On Monday, February 6, Florida couple Joseph Bray and his wife Sonja got into a fight because, she says, he failed to wish her a happy birthday. According to the arrest affidavit, the fight escalated; Joseph Bray pushed Sonja Bray onto their couch, grabbed her neck, and raised his fist to hit her, although he did not strike her. Joseph Bray was arrested and when he appeared in court on a domestic violence charge, you can be sure the judge issued appropriate sanctions.
Judge John Hurley ordered in lieu of posting a bond that Joseph Bray get his wife flowers and a birthday card, take her to Red Lobster for dinner, then take her bowling. And he ordered the couple to see a marriage counselor.
Judge Hurley called the incident “very, very minor.” Given Joseph Bray’s “otherwise clean record,” Judge Hurley believed his order “was a better resolution than the other alternatives.”
Now, I don’t know this judge and I don’t know these people. I haven’t personally read the arrest affidavit. But I do know that being shoved onto a couch and having someone put his hands around my throat and make a physical gesture that threatens to cause me physical harm is not “very, very minor.” Even if no one was actually physically injured (as Sonja Bray even testified).
On one site, a video of the hearing is posted along with the story. In the video, Judge Hurley questions Sonja Bray about what happened that evening. At one point Sonja Bray begins sobbing. “I love my husband,” she said. She wanted him to come home. The judge’s voice is kind as he asked her questions. As he said, “I have to determine how serious this is.” Sonja Bray said she was not afraid of Joseph Bray harming her.
And so, Judge Bray issued his order for a romantic date night, even though one of the first things Sonja Bray told him, in response to his question, is that she had called the police on her husband at least once before.
I believe that Judge Hurley believes he is doing the right thing. He’s giving Joseph Bray a little slack, a little lesson on how, perhaps, a husband should treat his wife on her birthday. But what his order does is trivialize the threat of violence that Sonja Bray experienced, a threat significant enough to her to make her call police. Even worse, as the judge stated his conditions, people in the courtroom began to giggle. When the judge ordered Joseph Bray to take his wife bowling, a man I think might be Joseph Bray’s lawyer quipped, “Does he have to let her win?”
Part of the problem seems to be that when there is no actual violence, we diminish the threat as something “very, very minor.” As if one must have physical bruises to be considered abused. And even if there are physical bruises, we sometimes still consider the incident minor, an aberration perhaps brought on by something the victim must have done. This is especially so if the batterer is contrite after the incident, as most usually are. That domestic violence is minor, that it’s an aberration in certain relationships, brought on primarily by some other trigger other than the abuser’s own conduct – these are the fictions we like to tell ourselves.
And what makes matters worse is when we, as a society, embrace the batterer. R&B singer Chris Brown is a case in point. In February 2009, he bit, beat, and choked his then-girlfriend, R&B singer Rihanna. Brown was charged with two felonies, assault likely to cause great bodily harm and making criminal threats. He entered a plea agreement that put him on probation for five years and required him to perform six months of community service. Last Sunday, three years later, Brown performed at the Grammy Awards for the first time since that incident. According to an editorial on The Western Front,
Grammy Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich told ABC [N]ews, “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.”
As the editorial writer succinctly states, “Let’s make one thing completely clear: the Grammys was [sic] not the victim of Chris Brown’s raging fists, Rihanna was.” However, there seems to a line of women who would not call Rihanna a victim at all; in fact, these women seem eager to be in her place. One blogger collected a disturbing number of Twitter posts from women who all said pretty much the same thing: “Chris Brown can beat me up any day.” For example, @briquirkk tweeted: “I’d let chris brown punch me in the face.” Tweeted @_anniegregg, “Everyone shut up about Chris brown being a woman beater…[Expletive] he can beat me up all night if he wants.”
Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, and most incidents go unreported. We need to think carefully about the messages we send about domestic violence not only as men and women in relationships but as lawyers and other players in a system that is meant to deal with it. It is a serious crime and should be treated as such.