In March 2010, then-state Sen. Eric Schneiderman held a press conference to announce his new bill, which would make strangulation ― a uniquely terrifying form of violence common in abusive relationships ― a serious crime in the state of New York.
“This is an important moment for us and for the struggle to make sure that crimes of domestic violence are treated as effectively and seriously as they need to be,” he said, flanked by law enforcement and advocates. “Our approach to domestic violence has to be an approach that says ‘hands off.’”
On Monday, eight years later, Schneiderman resigned his post as New York’s attorney general after two ex-girlfriends came forward with claims that he strangled and physically abused them while serving as the state’s top law enforcement official. In a statement, Schneiderman denied the allegations, saying: “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity. I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”
If charges are brought in New York, Schneiderman’s own bill may be used against him.
The women’s graphic accounts, published in The New Yorker along with claims from two more women who were afraid to be identified, offer insight into the insidious terror of domestic violence, and specifically, into the act of strangulation, one of the most dangerous and underprosecuted forms of assault.
Women who have been strangled are seven times more likely to become a homicide victim in the future, according to a 2008 study. Experts now believe men who strangle their partners are among the most dangerous abusers out there.
“When a woman has been strangled, she’s much more likely to be battered again by the same man, and much more likely to later be killed by him,” said Casey Gwinn, a former San Diego city attorney who is an expert on domestic violence. “That’s why strangling a woman is not a fetish, it is a felony.”
Strangulation is a favorite tactic of abusers, as it terrorizes victims into submission, often without leaving any visible marks. It is the ultimate form of control to hold someone’s life in your hands. Strangulation is also notoriously difficult to prosecute. Schneiderman knew all this.
Tanya Selvaratnam, who dated Schneiderman from 2016 to 2017, told The New Yorker that during her romantic relationship with him, he slapped her, spat at her, threatened to kill her if they broke up, and strangled her. “He was cutting off my ability to breathe,” she said.
Michelle Manning Barish, who dated Schneiderman from 2013 to 2015, also described him as a violent abuser who physically assaulted her on multiple occasions. She told The New Yorker that a month into their relationship, he forcefully hit her on the ear and pinned her on the bed. That’s when, she said, he strangled her.
“Strangulation is a means of terrifying and terrorizing the victim. Victims believe they are going to die.”
“I lost my balance and fell backward onto the bed. I sprang up, but at this point there was very little room between the bed and him. I got up to try to shove him back, or take a swing, and he pushed me back down,” she said. “He then used his body weight to hold me down, and he began to choke me. The choking was very hard. It was really bad. I kicked. In every fibre, I felt I was being beaten by a man.”
Once she got free, she said, he accused her of scratching him during the incident. At some point, Schneiderman warned her that hitting an officer of the law is a felony, she said.
Kelsey McKay, a former prosecutor who trains police how to handle strangulation cases, said Schneiderman’s alleged comments were right out of the abuser playbook. She said men who strangle often have superficial injuries, such as scratches and bites, inflicted by victims as they struggle to survive.
“Perpetrators then say, look what you did to me!” she said.
If the police respond to the scene, McKay added, it’s easy for them to put the wrong person in handcuffs. “The victim doesn’t have any visible injuries and the man does,” she said. “If law enforcement is not trained correctly, guess who gets arrested?”
Historically, McKay said, strangulation has been treated as a trivial crime because of the lack of visible injuries to the victim. But over the past decade, many states, like New York, have passed statutes intended to make it easier to hold abusers accountable for strangulation, and to increase penalties.
Studies suggest anywhere from 47 to 68 percent of abused women have been strangled. Those who survive may experience post-traumatic stress disorder, strokes, vision changes, memory lapses and even traumatic brain injuries.
The emotional aftermath can be just as debilitating as the physical symptoms.
“Strangulation is a means of terrifying and terrorizing the victim,” said Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Victims believe they are going to die.”
She said the violent act sends a clear message to victims: “I could kill you and I could do it right now.”
While anyone can be an abuser, Gandy said, it is especially difficult to get help when they are a member of law enforcement. “You don’t feel that there’s anyone you can report it to, and if you do report it, you fear that you won’t be believed,” she said.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.