No Way to Treat a Lady: Victims Get Busted, Too

Krystal was getting ready to go to her weekly batterer class when her husband threw a glass of water in her face, called her a slut and took her car keys away from her. No wife of his was going to be counseled about domestic violence--not without a fight, anyway.

When the cops arrived, husband Mark told them that his wife was crazy, a dumb ex-stripper who was always making up stories about him. The female officer tried to get Krystal to calm down, but every time the cops turned to talk to her, Mark made faces at her behind their backs--rolling his eyes, sticking out his tongue. Finally, Krystal lost it.

"Stupid, stupid me, I threatened to kill him," says Krystal, who asked that her real name not be published. "I don't know why I said it. I knew it was stupid as soon as it left my mouth. I'd just promised my five-year-old daughter that I wasn't going to jail."

Krystal spent the night in jail. Mark was arrested, too. But because Krystal was already on probation for a previous domestic-violence arrest--an incident in which Mark assaulted her, she says, but one in which the physical evidence made her look like the aggressor--she wound up being fined $135 and sentenced to a 36-week batterer treatment program, to be commenced after she finished the 36-week program she was already attending. Mark, on the other hand, was free to attack again.

Krystal's two consecutive, court-ordered treatment programs is one of the stranger examples of the unintended consequences of Colorado's war on domestic violence. In many cases, the process of mandatory arrest and treatment has made it more difficult to sort out batterer from batteree. Although more men are still arrested than women, at a rate of at least eight to one, the number of women being arrested for spousal assaults is rising, too.

Not all of the women arrested are self-defending victims; one recent study of male batterers found that two-thirds of their female partners admitted "being physically aggressive toward their partners prior to the initial arrest." But Krystal's story raises questions about what happens when the system treats victims as perpetrators--and whether all the "treatment" the state can dole out over eighteen months does any good when it's directed at the wrong party.

Now in her early twenties, Krystal ran away from her frequently divorced mother when she was thirteen. At sixteen she was living with a man whose idea of a good time was to invite a few buddies over, empty a case of beer and pummel Krystal when she got uppity. "I took it and I took it and I took it because I had nowhere else to go," she says. "I told myself, 'Just keep your mouth shut. Tomorrow will be a new day, and he'll be nice.'"

She met Mark when she was eighteen and stripping in a local club. It was love at first sight, she says. "I laid a big ol' kiss on him and said, 'You are the most beautiful man I have ever seen in my life. I hope that you will come back and see me.' The first words out of his mouth were, 'Don't hustle me.'"

Mark came back to see her three days in a row. Then he told her he had a girlfriend. Krystal was devastated. ("I started to cry--me, crying over a guy.") But they soon discovered that they'd grown up in the same neighborhood and that Mark had had a crush on her when she was a little girl.

"There were some awesome connections between the two of us from the second we met, and that just kept getting stronger and stronger," Krystal says. "Twenty days later he was living with me. Six months later I was pregnant with our son."

Krystal gave up stripping to be a full-time mom. Her new husband wasn't a drunk, but he was possessive; she estimates that she's gone out on her own a total of four times in the past four years. A few months ago they argued, and he tried to take her son and leave. The Wheat Ridge police found a calm Mark and a hysterical Krystal. Although she claimed he'd assaulted her, he pointed to a chair she'd thrown. "He kicked me in the crotch and pushed me in my face, and I went to jail," she recalls bitterly.

Krystal pleaded guilty to a single charge of harassment and received a year of probation, a $550 fine and 36 weeks of domestic-violence classes. The water-throwing incident occurred a few weeks later; this time they both went to jail. But Krystal's threat to kill Mark, made in front of the arresting officers, was considered a more serious offense than her husband's behavior, since it amounted to a violation of the conditions of her probation. She received another year of probation, another fine and more classes; this time, she'd also decided to try to keep Mark out of the system.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast