Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins were in an abusive relationship. Almost no one said anything.
Editor’s note: As part of an ongoing response to the tragic events in Kansas City earlier this month, we sought the perspective of a public health professional to address the issue of dating violence.
In the aftermath of the murder of Kasandra Perkins and Jovan Belcher’s suicide it is the divergence in the types of coverage that is most interesting. On feminist/redefining masculinity blogs the coverage focuses on dating violence and on most sports related websites there are a plethora of theories put out as to how this could happen that avoid putting the blame on Jovan. Theories range from lack of a father figure, concussion syndrome, alcohol addiction, and, most commonly, victim blaming—her gold digging ways caused the argument to escalate.
Nowhere does the conversation include the community that surrounded these two young people, themselves barely out of adolescence, and the abuse they were embroiled in. In several articles Belcher’s friends acknowledge knowing about the couple’s arguments, but there is no mention of a response to those said arguments. We don’t know what that response was—it could have spanned the spectrum from silence on the one end to reinforcement of his abusive behavior towards her on the other. However, as stated in previous articles, if their arguing was widespread knowledge among the Kansas City Chiefs, as well the couple’s personal communities, there were many opportunities for people to step in and address the behavior.
It has come out in reports that Chiefs staff provided Kasi and Jovan counseling for their “relationship problems”. But dating violence is not simply about a couple with issues. Addressing it takes reconstructing what the abuser feels is his or her entitlement in a relationship and their use of psychological, verbal, sexual, financial, and physical abuse to achieve it. It is often not remedied by simple couples counseling.
The human brain does not stop developing until the age of 24, the biological end of adolescence. If you take away the money, the fame, the glitz, these were two young people trying to navigate an abusive relationship. With some members of their community reinforcing the abuse, and most of the rest remaining silent about it, Jovan was left to try and figure out how to navigate a relationship bombarded by gender norms and messages about using violence to control your partner.
One recent study in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, took a nationally represented sample of youth ages 12 through 18 and found that 30% had experienced some form of psychological, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. And when researchers followed up with the same participants five years later, they found that those who had experienced dating violence as teens were two to three times more likely to be in violent relationships later in their lives. Other past studies (see here and here) have also shown that teens who are involved in abusive relationships are at higher risk of being in abusive relationships as adults. For every victim in an abusive relationship there is a perpetrator and we have figured out over the years what to say to victims but now is the time to think about what to say to the perpetrators. As a community we need to talk to both parties about healthy relationships—even if it means speaking from our mistakes and sharing the lessons we’ve learned.
In the 40 years since the start of the women’s domestic violence prevention movement we have learned what to say to victims, male and female, about domestic violence, but as a community people are at a loss for what to say to a perpetrator. At the Boston Public Heath Commission’s Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships Program, when we talk with young men about unhealthy relationships and what to say to a friend who they know is perpetrating abuse against their partner, facilitators are met with a myriad of “reasons” as to why one should say nothing—even when an abusive episode has been witnessed. Below are a list of the most common reasons our staff hear from participants about why they don’t speak up, and a series of ways to reframe the conversations so people feel empowered to say something.
1) I don’t know the whole story. You don’t need to know the whole story. Hitting, cursing out a partner, etc. is not an appropriate way to treat that partner or deal with a relationship conflict. If you are uncomfortable calling out the abuse, spend the conversation focusing on encouraging healthy ways to deal with conflict.
2) Their relationship is their relationship; it’s private. If your friend is complaining to you about his or her partner and how he or she is so horrible and makes them lose their cool, call them out. Why are you with them if they are so horrible? Question why they need to control that person rather than finding a new partner or creating a healthier relationship?
3) I can’t solve their problems. There is no need to play therapist and take on their problems. All one needs to do is simply be clear that the abusive behavior is not right.
4) My own relationship isn’t perfect. We are all going through a learning process as we try to engage in healthy relationships. Talk about lessons learned and maybe that conversation will inspire you to take the next step in forging your own healthier relationship.
5) He was just drunk, he didn’t mean it. Alcohol does not cause abusive behavior. It lowers people’s inhibitions thus allowing them to do what they already desired to do. The abuse was already present; the alcohol was just part of one episode in the pattern of abuse. Don’t allow them to use alcohol as an excuse for the arguments’ escalation.
When talking with somone engaged in dating violence, it is important to remember not to push the issue and get them angry. They will often bring that anger home and take it out on their partner. However, it is time we start reframing the issue and focusing on discussing healthy relationships. And, of course, telling a perpetrator to stop abusing his or her partner does not mean he/she now automatically has the skills to be a great partner. But that makes it all the more important that as a community we learn to speak up every time we hear about abuse amongst our friends and co-workers.
There are so many “reasons” to not speak out, but imagine where Kasi and Jovan would be now if enough people had said something to him about engaging in a healthy relationship, or called out his need to control her along the way.
More coverage of the Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins murder-suicide: