Thursday, March 11, 2021

Getting Our Priorities Right.

 By David S. Prescott, LICSW & Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.

A scan of the media recently has left much to be desired. There is a new documentary about the film director Woody Allen and allegations of sexual abuse made against him in the 1990s. From the article:

Back in 1992, Allen, then 57, admitted he was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, 21, the adopted daughter of his long-term partner, Farrow . . . Several months after that, at the height of their viciously acrimonious break-up, Farrow accused Allen of molesting Dylan, who was then seven, one afternoon while she was out of the house. Doctors examined Dylan and found no evidence of abuse. Allen was investigated by the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s sexual abuse clinic which concluded: ‘It is our opinion that Dylan was not sexually molested by Mr. Allen.’ He was also investigated by New York State’s Department of Social Services, which wrote: ‘No credible evidence was found that the child named in this report has been abused or maltreated.’

On the surface, the media coverage is an interesting look at what remains known about this case. From our perspective, it is sad that so many individuals have almost completely disregarded the professionals who conducted official examinations in favor of a trial-by-media approach to a decades-old scandal.

It was tempting to write the Allen case off as a slow news cycle, except that then the Looney Tunes skunk character, Pepe Le Pew, also came to grief when multiple media accounts covered his character’s retirement. Considerable discussion ensued, and in one social media context an expert complained that, as a species, skunks do not engage in rape; at least, not in the way that other animals do (mallard ducks frequently receive mention in this context). In some ways, the Le Pew verdict is timely; his advances towards Penelope Pussycat were never acceptable and were doubtless confusing to some who had experienced abuse. At the same time, we have never met anyone that understood the cartoons of that era as articles of faith.

More seriously, there is also the scandal involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is facing multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Adding to the seriousness of the allegations are damaging photos of unwanted advances made in public. The fact that it is happening at an inopportune time of other scandals is certainly not helping. Multiple leaders from both major parties have called on him to resign. As of this writing, he has refused. Clearly here, there are multiple and competing perspectives, from “he needs to step down now” to “many politicians, including recent presidents, have done worse and didn’t resign.”

Meanwhile, one news story basely attracted any attention at all. USA Today has described the rising tide of domestic violence during the pandemic. Their numbers, derived from a study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, are grim. From that study:

Data from US police departments provide some early insight into the effect COVID-19 has had on DV in some regions. For instance, in Portland, Oregon public schools closed March 16, 2020, and on March 23 came stay-at-home orders. Following these events, the Portland Police Bureau recorded a 22% increase in arrests related to DV compared to prior weeks. In San Antonio, Texas schools closed March 20, 2020 and stay-at-home orders came March 24. The San Antonio Police Department subsequently noted they received an 18% increase in calls pertaining to family violence in March 2020 compared to March 2019. In Jefferson County Alabama, the Sheriff's Office reported a 27% increase in DV calls during March 2020 compared to March 2019. In New York City schools closed March 16, 2020 and stay-at-home orders started on March 22, 2020. During the month of March, the New York City Police Department responded to a 10% increase in DV reports compared to March 2019.

The stark relief between media attention to the behaviors of celebrities and cartoon figures and the genuine human suffering, experienced disproportionately by our society’s most vulnerable members, could not be clearer. The amount of violence in our communities was already unacceptable pre-pandemic, has gotten worse, and yet goes almost unnoticed. A search of Google’s news site on each of these items makes clear that finding out many of the true costs of the pandemic remains a real challenge. Perhaps it is because actress Mia Farrow and Pepe Le Pew make for better visual content in media accounts. Maybe it’s because we would prefer to see our leaders taken down than to see our most desperate neighbors given a hand up. Maybe it is because we can’t look at what’s really happening anymore?

Perhaps a broader perspective is called for. Maybe we are not seeing and/or are denying a societal cognitive schema whereby it is easier to target individuals and individual actions rather than examine societal causes and consequences. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated that sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and domestic violence is as much about community and societal issues as individual and interpersonal ones. Once again, we need to step back from simply pathologizing those who perpetrate and are victimized by sexual aggression and understand each within a context. Yes, Woody Allen, Andrew Cuomo, and even Pepe le Pew have all acted badly, caused harm, and should be held accountable for their behavior; but where is the larger societal reflection, critical thinking, and change?

Simply saying publicly that these individuals are to blame, while privately acknowledging that they are a product of the system and reprimanding them but ignoring the wider systemic problems is no longer acceptable. A recent World Health Organization report has shown that violence against women and children is its own pandemic and, like with COVID-19, we need wholesale societal change to eradicate it. That that starts with individuals, communities, and the media.


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