By Corrie Pikul
Monday, January 24, 2005
A husband-and-wife team on a reality-TV show offered the spectacle of an apparently emotionally abusive relationship. This type of abuse is not illegal and experts say many women who suffer it are not taken seriously.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The elimination of Jonathan Baker and Victoria Fuller from the "The Amazing Race" was the long-awaited finale for a vivid prime-time example of emotional abuse.
By the ninth episode of the CBS reality show, Baker, a Los Angeles entrepreneur, had become notorious for blowing up at Fuller, blaming their every set-back on her incompetence and berating her as "stupid," "useless" and "dumb."
Medical researchers have defined emotional abuse as the use of verbal and nonverbal acts which symbolically hurt the other or the use of threats to hurt the other. Last fall, during a program about emotional abuse, Oprah Winfrey noted that one-third of all American women are "emotionally tortured" by the men in their lives through insults, blame, humiliation and ridicule. This type of abuse is not illegal and experts say many women who suffer from it are not taken seriously.
Jonathan Baker has appeared on television to defend himself. He also posted a statement on his Web site that directly addressed his treatment of his wife.
"I do not abuse Victoria," he wrote in mid-December, referring to his behavior as "heightened version of stress and obsession mixed with medication for a sickness called Sarcoidosis."
Fuller also tried to allay viewers' concerns with a Web posting of her own: "Don't worry, I am fine," she wrote, reminding viewers that "The Amazing Race" is a TV show and "not a true reflection of our relationship." Fuller claims that both she and her husband overreacted.
Esta Soler, founder and president of Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, criticizes CBS for not citing Baker's behavior as emotionally abusive. The network "can say this is just a reality show and that they're just portraying what the contestants are doing" she says. "But from our perspective as an organization that wants to decrease violence against women, CBS should come on and say something about this. At the very least, put out counter messages or prevention messages."
Jill Morris, the public policy director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., feels that the burden of responsibility falls on the producers of the show. "By showing the program, they're telling the public it's OK to treat someone this way. They can edit this stuff out, yet they are choosing to show it to viewers. In our opinion, that is condoning violence against women."
CBS executives have said that they were aware that Baker was not acting in an appropriate manner. Bertram van Munster, executive producer of "The Amazing Race," told the New York Post, "I told him you've got to tone it down; you have to stop this kind of stuff; it's not cool." Baker also faced tough questioning on the CBS Early Show the morning after he was eliminated from the game.
Despite Baker's bullying behavior, none of the other contestants on the show spoke out against it and this, say domestic-violence counselors, is often the case. "It's very common to ignore emotional abuse," says Morris. "We have women tell us that if their husband had only hit them, someone would have done something . . . that no one intervened on their behalf when they were being abused emotionally."
Morris adds that emotional abuse is integral to physical abuse. "We often hear from victims of domestic violence that they know they are going to get hit once the name calling starts," she says. But emotional abuse also very often occurs in the absence of any sexual or physical violence. "There are many men who don't hit their women because they don't have to. The can get the results they want from calling them names and putting them down," says Morris.
Emotional abuse is harder to detect and measure. It can get overlooked or minimized when accompanied by physical abuse, and few people pick up the telephone and call hotlines when the assault remains strictly verbal. Morris says it's devastating.
"Victims of domestic violence tell us that bruises and broken bones heal, but it's harder to recover from 20 years of emotional abuse and being put down," says Morris.
One of the best-known sources of data on domestic abuse comes from The National Violence Against Women Survey, conducted in 1995 and 1996 by the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Approximately 29 percent of the 6,790 women who responded to the survey reported that they had been abused by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Psychological abuse was more commonly reported than either physical or sexual abuse, accounting for almost half of the violence against these women
An analysis performed by researchers from the University of Texas in 2002 showed that 12 percent of the women questioned were victimized psychologically by a current or former spouse or live-in partner without physical or sexual abuse.
The researchers also discovered that emotionally abused women were more likely to report poor physical health and depression than other women and were at a higher risk of developing a chronic mental illness.
Groups who work with emotional abuse victims and counselors have said that the strain of psychological mistreatment can also prohibit victims from living a normal, healthy life. Victims can become afraid to make decisions for themselves, can suffer from distraction and exhaustion and can find themselves making wild excuses for their partner's erratic behavior. Effects such as these can get in the way of work, destroy friendships and lead to isolation and despair.
In general, women experience more intimate-partner violence than do men (22.1 percent of surveyed women, vs. 7.4 percent of surveyed men), according to The National Crime Victims Research Center Survey.
Many couples, even the healthiest and most psychologically balanced, will argue, snap, and occasionally say nasty things to each other. These interludes are distinguishable from emotional abuse, however.
"When you have sustained, repetitive incidence of put downs, insults, yelling, name calling; that is a serious problem," says Esta Soler. "I don't know anyone who has ever been in relationship who hasn't said something they regret. But that's not what we're talking about here. Emotional abuse is aimed at getting to the other person. It happens over time, not in the heat of the moment. That's what's abusive about it."
Corrie Pikul is a correspondent with Women's eNews.
The Amazing Race 6--Jonathan and Victoria:
"Races' contestant has somebody to shove":
Family Violence Prevention Fund--
The Amazing Race: Memorandum:
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