Women increasingly ready to speak out about abuse, family violence

On her first day as Miss America, Carolyn Suzanne Sapp came down to the cameras waiting on the beach at Atlantic City wearing a T-shirt and shorts and a radiant smile, ready for the pictures of innocent sensuality that is the image of her role. "There she is," as the song puts it, "your ideal."

But on the second day, her private life intruded. There were news reports from her home state of Hawaii that Miss Sapp had been abused by an ex-boyfriend, a former NFL football player, that he had beaten her and tried to strangle her and that she had sought protection from the courts and the police. That news has dominated all her days since, and unpretty though it is, the newly crowned beauty queen has said she'll continue to "acknowledge it and address it."


After a one-day honeymoon, Miss America 1992 had become more than the "ideal" picture of the American woman. She'd become a real picture.

More and more women -- from beauty queens to anonymous hot-line callers -- are speaking up and speaking out about violence that they have suffered, reporting crimes to authorities and seeking help and justice rather than hiding in quiet shame, say psychologists, sociologists and women's health experts.


"Women are feeling a lot more sure of themselves and a lot less tolerant of being victims of violence," says Gloria Gay, associate director of the Penn Women's Center in Philadelphia. "When people like Miss America come out and talk about their abuse, it gives other women permission to talk about theirs."

The new Miss America said she had gone to authorities and broke off her relationship with former pro football player Nuu Faaola after "waking up and saying, 'This is not for me. This is hurtful and painful.'"

"I finally realized I was a strong person and an independent person," she said from Atlantic City. "No one needs to be in a relationshipthat's abusive.

"But it's hard because emotionally, you love that person and want to trust them."

Miss Sapp is not alone in such experience. Increasingly, celebrities and public figures are talking openly about abuse they've suffered either as children or adults. Miss America of 1958, Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, disclosed in May that she'd been molested as a child. And numerous entertainers including Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey and, most recently, LaToya Jackson and Roseanne Barr Arnold have told similar tales.

Many believe this new phenomenon of celebrity confessions goes a long way toward dispelling some of the stigma and shame associated with being a victim of such crimes and helping other women grapple with similar problems.

Miss Sapp says she's heard women say, "If Miss America can have this in her life and have the strength and courage to get out of the situation, so can we."

The big-headline cases, too, such as boxer Mike Tyson's recent indictment on rape charges and last year's Central Park jogger trial, often give women more courage to speak out, mental health experts say.


"These well-publicized cases are quite important in the public's mind in determining, 'What kind of treatment might I get?' " says Dr. Mary Koss, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Arizona. For instance, she says, seeing that the Central Park jogger -- the New York investment banker beaten and raped by a gang in 1989 -- was able to preserve her anonymity and dignity throughout the trial of her attackers "encourages a lot of people to seek justice and come forward."

On the other hand, the case in Palm Beach, Fla., in which William Kennedy Smith is accused of rape, could deter women from bringing charges if the character and reputation of the alleged victim -- whose name has been revealed by several news organizations -- become the focus of the trial, she says.

One senior at the University of Pennsylvania who claims to have been raped by an acquaintance in her freshman year said she never considered bringing charges. "I watch TV, I read the paper. I don't see any point in it," said the 21-year-old sociology major. "I see me having to go through more trauma. It may be 1991, but women are still accused of provoking the violence toward them."

But Donna Drejza, 31, who successfully brought charges against the man who raped her in her Washington apartment in 1987, said she has seen sweeping changes in attitudes toward rape and abuse in just the past year. Last year, when she started coming forward with the story of her attack, friends asked, "Why would you ever talk about it?"

This year, after she wrote a first-person story about the rape for the Washington Post, appeared on a television morning news show and has been speaking to women's groups, her friends are congratulating her on her courage and wisdom.

Along with the tremendous growth in programs for women -- everything from women's studies departments at colleges to shelters for battered women -- many say the social, political and economic strides made by women in the last 20 years have given women the freedom and courage to speak up.


Many women, for example, are now economically self-sufficient and aren't forced to stay in relationships that are abusive. Police departments are less likely to dismiss reports of domestic violence as mere marital squabbles. And all states except Illinois and Mississippi have repealed or relaxed laws that once made it impossible for a woman (or man) to bring rape charges against a spouse.

"This wave of the women's movement has had an enormous impact -- particularly on white women and women of upper or middle socioeconomic classes -- in promoting the ideology of women as being equal to men and not having to put up with dictatorial, unpredictable men in their lives," says Ruth Fassinger, a psychologist and University of Maryland professor.

But such gains, she notes, don't necessarily affect all women.

"Women of lower socioeconomic classes don't have quite the freedom or resources," she says. "For them, it might be a question of 'Do you even have a car?' or 'Can you pay for a taxi to get to a shelter?' "

Carla Armbrister, coordinator of Sister Sister, a support group for black women at the University of Pennsylvania, says that nine out of 10 women who seek help are white, middle- or upper-class women.

On the other hand, Georgetown University sociology professor C. Margaret Hall says that women in the upper brackets are "so terrified of losing their status" that they rarely take the issue outside their home.


"The middle class is setting these trends," says Ms. Hall.

Older women, too, are less likely to speak out against violence than their daughters, says Clarinda Raymond, co-director of the Campus Violence Prevention Center at Towson State University. She told of one university student, battered beyond recognition by her boyfriend, who was discouraged by her mother from reporting the attack to police.

"Her mother said, 'How could you even consider reporting it?' " Ms. Raymond said. "People think parents are all up in arms about campus violence. But parents still think fights and bloody drunken brawls are campus high jinks."

A Chicago woman of 49, battered by her first husband 30 years ago, said the troubles of her four-year marriage were always "swept under the rug." Her parents, her friends, even hospital emergency room doctors who tended to her broken ribs and broken nose "didn't want to know about it," she said.

But recently, her children, in their late 20s, have questioned her about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the father they barely remember. "I don't think they understand that back then you just didn't see the point in talking about it," said the mother, happily remarried for the past seven years. "They feel if you talk about it you can be healed."

Tony Whitehead, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Maryland and co-editor of an upcoming book on gender roles, believes today's cultural mores for male-female relationships, even if evolving, still retain elements of centuries-old possession laws where "females are like a commodity and, legally, wives are the possessions of husbands." The institutions of society that have supported those notions -- religion or the law -- are often slow to change, he says. "You have to deal with what's in people's heads," he says. "And that takes time."


University of Kentucky law professor Carolyn S. Bratt points out that if a married couple can't agree on their child's last name, "the law will give the child the father's last name. It's part of the idea that the wife really disappears as a legal entity when they marry."

Some women believe the recent focus on women's reproductive rights has fostered a climate of greater frustration among women and intolerance for ill treatment.

Dr. Lynne Rosewater, a Beachwood, Ohio, psychologist and author who specializes in issues of violence against women, says: "There's a potential for eruption by the women in this

country. Women are coming out and saying, 'We don't want to be treated like this anymore.' Women like me. Very law-abiding."

This change in women's attitudes, this louder voice, says Annapolis psychologist Don Jewell, is part of "an entire revolution" in which men and women are seeking greater rights and freedom as individuals. "But the way it manifests itself in men is that it doesn't," he says. "A lot of them are asleep. Men are always behind in terms of getting in touch with their feelings."

San Diego psychologist Warren Farrell, author of "Why Men Are The Way They Are," in fact, believes men are victims of violence by women as frequently as women are by men. But the incidents go completely unreported, he says. "The man's fear is he'll be the laughingstock of the precinct. And the truth is, that's exactly what he'll be."


But, Dr. Whitehead says, "A lot of our problems in this society such as spouse abuse and incest and rape come from how we define ourselves as men. For some men, an important attribute of masculinity is power and sexual prowess."

Counselors also point out that athletes sometimes develop feelings of "entitlement," because of their celebrity status and earning potential. "You put that mixture together with someone who's physically powerful and you probably have some difficulty," says Lance Shotland, a Pennsylvania State University psychology professor who has studied date and acquaintance rape.

In fact, in defending himself against charges by his former girlfriend of physical abuse, Mr. Faaola told the news media, "I am a football player and I get aggressive."

But the Honolulu athlete, who could not be reached for further comment, also admitted he had a problem and had undergone JTC counseling, a sign of what Dr. Jewell calls "the beginning of an awakening in men."

The evolution of attitudes is "glacially slow" for both sexes, says Ms. Raymond of Towson's Violence Prevention Center. She says she's heartened when "a lovely woman" like Miss America admits she was physically abused and goes to authorities. But, she adds, Miss Sapp, who dropped her request for a restraining order immediately after she sought it, is perhaps more typical of U.S. woman than she even knows.

"Miss America reacted the way the preponderance of women do," says Ms. Raymond. "They won't take it all the way. It's very, very typical for women to get as far as the police report and then deny or rescind the whole thing."


If Miss Sapp had just taken her complaint one step further, says Ms. Raymond, then she would have been, at least in her eyes, a true "ideal."