Vulnerability And Violence

Following our arrest for a witness against nuclear weapons in September, several other women and I spent the night being shuttled by paddy wagon from police precinct to central cell block to the D.C. jail and finally, at 6:30 a.m., to court. Throughout the night we were joined by other women who had been picked up by the police.

In our conversations with these women, I was struck with the singular fact that each had been involved in a crime in which she herself had been the victim. Most were being held for prostitution or drug possession. A few had stories that went something like, "I was with my boyfriend, and he robbed a store." I felt pity for these women, but more intensely I felt anger--anger toward the customers and the pimps, the pushers, the boyfriends, all the men behind the victimization that had led these women to sexual abuse or addiction to heroin.

I would not try to argue that women are incapable of outwardly directed violence. But the facts show that our jails are overwhelmingly populated by men, and our mental institutions by women. A recent study reveals that boys who have been consistently abused often become abusers themselves, while girls become prostitutes. We women tend to turn our violence inward.

This phenomenon says a great deal about our socialization and the prevailing assumptions about male and female behavior. It also speaks of the limited options with which women still live. No relationship has touched me as deeply in the last few years as my friendship with a woman who for 13 years endured repeated beatings from her husband. When I asked her why she had stayed with him so long, she answered that she had no choice: "I had five children and no money." When he began abusing the children, she finally fled with them. He retaliated by gathering some of his friends and gang-raping his own 14-year-old daughter on a street corner early one Sunday morning as she was on her way to church.

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