What Serial, the Cosby allegations and other stories teach us about the dynamics of dating violence and sexual assault
Fans of the podcast “Serial” rejoiced today when a new episode was released after a 2-week break due to the Thanksgiving holiday. I’ll admit it: I’m hooked. This podcast has become a cultural phenomenon, and after seeing one too many tweets about it, I couldn’t help but tune in. After listening to nine episodes in two days, I guess you could say I got sucked in. If you don’t know, Serial is a podcast that debuted in early October, from the creators of This American Life on NPR. It follows one story throughout an entire season; in this case, reporter Sarah Koenig was asked to dig into the 1999 murder of high school senior Hae Min Lee in Maryland. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of killing her. The prosecution’s case hinged largely on the testimony of one friend of Syed’s, and Koenig and her colleagues are finding more and more problems with the case, the evidence, and the reliability of the witnesses the more they research. I’ll admit, ten episodes in I certainly have my reasonable doubts.
But what struck me in the early episodes of the show were the remarks of people who knew both Hae and Adnan in their days as love-struck high school seniors. “He was like the community’s golden child,” one remarked. A runner on the track team, popular with his social circle, he appeared to have everything going for him. People had a hard time believing this guy could be capable of this terrible act.
I have no such problem. The longer I work in the field of domestic and sexual violence, the more I realize that this is often the case. As much as we all want to believe the monster myth (link to blog post), abusers can be charming, popular, and socially adept. “That’s how they get away with it!” I yell at my iPhone, as Sarah Koenig’s soft, made-for-NPR voice carries on, unperturbed.
The other half of my Twitter feed seems to be dominated by stories about newly emerging sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby. The public struggles to understand how a charismatic, funny, fatherly figure could be capable of drugging and assaulting young women. In addition, discussions of former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice are back in the news as his wife opens up to reporters about what the past few months have been like for her. Defenders of Ray Rice are quick to point out his reputation as an upstanding guy who is actively involved in the community.
Whether Adnan Syed’s conviction in Hae Min Lee’s murder is justified, whether the allegations of assault by Bill Cosby turn out to be true, and whether the infamous elevator assault is really the only time Ray Rice has ever been physically abusive toward Janay, what does it say about our society that we so desperately want to believe the best about these men? As David Adams, co-founder of Emerge, an abuser education program, writes recently for the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-adams/can-we-spot-the-abuser-in_b_6212866.html), “Perhaps the most widely held myth about sexual or domestic abusers is that they are easy to spot. Some are easily detectable because they exhibit leering, angry and boorish behavior toward friends, neighbors, co-workers. Those are the ones who get caught. But in my experience having worked with thousands of abusers, only about one quarter of abusive men fit this stereotype.”
Okay, so we all have our preconceived notions and stereotypes. Does it matter? In a word, yes. As we’ve seen recently in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the cost of snap judgments made on first sight can be extremely high. In the case of someone experiencing abuse, if we don’t believe them, or we ignore the warning signs because we think that a person we know does not fit our idea of an abuser, that leaves them increasingly isolated and vulnerable.
It’s important that we all stretch ourselves and challenge our preconceived notions of both abusers and victims. During Janay Rice’s interview with the Today Show, her mother was quick to say that she “did not raise a young lady to be an abused woman…She was taught better than that.” Strong, confident, capable, accomplished people can experience abuse and charming, pleasant, sociable people can perpetrate it.
If we truly want to abolish domestic violence, we need to open our eyes to the possibility that it is happening in places, and to people, and by people, where we least expect it.