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Behind the Cleveland Kidnappings, a Culture of “Toxic Masculinity” and Gender-Based Violence

The case expresses something that we see all over our culture, which is men trained to think that the way to be a man is to have power over and to dehumanize women.

Cleveland kidnap victims Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michele Knight were allegedly subjected to years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of suspect Ariel Castro. Questions are now being raised why the police did not investigate Castro more closely earlier, especially since Castro was accused in 1993 and 2005 of attacking his ex-wife Grimilda Figueroa. According to court documents, Castro apparently broke her nose and ribs, dislocated her shoulders, knocked out one of her teeth and battered her so badly that a blood clot formed in her brain. Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action, and the Media and editor of the anthology, “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape,” says the Cleveland case is “an extreme example of a pervasive dynamic in our culture which is one of toxic masculinity.” Friedman explains: “It really expresses something that we see all over the culture, which is men trained to think that the way to be a man is to have power over and to dehumanize women.” We also speak to Cleveland reporter Eric Sandy.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. As we are broadcasting now, for our TV viewers, we are showing images of the courtroom where Ariel Castro is about to be arraigned—the suspect in the Cleveland kidnappings and rapes. He has been charged with four counts of kidnapping, three counts of rape, so far. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

To talk more about the Cleveland kidnappings, we’re joined by Jaclyn Friedman, executive direction of Women, Action, and the Media and editor of the anthology, Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape. Eric Sandy is still on the line with us from Cleveland. He’s a staff writer at the Cleveland Scene, a weekly newspaper.

Jaclyn, talk about what you have been writing about right now.

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Well, I really see this case as an extreme example of a pervasive dynamic in our culture, which is one of toxic masculinity. It’s our dominant construction of masculinity, and it really expresses itself as masculinity constructed as power over women, women being dehumanized, being sort of things for use by men for pleasure or other purposes. So, it’s really easy to focus on this guy as a monster and an outlier, but it really expresses something that we see all over the culture, which is men trained to think that the way to be a man is to have power over and to dehumanize women.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jaclyn Friedman, your response when you hear of the role of the police department previously in this case, or the law enforcement in—with Ariel Castro having severely beaten his former wife, never—never being brought to justice for that case?

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Well, it doesn’t surprise me at all, right? There’s a continuum of violence. And it’s easy to put all the attention on this one case, and sometimes I think it’s counterproductive, right? When we start paying attention to the fact that a man breaks his wife or his ex-wife’s nose and there’s all kinds of media and police attention to that, we’ll be getting somewhere.

I think it’s really notable that both Ariel Castro and Charles Ramsey, the man who intervened to free these women, both have histories of domestic violence. And—but Charles Ramsey got domestic violence intervention after a charge, right? And so, he actually did the right thing: He intervened. In a situation that we’re taught to see as private, as not my business, he stepped in, and he intervened. But I think the fact that they both have it in their history shows exactly how common gender-based violence is and how we really don’t treat it like a big deal at all, and that we can do all the bystander intervention training in the world, right—and in fact numerous of these neighbors seem to have tried to intervene at different points—if we don’t have structures that remove impunity for this violence, it’s not going to get anywhere, if the police don’t take these allegations seriously, if they look the other way, if they act with less force than they would if, say, he was—Ariel Castro was alleged to be dealing drugs, right? Can you imagine the SWAT team that would have descended on his house if they thought he was a drug dealer?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Charles Ramsey, the man credited with helping Amanda Berry escape. Of course, it must be pointed out, she has saved herself and the other women and her child in this house. She is the one who called attention.


AMY GOODMAN: But in an interview with a local TV station, Ramsey explained how he helped Berry escape.

CHARLES RAMSEY: I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside, and I see this girl going nuts trying to get out of a house. So I go on the porch. I go on the porch, and she says, “Help me get out. I’ve been in here a long time.” So, you know, I figured it’s a domestic violence dispute. So I opened the door, and we can’t get in that way, because how the door is, it’s so much that a body can’t fit through, only your hand. So, we kicked the bottom. And she comes out with a little girl, and she says, “Call 911. My name is Amanda Berry.”

REPORTER: And did you know who that was when you—when she said that?

CHARLES RAMSEY: When she told me, it didn’t register, until I got to calling 911. And then I’m like, “I’m calling the 911 for Amanda Berry? I thought this girl was dead.” You know what I mean? And she got on the phone, and she said, “Yes, this is me.”

REPORTER: What was the reaction on the girls’ faces? I can’t imagine, to see the sunlight, to be around people.

CHARLES RAMSEY: Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway.

REPORTER: Charles—Charles, thank you very much.

CHARLES RAMSEY: Dead giveaway.

REPORTER: Thank you very much for your time.

CHARLES RAMSEY: Because either she’s homeless, or she got problems. That’s the only reason why she’d run to a black man.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, those comments, “dead giveaway,” have now gone viral all over the web. And McDonald’s, since he was eating hamburgers at the time, has tweeted, “Let’s get in touch, Charles Ramsey,” the man credited for helping Amanda Berry escape. But I wanted to go to the tweets that are now coming out from another reporter, Scott Taylor of 19 Action News of Cleveland, tweeting last night that he had received a copy of a letter by Ariel Castro written in 2004. Police found it in his house. He says, “I am a sexual predator. I need help.” Castro writes, “They are here against their will because they made a mistake of getting in a car with a total stranger.” Allegedly, Castro continues in this note, “I don’t know why I kept looking for another. I already had 2 in my possession.” Eric Sandy, do you know anything about this letter that police allegedly found? Now, I’m very careful to say “allegedly found,” because they name the two brothers, and now the two brothers aren’t being charged. Eric?

ERIC SANDY: Right, yes. We have heard from sources that this letter has been found. And it’s interesting to point out, at the same time, other sources have pointed out that around that time, in the early 2000s, Ariel Castro did know at least Gina DeJesus, and she being the third girl who was taken in 2004, that other girl that he may have been referencing in this letter. Again, I have not read the letter, but I—it’s been sort of confirmed through multiple sources that it exists and it was taken into custody. But it does contain some interesting information. Again, we’re sort of working to corroborate some of the points that are made in the letter, most specifically his relationship to at least Gina and definitely all three of the women.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’re just hearing that the arraignment is over for Ariel Castro, and apparently he has been given a $2 million bail on each count, and I think there are eight counts—

AMY GOODMAN: Seven counts.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Seven counts, so that would be—

AMY GOODMAN: Four for rape so far, and three for kidnapping.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, so that would be $14—

AMY GOODMAN: Or, no, four—three for rape and four for kidnapping.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So that would be $14 million, $14 million bail for him. Eric Sandy, what are you going to be following up today in your coverage?

ERIC SANDY: Essentially, again, sort of broadening our questions. One thing we’re very interested in is piecing together a lot of these claims of reports to police, sort of corroborating them against police reports over the past decade and trying to figure out how many reports were made, how many reports were made with possibly wrong information. At least one city council member has said that calls frequently come to police with incorrect addresses, incorrect information, that sort of get lost in the system, according to this one council member who’s speaking publicly. So we’re going to try and figure out those questions.

At the same time, the Cleveland Police Department is investigating their 911 call-taking process and the individual dispatchers who were taking the 911 calls from Charles Ramsey and Amanda Berry. That process and those employees are under investigation. And so, we are trying to look into what the process is at the Cleveland Police Department, how it works on a typical basis, outside of high-profile cases like this, and what perhaps went wrong, what perhaps went right Monday evening.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the Justice Department is already investigating the police department of Cleveland, and they’ll be doing that for a year and a half before this case. Jaclyn Friedman, all of this comes out as the rape report came out from the Pentagon—I think you can call it that—this astounding report from the Pentagon that came out that said that they believe something like an estimated 70 sexual assaults or rapes are happening every day in the military, up to something like 26,000 in 2012, up 37 percent from 2010. If you could make a larger comment about what is happening right now in this country?

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: Well, I mean, the military is the ultimate power over masculine structure. It goes back to toxic masculinity and total impunity for rapists. We know that when people come forward and do bring rape charges—we know most rapes are not reported, right? When they are reported, we know they’re very unlikely to be prosecuted, when compared with other violent crimes. And we know that even when they are prosecuted, we know they’re very unlikely to result in convictions. That happens within the military; it happens outside the military. And that’s why sexual violence is a pandemic in this country and elsewhere.

And until we end impunity—and I want to say something about that. We need to create police or other justice structures that communities trust, right? So, just saying more policing, better policing, absolutely, but you also have to think about: What about an undocumented immigrant who has been raped? What about communities and individuals, for great reasons, who don’t trust the police? We need much better justice structures. We need to take this as a priority as a culture. If we prioritized women’s safety as a culture, if we prioritized ending sexual violence, we would be pouring massive resources into this. We do into the drone program, right? So, where are the resources being poured into solving this problem?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with a clip of Elizabeth Smart. She is the kidnapping and rape survivor who was held for nine months. She recently drew attention for her remarks about abstinence-only sex education. Elizabeth Smart, abducted from her bedroom in Salt Lake City, Utah, at knifepoint in 2002 when she was 14, later said she was raped daily, forced into polygamous marriage, during what she described as nine months of hell before she was finally found. Here’s part of what she said at Johns Hopkins University last week. Listen carefully.

ELIZABETH SMART: I remember in school one time I had a teacher who was talking about—well, about abstinence. And she said, “Imagine you’re a stick of gum. And when you engage in sex, that’s like—that’s like getting chewed. And then if you do that lots of times, you’re going to become an old piece of gum. And who is going to want you after that?” Well, that’s terrible. But nobody should ever say that. But, for me, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed-up piece of gum. Nobody re-chews a piece of gum. You throw it away.’ And that’s how easily it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Elizabeth Smart, the kidnapping and rape victim who was found after nine months on the street in Utah. Jaclyn Friedman, your final response as you weave this all together?

JACLYN FRIEDMAN: I think she’s spot-on. We have to start treating women as having equal humanity to men. And until we do that, we have to heal the sexual culture. We have to heal our ideas of the masculinity. We have to build new justice structures and strengthen the ones we have. It really is going to take an effort by the entire culture.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Jaclyn Friedman, executive director of Women, Action, and the Media and editor of the anthology, Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape. And also thanks so much to Eric Sandy, the staff writer of the Cleveland Scene, a weekly newspaper. We will link to all their reporting.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a new co-op is in town in Chicago. There’s hope. Stay with us.

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