While signs, pictures and pamphlets won’t make anyone say, “Oh my!” around the I.D. Weeks Library, the “Silent Witnesses” exhibit currently surrounding the central stairway has a unique power.
The Silent Witness Initiative is an organization seeking to honor those who have lost their lives to domestic violence and promote awareness by providing a true story and figure to pair with the idea of domestic violence death.
That’s obviously a noble cause, but the means The Silence Witness Initiative goes about spreading its message is unique. Giving no regard to race, religion or personal appearance, the display represents everyone as a red cut out. The idea seems to be that who you are doesn’t matter, but the spilling of your red blood is a bad thing.
They almost succeed, but there is an issue with it: the demographic representation. I’m not referring to race or religion. Everyone is equally represented as a blood-red cut out, but I take issue with the gender skew. In spite of the claim that the exhibit honors the “women, men and children” who lost their lives to domestic violence, there is not a single adult man present or even mentioned in the display.
To be fair, there are two males present, but the older of these was three-years-old, which, to me, falls in the “children” group. This implies that a human issue is limited as woman’s issue. I’m not saying that domestic violence isn’t a larger problem for women, because it is. The thing is, the gap isn’t as wide as the exhibit would imply.
Research from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence shows that in South Dakota, one in three women in South Dakota will experience some form of physical violence from an intimate partner. The number for men? One in four.
Women are more likely to be abused, but that narrow of a gap doesn’t justify the absence of men from representation. While I don’t think its intentional, the mention of men without showing them is almost insulting to survivors. In fact, it is perpetuating the greatest issue facing male survivors of domestic violence: perception.
When considering classic male heroes, like King Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt or John Wayne, it’s easy to see a common thread emerging. Traditional masculine representations are based on physical strength. That’s why men are the perpetrators of violence and Battered Women’s Syndrome, a mental condition that commonly affects survivors of domestic violence, has a gendered name. Men are supposed to be strong and women are gentle.
In these traditional ideas, men can’t be victims. This can make men more hesitant to speak out about their abuse and the people around those men less likely to reach out and help. When men are less likely to get help in a violent situation, they’re more likely to be an unrepresented lost life.
I don’t want to have this particular initiative stop. They are taking a really interesting approach to addressing what is a serious issue, both in the state and nation. These kinds of creative projects like Silent Witnesses are the most effective way to address hard topics. But the specific mentioning of men as victims paired with their absence from the exhibit is a chilling reminder of the struggles men can face in seeking help for a “woman’s issue.”