouring wine onto her lips. And he threatened them with institutional retribution at the hands of his own state justice system should they go public with reports of their abuse. To their enormous credit, they did so anyway.
If we hope to end domestic violence and workplace harassment in our culture, we must fundamentally shift our perspective and prioritize the safety of women over the reputations and careers of men. And we must improve our systemic response to survivors of abuse who are now ensnared in state bureaucracies that, however unwittingly, conspire to keep them subjugated and at risk.