Deadly silence: what happens when we don’t believe women

It’s become a grim ritual among the women I know: as soon as there is news of another mass shooting, we wait to hear the inevitable story about the shooter’s history of hurting women. (The shooter is always a man.) Sometimes he’s been violent to his mother or grandmother. More often, police reports reveal his history of abusing his girlfriend or wife.

But almost always he practiced his violence on a woman long before he planned his massacre, and within a day of the slaughter we’re sharing this history with impotent grief, asking again and again, what will it take to take women’s lives seriously? If we took women’s lives seriously, if men who abused the women in their lives faced any kind of real consequences, would the people we are now preparing to bury be alive today?

That’s a complicated question, tangled up with gun politics and our failed criminal justice system. But the core reality remains stark: it’s impossible to contain the suffering that stems from discounting and disbelieving women.

If we refused to accept the daily suffering of women and girls at the hands of men who claim to love them, we would have a federal policy removing guns from abusers, and we would ensure that it worked in practice. And we would have a lot fewer gun deaths. Period.

It’s vile to have to make this argument. It should be enough that women are hurt. But it’s not. Women’s pain is expected, part of the wallpaper of life. In her indelible essay “The female price of male pleasure,” Lili Loofbourow points to the chasm between what men and women define as “bad sex” to illuminate this basic fact of modern culture: if men find a sexual encounter boring or unsatisfying, they call it “bad”.

For women, though, “bad sex” almost always involves considerable pain and/or violence. As Loofbourow puts it, “[W]e live in a culture that sees female pain as normal and male pleasure as a right.” And that dynamic: that we accept that women’s suffering as an immutable fact – like the weather – that we cannot control but can only predict, is the very thing that makes women seem hysterical and overreacting when we speak up about it.

But we’re not. And when you don’t listen to us, we’re not the only ones who pay the price. Our national failure to take women seriously is a public health crisis, and not just because of bad guys with guns.

Take, for example, the medical establishment’s long-documented refusal to take women at our word about the symptoms we’re experiencing. Whether we’re suffering from acute and chronic pain, mysterious weight loss or gain, neuromuscular conditions, or depression and anxiety, we’re suspected of being melodramatic, told that all we need is an attitude adjustment and some self-care.

The result? Increased healthcare costs, lost workplace productivity, and the worst maternal death rate in the developed world. This last cost is borne disproportionately by black women, who are treated as even less trustworthy than white women. And mistrusting black women has this massive public health cost as well: if Congress and President Clinton had listened to black women in the reproductive justice movement in 1994, we could have fixed our healthcare system decades ago.

Or consider that if we could simply all agree to believe trans women that they exist and are the experts on their own gender identity, the sky-high rates of murder and suicide in the trans community (a recent study found that trans girls have nearly double the suicide attempts of their cis girl peers) would surely be reduced, as would the elevated rates of housing and job discrimination, sexual violence, and street harassment they are currently forced to suffer.

Imagine the lives and livelihoods that would have been saved if we had listened to Brooksley Born. In 1996, as the new head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, she realized that the derivatives market, if left unchecked, would eventually cause a catastrophic economic collapse. She spent years trying to get powerful men like then-Fed-chair Alan Greenspan and treasury secretary Robert Rubin to help her sound the alarm. Instead, they fought her every step of the way, until she finally gave up on them and released a report about her predictions on her own. It was ignored and derided by the powers that be. A decade later, the very dynamics she warned against caused the Great Recession.

The list seems endless. If we trusted poor women, we wouldn’t withhold aid from their kids to prevent them from procreating as some kind of “scam”, and poor kids would grow up with better nutrition, more stable family dynamics, and better education. If we trusted women to make their own reproductive decisions, we would have unfettered access to safe, reliable birth control and abortion care, and that would likely decrease poverty levels, improve women’s mental and physical health, and create better outcomes for the children they choose to have.

Consider how brief and unimportant the Flint water crisis could have been if Michigan officials had trusted the mothers of Flint when they said their water was suddenly undrinkable. How many kids would have grown up without lead exposure? What could those kids have achieved without the lifelong cognition problems and emotional challenges that can result from childhood lead poisoning?