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  Attack Another Symptom of National Sickness

By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 1994; Page B1




Police don't even have a name, a set of fingerprints, a motive or a rap sheet to go with witnesses' sketchy descriptions of the man who assaulted Olympic figure skating hopeful Nancy Kerrigan with a tire iron Thursday before escaping from the downtown Detroit ice rink where she was practicing. And yet so much seems so sure. ...

This was not a random act of violence — something akin to a drive-by shooting or getting mugged at a bank machine. And this was not, as some commentators have ludicrously suggested, just another case study of how crime goes hand in hand with urban blight in a beleaguered city like Detroit. Nor was what happened to Kerrigan another instructive story about the dark side of modern celebrity.

No. Coarse as it sounds, what happened to Nancy Kerrigan Thursday afternoon is not that out of the ordinary — not if it is taken in its correct context as the sort of violence that is perpetrated by men against women every day, in myriad ways, in places a lot less well-lit or noticed than this week's U.S. Olympic skating trials.

More than the act of a madman or an isolated incident — which is what the Monica Seles attack previously was called — Kerrigan and Seles's cases have infinitely more to do with what happened to former Navy distance runner Kerryn O'Neill last month when she and ex-Navy quarterback Alton Grizzard were slain by George Smith, a classmate who then fatally shot himself because he was angry O'Neill had ended their engagement some weeks previous.

All three cases aren't about what this world is coming to; it seems to me to be about how this world has always been. At least for women.

Like the crime against O'Neill, the real issue in Kerrigan's case, and the stalking of Steffi Graf and the stabbing of Seles before this, is what makes men maim or rape or kill because of women they supposedly care about or "love"?

What peculiar thing is it about men, or the way men and women are socialized, that makes men turn to violence in remarkably higher numbers than women?

And, more directly to the point for female athletes, what is it about women who refuse to subscribe to traditional gender roles that triggers an angry — often violent — reaction in men? What is it that men don't like about women who seem to be in such possession of themselves that they don't want certain men who want them?

Feminists dating back to Susan Brownmiller think they know some answers. Or at least they have hazarded some good guesses. The thumbnail outline of the argument, says Professor Mary Jo Kane, a sports sociologist who specializes in the study of girls and women's sports at the University of Minnesota, goes something like this:

"Feminists have long maintained that in the final analysis, men's control over women rests upon a culture of physical and sexual violence against women," Kane begins.

"But especially now ... when the [old] social structure doesn't work anymore, and women stopped believing we had to stay at home or we are 'nothing' without men; when pyschology doesn't work, and women no longer believe what the media or the church are telling them because of what they know to be true, then the question becomes how do men maintain control?

"How?" Kane repeats. "They beat us up and they rape us, that's what they do. Men's final control rests upon maintaining what had been. What we've seen as society has changed is women are being raped and assaulted and killed in record numbers today. Yet no one wants to talk about it that way — as 'violence against women, by men'. Instead of identifying it that way, or noting that women aren't doing the same things to men, people look at these things as isolated incidents. Or they say, 'Oh, violence in the streets! Violence on TV!' Or they say it's about love. But it's not about love. It's about power. It's about control."

If some heavy-duty feminist analysis isn't exactly what you were expecting with your sports page this morning, how about pounding it down into something sports fans really relate to: Statistics.

More than one of every three Americans say they have witnessed a man beating his wife or girlfriend. For American women, beatings by men are the leading cause of injury. Battery accounts for almost one in five emergency room visits, according to recent research conducted at Yale University.

More than 4 million women a year are violently attacked by men they live with or date or break off with. Study after study shows it occurs at all levels of society, not just the lower levels of the socioeconomic scale.

But women, especially, don't need to see statistics. Even on a personal or purely anecdotal level, they know such things to be true. They know other women who have been harmed by men. And even if they don't, they've often been socialized to be everything a good athlete is not. Women are almost glorified for being weak — especially by men. In ways great and small, there's a subtle sort of sanctioned violence going on in the way girls are raised, before the first threatening phone call or slap on the face ever comes.

Raising women to be weak is limiting and self-injurious. It contributes to the annihilation of self, or at least one's spirit. And that's good for nothing. Nothing at all.

But the women who don't buy it? Often, they turn out to be exceptional — women like Graf and Seles; swimmers Janet Evans and Summer Sanders; tennis players Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Mary Pierce; UCLA volleyball player Laurie Jones — even figure skater Katarina Witt. What those women all have in common, besides being exceptional athletes, is they were all harassed or stalked or the victims of death threats from men. Males are harassed because someone wants to affect the outcome of a game. Women are harassed because they are women.

So please, call what happened to Kerrigan and O'Neill, Seles and Graf, exactly what it is. This country has a staggering problem of violence against women. It's not the province of relationships, or something that's best left behind closed doors. And it's not part of what makes men and women different — it's a pathology. So recognize it and call it precisely what it is. It's necessary if it's ever going to addressed, let alone fixed.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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