Why Brutal Domestic Violence Is Dismissed as 'Role Play'
Disgraced ex-NY attorney general Eric Schneiderman masqueraded as feminist and suggested he just liked weird sex. Neither was the truth.
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"In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity," the state’s top prosecutor wrote in the wake of a bombshell report that he beat and strangled multiple former girlfriends. "I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in non-consensual sex, which is a line I would not cross."
The denial of the story published earlier the same evening by the New Yorker was both instructive and troubling, according to domestic violence experts canvassed by VICE. On the one hand, "all abusers are deniers," as Chitra Raghavan, a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, put it. On the other, she told me, there are still worrisome gaps in the way the law understands domestic violence that takes place in the bedroom, ones that could scuttle attempts to hold men like Schneiderman accountable.
"We tend not to look at sexually violent men as part of domestic violence," Raghavan explained.
"Yet it’s one of the most powerful forms of abuse, because women have difficulty talking about being controlled sexually, or being hit during sex. It’s powerful precisely because it’s invisible."
The reporters who uncovered the story, Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer, took pains to point out that Schneiderman himself wrote the law that criminalized strangulation in New York—and that he’d burnished his reputation as a feminist by filing a civil rights suit against Harvey Weinstein, even opening an investigation into the Manhattan DA's handling of the disgraced mogul's alleged sex crimes. It’s a schism that’s textbook to the point of almost being cliche for domestic abusers, experts told me.
"We hear it all the time from survivors," explained Liz Roberts, Deputy CEO of Safe Horizon, one of the country’s largest victims' service agencies. “When you work with survivors every day, you get used to that reality.”
Nor is it uncommon for abusers to style themselves as protectors in their public lives, said Margarita Guzman, deputy executive director of the Violence Intervention Project, which serves Latinx survivors in New York City. To wit: According to the National Center for Women and Policing, "At least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence," compared with just ten percent of the general population.
"The historic context has enabled people to have public personas that are different from what they’re doing behind closed doors," Guzman explained. "Socially, we are all still deconstructing this concept that what happens between two people is private."
Often, the schism seems to exists within abusers themselves. Roberts described how same-sex abusers frequently used homophobic slurs when they beat their partners. Raghavan said that, in a recent study she conducted of 130 convicted abusers, all but a tiny handful outright denied the violence for which they had been sentenced. There was no way to tell whether they were lying to the researchers or to themselves.
"It’s not just that you were arrested—you went to court, you were convicted," she recalled thinking during the interviews. "Do you have so much chutzpah that you can say you didn’t do it, or do you truly believe you didn’t do it?"
So was Schneiderman’s Twitter denial legally shrewd or psychologically revealing? While his accusers described clear patterns of control consistent with domestic violence, much of the physical abuse they alleged seemed to have taken place during or proximal to sexual encounters that were otherwise consensual. Both choking and coercive sex have a clear and legally codified relationship to dangerous and even lethal abuse, but sexual degradation has almost no legal standing, Raghavan said. Survivors are rarely ever even asked about it.
"Certainly the women had said very clearly that if he was into violent sex it wasn’t consensual," but that’s not well captured either by current conversations around sexual assault or domestic violence, Raghavan said. "We ask, 'Does he coerce you?' but not, 'Is he rough or demeaning?' We included forced sex, but that's not what’s happening."
If nothing else, we know more about choking by domestic assailants in New York because of the law Eric Schneiderman helped pass.
"Choking is very common, and ironically when he wrote strangulation into the law we started being able to pay attention to it," Raghavan told me. More than 80 percent of survivors surveyed by Safe Horizon said they’d been choked by their partners, whereas about half that many had been coerced into sex, according to a report shared with VICE.
Yet sex and strangulation are linked. You can’t open RedTube without seeing a woman being choked by a man—it’s as ubiquitous as an abuser masquerading as a male feminist, which is why men like Eric Schneiderman can tweet obliquely about having done "role-play" without apparent fear of reprisal. Choking is effective as a tool of abuse as much because it is intimate as because as it is painful. There is no shock like the shock of being strangled, except for the shock of being strangled in public, in the street, on the ground.
"It’s the same hands that hold you," Raghavan explained. "It’s close, it’s personal. Pulling out a gun is very terrifying, but if you’re choking someone it says you can kill them with your bare hands."
But while the law recognizes the violence of choking, it still fails to grasp the terror of its intimacy, just as it fails to capture the coercive control inherent in sexualized beatings.
"Researchers have looked at choking for a long time as an indicator of dangerousness, but we need to look at it as an indicator of control,” the psychologist said. “We focus on the violence, but what we really need to focus on is why there such a need to control and demean these women."
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