By: Kate Manne
NEW YORK – It doesn’t take much to cut off someone’s oxygen supply, or to restrict blood flow to and from her brain. Around 10 seconds of pressure on the carotid artery, either constant or intermittent, is usually enough to render the victim unconscious, and it requires less pressure than it takes to open a can of soda.
This act is often labeled “choking,” as it was in an article this week in The New Yorker, by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, in describing the multiple occasions on which Eric Schneiderman, New York’s former attorney general, allegedly assaulted women in this manner.
But the domestic and intimate-partner violence prevention community generally insists on calling such violence “strangulation.” Choking is a term for an internal blockage of the airway from, for example, a piece of food “going down the wrong way” and getting lodged in the windpipe. When used to refer to the deliberate form of abuse that is strangulation, “choking” is very much a misnomer — and a dangerous one: It minimizes.
Nonfatal manual strangulation is a well-known precursor to intimate- partner homicide. Victims of such attacks are some seven times more likely to become the victim of an attempted homicide by the same perpetrator. The New Yorker article noted the irony that Mr. Schneiderman himself had written legislation that established stiffer penalties against those who strangle. “I think this will save a lot of lives,” he predicted.
Given that the victims of strangulation are typically (though not exclusively) women, and the perpetrators are almost exclusively male, this has long been an issue of central concern to women’s legal rights advocates. And Mr. Schneiderman’s recent efforts to bring Harvey Weinstein to justice have similarly raised his credibility as an ally in fighting the good fight against misogyny. So the acts of violence he is accused of have been portrayed as not just hypocritical, but baffling.
Acts of strangulation are highly harmful in their own right, especially when recurrent, as they often are. They can cause cumulative brain damage, throat injuries, and damage to the vocal cords, among other injuries. This is so even when the violence leaves no external bruises, scratches or abrasions — as is the case in about half of strangulation cases. And less than half of these visible marks, in turn, are deep or dark or appear quickly enough to show up in police photographs.
Intimate-partner violence experts who have campaigned for specific felony statutes against strangulation (rather than it being simple assault, typically a misdemeanor, as it remains in some states) emphasize both its dangers, and its frequently concealed, and hence insidious, nature.
In addition to causing great pain and fear, strangulation sends a powerful message. What strangulation effectively communicates to a victim, more clearly than words could, is that an abuser is willing to exert punitive control by preying on her most fundamental visceral needs — such as the bodily imperative to gasp for air when she cannot breathe, and the desperate urge to end the intense pain that strangulation causes.
Experts compare the sensation of being strangled to waterboarding; it is tantamount to torture. And then there is the terrifying knowledge that someone is deliberately causing your body to thus protest, which in itself may be what breaks you.
The overarching message, when a man assaults a woman in this way (again, the most common gender dynamic, according to numerous studies), is deeply patriarchal and misogynistic. He has shown her what he is prepared to do to enforce his will if she defies him — this being, in effect, the most basic form of patriarchal governance.
“I am the law,” Mr. Schneiderman was quoted as saying by one of his accusers, Michelle Manning Barish, as he yanked her across the street (to demonstrate he could jaywalk with impunity, ostensibly). The picture this paints is of a man who does not view himself as subject to the law, but as tasked solely with its creation and enforcement — or, as the case may be, pre-emptive over-policing to establish his authority. On both the right and the left in politics, and extending far beyond that, we find some such men who purport to be proponents of law and order. And so they are, in a way, but it is patriarchal (and also, in some cases, white supremacist) law and order, where he rules and others obey, submit and follow.
No wonder it is so difficult to persuade a victim of strangulation to testify against her abuser. Such testimony would directly challenge his social standing and moral reputation. And the very act of strangulation forbids her to oppose him, in this respect and others. She draws breath at his mercy, and thwarts his will at her peril. If she tries to bring him to justice, or end the relationship, he has shown himself willing to do what it takes to keep her quiet, and enforce her loyalty.
“I cannot fathom that someone who drafted the legislation on strangulation is unfamiliar with such concepts,” Jennifer Friedman, an expert on intimate-partner violence, said of Mr. Schneiderman in The New Yorker. How could he be ignorant of what strangulation does to the human body, and what it communicates to the victim?
Many will take this question as a puzzle, not a rhetorical lament. So perhaps this is an apt moment to point out a dark but important truth about intimate-partner violence: Some abusers are perfectly well aware of what they are doing, at least at a certain level. And that is why they keep doing it. They want to maintain dominance and exercise control over their female partners, among others. And that is why an abuser may resort to the cruelest and most covert of methods, such as cutting off her air supply with his bare hands, leaving no bruises.
Article Source: Eric Schneiderman and the Meaning of Strangulation