What Charlie Sheen Teaches Us About Domestic Violence

The fact that we are still tuning in to watch a celebrity who is also a serial batterer is a sign that we don't give this issue the seriousness it deserves

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Mark Davis / Getty Images

Actor Charlie Sheen attends the FX Summer Comedies Party held at Lure on June 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.

In the weeks leading up to the premiere of Charlie Sheen’s new television show, Anger Management, critics roundly panned the series and said that it would not resurrect his career. They were wrong. Anger Management, a show about an ex-baseball player who has problems controlling his rage, garnered a record-breaking viewership for FX, the cable channel on which it aired. That success follows a highly successful car commercial for the Fiat 500 Abarth, which also pokes fun at Sheen’s legal troubles by showing him driving the car through a party inside of a mansion, in which we learn he has been sentenced to house arrest. It has received over 4 million views on YouTube.

As someone who once worked as a counselor in a shelter for battered women, I am deeply troubled by how lightly we take Sheen’s long history of domestic violence, which dates back to 1994 when a college student sued him for hitting her in the head after she declined his sexual advances (the case was settled out of court). In 1996 he was arrested and pleaded guilty to battering a girlfriend who needed seven stitches to her lip, and in 2009 he pleaded guilty to first choking and then holding a knife to his third wife’s throat. Yes, some of the initial interest in Anger Management has waned, but even the fact that people initially tuned in to see a celebrity who also happens to be a serial batterer is a sign that we don’t give this issue the seriousness it deserves.

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And it’s not just Charlie Sheen. Last month, undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. began serving a 90-day prison term for punching, kicking and pulling the hair of his girlfriend. Like Sheen, Mayweather was a repeat offender. In 2002 he was convicted of battery against two women at a nightclub, and in 2005 he was arrested for punching and kicking the same woman he attacked last year. His televised fight in May was one of the most watched in the history of boxing.

This tendency to overlook domestic violence in those who have wealth and fame is particularly troubling considering that according to a recently released report from the Police Executive Research Forum, over the past two years, the struggling economy and high rates of long-term unemployment have lead to a 40% increase in cases among the poor and unemployed. In these cases, the victims were both spouses and children, and law-enforcement officials blame the stress of joblessness and dwindling bank accounts for the rise they are seeing. Repeat batterers account for some of the increase, and as a result, district attorneys in states like New York are asking legislatures to create sentencing guidelines treating their crimes more harshly.

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Though there is no data available on differences in sentencing and time served specifically for celebrities who batter, in his 2009 book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, Jeffrey Reiman argues that the criminal-justice system favors the wealthy: they are charged with crimes far less frequently than the poor and when convicted, they have far more lenient sentences than the poor. And of course we have all noticed that stars like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, when convicted of crimes such as drunk driving or drug possession, rarely serve more than a small fraction of their sentences.

The rich and famous abusers may be treated differently, but domestic violence itself still knows no boundaries of age, race, education or income and is a widespread and growing problem in the U.S. One poll found that 33 million adults, or 15% of all Americans, had been victims, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that almost 10% of high school students reported being hit, slapped or physically hurt by their boyfriend or girlfriend. Given those numbers, can’t we do our part and just turn off the television when serial abusers appear? We can find our entertainment elsewhere.

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