Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last month, actor Jonathan Majors, who starred in the recent films “Creed III” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” was arrested in New York City, charged with assaulting a woman, allegedly slapping and choking her. Now, as he awaits his May court date, Variety is reporting that other women have come forward alleging he assaulted them, too. Majors’ publicists and management have reportedly cut him loose over the allegations, which he denies.
“Jonathan Majors is innocent and has not abused anyone,” his attorney, Priya Chaudhry, said in an email to CNN. “We have provided irrefutable evidence to the district attorney that the charges are false. We are confident that he will be fully exonerated.”
According to the criminal complaint, Majors hit a woman, who has not been named, “about the face with an open hand, causing substantial pain and a laceration behind her ear” and “put his hand on her neck, causing bruising and substantial pain.” After his arrest, the US Army pulled ads featuring Majors, saying in a statement, “While Mr. Majors is innocent until proven guilty, prudence dictates that we pull our ads until the investigation into these allegations is complete.”
Through a representative, Majors denied the accusations back in March as well. Back then, Chaudhry said he knew the woman, that she was having “an emotional crisis,” that she has now recanted, that Majors was actually the victim, that there was video evidence proving his innocence and that they expect the charges to be dropped quickly. Some reports said that the woman was Majors’ girlfriend; others, including the statement from his lawyer, frame her as “a woman he knows.”
A month later, though, the charges have not been dropped, and the video evidence that Majors’s lawyer said in March was forthcoming has not been released to the public. Majors’ lawyer did send CNN screenshots of text messages allegedly from the woman, saying that prosecutors “do not have my blessing on any charges being placed.” CNN has not been able to independently verify the screenshots.
According to screenshots, the woman wrote, “I told them it was my fault for trying to grab your phone” and stressed that she told police “this was not an attack.” The woman allegedly wrote, “They assured me that you won’t be charged. They said they had to arrest you as protocol when they saw the injuries on me and they knew we had a fight.” She purportedly also texted, “I’m so sorry you’re in this position. Will make sure nothing happens about this.”
Majors’s lawyers seem to believe that these screenshots demonstrate his innocence. As someone who has spent her career writing about and reporting on women’s rights, including domestic violence, I see them as the exact opposite of exonerating. Of course, none of us except Majors and the woman he is accused of assaulting actually know what happened, and he deserves to be tried in court based on the evidence. But these texts, if they are real, read to me like a textbook example of an abuse victim blaming herself.
This is a disturbing story. But as the facts of this specific case unfold, it is worth grounding them in what we know about gender violence.
It is also true that not every single event fits into statistical probabilities, and jamming a still-unfolding news event into a pre-made frame is a mistake. What happened with Majors is its own distinct fact pattern, and we may very well never know the full story. But the story of his arrest does present a useful opportunity to understand that, whatever may have happened in this specific case, there are patterns to how acts of intimate-partner violence typically play out, to why violence against women remains endemic and to how abusive men often operate.
The first thing we know is that women are more likely to be victims of partner violence than men, and men are more likely to be perpetrators. Too many men are victimized by loved ones, and experience a particular kind of shame and stigma as victims – but violence at the hand of a partner is a global crisis that disproportionately impacts women and girls.
The outcome is also imbalanced: Compared to male victims, female victims of partner violence are much more likely to sustain injuries and are much more likely to be killed by a partner or loved one.
The second thing we know is that when it comes to risk of escalation or murder, not all acts of violence are created equal. All acts of intimate partner violence are equally wrong, but they are not equally predictive of greater violence.
One of the biggest red flags: Strangulation. Even if the act of a person putting their hands around someone else’s throat and squeezing doesn’t kill them, that strangling act increases a victim’s risk of more serious violence and murder in the future, according to the Shelter for Abused Women and Children.
While there is no single archetype of an abusive man, researchers have found that men who hew closely to traditional and rigid masculine roles and expect women to adhere to traditionally feminine ones – sexist men, in other words – are more likely to be physically abusive than men with more progressive views on gender.
The military is one of those hyper-masculine institutions that too often breeds the kind of misogyny and machoism that increases the risk of violence against women, and it’s no surprise that people in the military are both more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence and perpetrators of it. This seems worth mentioning not to say that Majors is guilty because of his participation in Army recruiting commercials, but because when it comes to domestic violence, the US military needs to do a lot more than just remove accused abusers from ads. As long as it’s an institution that emphasizes hypermasculinity and doesn’t fully accept women, it will be an institution where domestic violence remains a problem.
We also know that acts of domestic violence often go unreported. The majority are never reported to police, and those that are reported are shockingly under-investigated and often ignored, according to Sherry Hamby, a psychologist who specializes in violence and victimization. In the unlikely event an arrest is made, prosecutors routinely decline to bring charges; even when charges are brought, convictions are far from assured. Most domestic abusers never spend a day in jail, Hamby notes.
And finally, we know that domestic violence victims often blame themselves. In the text messages, the alleged victim wrote that, “I told them it was my fault for trying to grab your phone” and that the police arrested Majors because it was protocol after the two of them “had a fight” and the police saw injuries on her.
Domestic violence prosecutions are often difficult because victims routinely recant or refuse to testify, not because the event didn’t actually happen, but because they are still entwined with the person who hurt them. Maybe they don’t want him to get in legal trouble, or they are financially dependent on him, or they depend on him for housing, or they’re just human beings caught in an unhealthy spiral of misplaced love, reflexive justification and toxic self-blame.
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Many victims are also understandably fearful that their testimony may lead to more violence against them. Even when victims do testify, the case may be one person’s word against another, which could not be enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt – especially if jurors expect women to be perfect victims and cast doubt on them if they aren’t.
And there are the vast misconceptions about partner violence, cut with a healthy dose of misogyny – assumptions that women routinely lie about violence for personal gain, for example, or a jury hearing about mutual violence and being unable to distinguish between an attack and self-defense.
And these same sexist stereotypes infuse media coverage and public conversations about partner violence.
A better understanding of domestic violence can help us to muddle through these complicated facts with a little more perspective, comprehend that this incident may be capturing headlines but is only a tiny sliver of a much bigger and largely invisible problem and, ideally, keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.