Urban myths rarely have a useful purpose other than to confound, outrage, and frighten people into passing them along. But there's a silver lining to this one—the idea that Super Bowl Sunday is linked to the highest incidences of domestic abuse in the country.
While experts in the field dismiss that theory, they value the increased attention paid to domestic violence on the occasion.
"The Super Bowl does not cause domestic violence, and it doesn't increase domestic violence, but it does increase the public's awareness of the issue, which will help victims learn about help and resources," says Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
To explain the fallacy, Southworth says, "you have to sort of step back and think about what domestic violence is, and it's not an explosion and it's not out-of-control anger. Instead, it's a pattern of power and control." Victims of abuse face the greatest risk "when they try to break away from a controlling partner, and that can happen on any day of the year," she says.
Meanwhile, the issue has garnered headlines with the reintroduction of the Violence Against Women Act in the Senate, which is slated to vote on the bill next week. It was blocked last year by House Republicans, who balked at expanded assistance for gays and lesbians, Native Americans, and undocumented immigrants, and a related point of procedure.
The high-profile story of the Kansas City Chiefs' Jovan Belcher, who last month killed his girlfriend and then himself, has also fueled the conversation. Citing that incident and others, the Verizon Foundation and CBS Sportscaster James Brown are hosting a #YourVoiceCounts Twitter chat Thursday to "give participants an opportunity to talk with NFL insiders, celebrities, and advocates about domestic violence and sports, the role men, fathers, and coaches and mentors play in prevention and more."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men say they have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking (or a combination of these things) by an intimate partner. Furthermore, these estimates are low, the CDC says, since many people don't report the problem to police, friends, or relatives.
Add emotional abuse to the mix of physical and sexual assault, and 1 in 4 women and 1 in 3 teen girls will experience domestic violence in their lives, says Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, an anonymous service that handles some 22,000 calls each month, mostly from women. (Domestic violence victims are overwhelmingly female. Southworth estimates male victims account for between 5 to 15 percent of victims, some of whom are involved in same-sex relationships.)
Part of the complexity of domestic violence has to do with the many forms it can take, and the fact that one kind bleeds into another.
"I don't know how I got here," callers will often say, Ray-Jones says. That's because the relationship didn't start out that way, she explains. "He wasn't telling you, 'I'm gonna kick the crap out of you in three years."
So how does it start? Often, a man will want to get serious very soon, a behavior which can appear flattering, but in fact signals his desire to "wrap her up in a package and own her," says Lundy Bancroft, author of Why Does He Do That? and other books on domestic abuse. Jealousy and possessiveness as well as verbal abuse are "the two most outstanding predictors of physical abuse and severe control coming down the pike," says Bancroft, who has led workshops for abusers and holds healing retreats for women in recovery.
On a deeper level, experts say domestic violence has its roots in a sexist culture. "It comes from the belief that one gender has more power than the other," Southworth says, referring to the idiom about "who wears the pants in the family," for example. "Why does anybody need to wear pants? Why can't we all wear pants?" she says. "I believe when we have completely annihilated that concept out of our sort of collective cultural experience, we will have really ended domestic violence."
Already, there are some hopeful signs. Among them, "we have a world that is far more willing to talk about domestic violence," says Southworth, noting an increasing number of men taking a stand against domestic violence and the No More campaign, which, like ribbon campaigns to raise awareness for breast cancer or AIDS, offers a symbol to spread cultural awareness.
Despite advances being made in public education campaigns and even a slight drop in violence against women in recent years, increasing violence in pornography and movies pose powerful and dangerous influences, Bancroft says.
In the meantime, there are several steps people can take to protect themselves and their loved ones.
For one thing, know what domestic violence looks and feels like. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it encompasses "any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone."
Early detection is key because, although it may seem counterintuitive, the longer one stays in an abusive relationship, the harder it is to leave, Bancroft says. That has to do with many factors, from fear of retaliation and financial dependency to the so-called "Stockholm syndrome," in which victims feel attached to their abusers.
"The No. 1 thing we really want young women to tune into is disrespect," Bancroft says. "Does he see you as a person? Does he care about your goals and interests? Is he interested in your opinion?" Answers to these questions can separate a healthy relationship from a destructive one. Young people can further explore the relationship between love and respect through the aptly-named website loveisrespect.org.
A healthy relationship should feel, among other things, safe. "There's equality, there's healthy communication, you can express how you feel and not be afraid," says Ray-Jones.
If you suspect that you or someone you know is in an unhealthy relationship, visit the following websites for more information: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Network to End Domestic Violence, National Domestic Violence Hotline, and the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women.