Friday, at the State House, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito chaired a first meeting of her Sexual Assault / Domestic Violence public awareness task force. Its mission is a significant part of what Governor Baker sees as a core Health and Human Services responsibility, which is why HHS Secretary Maryou Sudders co-chaired the meeting.

(The group was originally formed by Executive Order in mid-2015. Use this link to read the purpose of the Order and the full Awareness Group membership : )

At the meeting a power point presentation set forth a seven-month timeline of what the Group will do, including public comment and policy conclusions that it hopes to put into action. I tweeted those displays, and you can find them also on my facebook page.

Definitely the members of the task force mean well. Definitely they respect the primacy of process. This effort is a bureaucratic one, which means that process is everything. That said, certainly the Task Force will enlighten some of the dark strata in which sexual assault and domestic violence breed. More light will fall thereon via the media, for whom accusations of sexual assault have become a magnet for readership. All good, as far as it goes.

I see the subject differently. Perhaps a long life has worn down the knife edges of my assumptions, for I see sexual assault and domestic violence as deeply embedded in human nature, the socio-biology of sexual attraction, competition, commitment, bonding, and social sanction. Various societies have adopted differing customs for alleviating the passions that sex engenders, but all societies fall short of remedy. Our society too. Whether sex is seen as libertine amusement, or temporary bond, or a life-changing imperative, once attraction overtakes us, our perceptions change, our emotions redirect, our bodies act out, whether sex is fulfilled or falls short. For human beings, the arousal of one intense passion almost always upsets another passion: and inhibition often intervenes too late or not at all. Sex fundamentally affects self-esteem. I know that in my own case, as a teenager, a “no” from a girl I wanted to date shied me away from even asking another girl, for months on end, for fear of another “no.” I doubt that i was unique. Nor do I believe that it’s any different for girls. Rejection by a boy often comes wrapped in rejection by his friends too. Rejection becomes a tit for tat ritual of humiliation, revenge, and success — which often breeds the opposite sort of humiliation.

These traits do not fall away, like one’s first set of teeth. They stay in the psyche. Adults are better at resisting the consequences of rejection or success, but they’re no less prisoners of the feelings. Some cannot hold back. I don’t see how any Task Force, no matter how well-intended, can illuminate these basics any more brightly than we all of us see them already. I do suppose, I guess, that a Task Force can enlighten us to how frequent is the number of those who cannot hold back. Perhaps that will help the rest of us to understand just how true is the old saying “there but for the grace of God go I.”

As for domestic violence, it too pressures us all. Unless we live alone, we lash out at those nearest to us. The old saw about yelling at one’s wall arises from this condition: that if not at the wall, then what do we get angry at but those who stand between us and that wall ? Which usually means family. All of us are capable of domestic violence. I’ll never forget the evening when my mother,m overworked and frustrated by it, started yelling at my Dad and did’t — couldn’t stop: in full cry she threw a grapefruit at him.

And then the anger abated, as often happens. Domestic abuse is shameful — our society’s customs assure that — and the abuser knows it. Usually that stops him or her.

Sometimes it doesn’t, and the criminal justice system steps in, to punish and sanction; but it acts too late, of course, as all criminal cases do.

Can these basics be changed by a Task Force ? I rather doubt it. What Polito’s Task Force can do is to remind us all that domestic violence can happen to anyone, of any income level or education attainment, that its happening is not a sign of poverty or moral failure but of human weakness. The Task Force can also, perhaps, create settings for an intervention: because the custom we call “intervention” can, if done in time, assuage the tensions that lead family members sometimes to strike at one another. The tactics of intervention can be taught, and if Polito’s Task Force accomplishes that much, it will be well worth its members’ time, research, and decisions.

The next task Force meeting takes place on November 5th at in Room 157 at the State House.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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