Having worked with survivors of domestic abuse for many years, I am still shocked at the way in which society continues to blame women for the violence and abuse they suffer at the hands of men. This tendency to minimise or justify male violence by attempting to place the blame on the victim is particularly obvious every time a woman is murdered by her partner and the reports focus on what a great family man he was, or on how much he loved her. It is not just a media problem however, some of the comments we might make ourselves often reveal a degree of victim blaming. Here are 5 things that people commonly say about women experiencing domestic abuse that may be adding to the problem:
1.”Why doesn’t she just leave?”
I used to wonder this about my Mum. She stayed with my Dad for 25 years and I desperately wanted her to leave him. I would pack her bags periodically, begging her to come with me but she never would. I didn’t understand.
What I didn’t know at the time was that my Mum wasn’t simply choosing to stay – she was robbed of her choice. People in hostage situations are never asked why they chose to stay with their captors because there is a recognition that the dangers of trying to leave would be far greater than the risk of staying. This is exactly how it is for women who are experiencing domestic abuse. They are most at risk after they leave their partner and they know this. 75% of women suffering from domestic abuse who are murdered are killed after they try to leave. People often underestimate the dangers of domestic abuse – these women are trying to survive and often say that they stay with the perpetrator because at least then they know where he is. It is better than the constant fear of what might happen if and when she leaves.
Like many other survivors of domestic abuse, my Mum is also physically disabled, which meant that she was even more dependent on my Dad. Disabled women are twice as likely to experience domestic abuse than their able-bodied counterparts, and find it even harder to leave. Lots of refuges are not equipped to deal with wheelchair users or have limited accessible rooms, and disabled women are often totally financially dependent on their partners, especially if they are unable to work. They may also fear losing their children as a result of being continually told that they would not be able to care for them if they were on their own. Rather than asking why she doesn’t leave we should therefore be asking why his violence doesn’t stop.
2.”I wouldn’t put up with that for a second”
Everyone likes to imagine that they would immediately end a relationship if they experienced violence from a partner. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone however, and affects 1 in 4 women over the course of their lifetime. What some people fail to understand is that the violence doesn’t start on the first date. Perpetrators are skilled manipulators and physical abuse is almost always associated with psychological abuse. Some men who go on to kill their partners have never physically abused the victim before – they managed to maintain such a high degree of control using psychological abuse that it is only when they lose the control and the woman leaves, that they resort to violence.
The dynamics within an abusive relationship often recreate patriarchal values at the level of the family. The man is the ‘head of the household’ and the woman must know her place. Gradually women become isolated as the perpetrator slowly convinces her that their friends and family are against them. Soon enough the woman has nobody to talk to about her relationship and the shame surrounding the abuse silences her. The psychological abuse continues with the perpetrator convincing the woman that it is her fault, she is the crazy one who nobody would believe anyway. When there are violent episodes, there are often loving apologies the next day or gifts to make up for it. Either that, or the violence is denied, made up, all in her head.
When we say we wouldn’t put up with that sort of thing we are perpetuating the idea that the woman is somehow to blame for the violence in the relationship by not ending it. We are setting ourselves up as somehow superior to survivors of domestic abuse. Until it happens to us, we can not comprehend how much the woman is affected by the emotional abuse – to the point where she may think the violence is what she deserves.
3.”It’s half a dozen of one and six of the other”
I could just as easily have called this one “She gives as good as she gets” as they are both phrases seeking to divert the blame away from the perpetrator. Before there were shelters for women fleeing domestic abuse in the US, women used to kill their violent partners at about the same sort of rate that men used to kill their abused female partners. When the system of shelters was put into place, the rates at which women killed their violent male partners fell dramatically whilst the rate at which men killed their female partners remained the same. In other words, women killed their male partners in self-defence, as a last resort and when they were offered another way out, they took it.
It is true that some women are violent in response to the abuse they experience in their relationships, but this violence almost always puts them at more risk. If women do fight back, the retaliation is often far more severe. A punch in the face from a woman is often dramatically different than if it were to be the other way round after all. Research also shows that men are actually more likely to report violence from their female partners to the police and that when they do so, women are far more likely to be arrested. When we talk about them both being as bad as each other, we are ignoring the fact that male violence against women is a reflection of patriarchal power relations reproduced on a micro level. We ignore the fact that women are under valued and considered inferior to men at a societal level and that it is this belief that reinforces the violence. We are also ignoring the basic biological fact that men are often stronger than women and the violent acts they commit are often more frequent and severe.
4.”She should put her children first”
The belief that women are responsible for protecting their children from violent perpetrators is a belief held up in law (Children and Young Person’s Act) and many women are prosecuted for ‘failure to protect’ when their children are harmed by the perpetrator. I rarely hear people say “If he put his children first, he would stop the violence” and once again the onus is on the woman to end the relationship. The woman may be in fear of her life and know that if she reports anything to a professional the consequences for her or the child may be severe. Many women, suffering from years of emotional abuse and trauma find it very difficult to think clearly and are in survival mode, just trying to get through each day and stay alive. In this traumatised state, it is very difficult to plan ahead or process what is happening rationally and women are often doing the best they can do to protect their children. This may not always be obvious to those of us on the outside. We might not always realise that given the circumstances, the woman is putting the children first as much as is possible at the time.
5.”She always seems to choose bad relationships”
There seems to be a belief that some women choose a certain kind of partner and are attracted to the ‘wrong kind of man’. I have seen numerous professional reports blaming women for ‘choosing’ to enter into yet another violent relationship and this is yet another form of victim blaming. To suggest that any woman would choose to be subjected to domestic abuse is both insulting and mindblowingly ignorant. As I have made clear above, by the time a woman realises her partner is abusive, it is often too late and she faces further risks in trying to leave. The blame is rarely placed where it needs to be – perpetrators often have a series of violent relationships and people rarely ask why he chooses to dominate his partners time after time. Perhaps if people began to ask the right questions, then it would finally become clearer where the actual responsibility lies.
Until we think about the things we say about domestic violence we may be unknowingly contributing to victim blaming. It’s important that we name the problem – male violence – if we are to be able to do anything to change it. For more information about victim blaming and to support a great campaign, go to: http://everydayvictimblaming.com/
25 Comments Add yours
I think people often fail to be empathetic and compassionate towards the domestic abuse victim because often they are unable to cope with a very painful reality, even vicariously. Placing blame on the victim instead of the perpetrator negates uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability, horror, fear etc that may be induced by accepting the facts of the situation. Of course there are deep societal/ patriarchal prejudices around women and gender that come into play also. I learnt a lot from this very compassionate and informative website on the subject of domestic abuse recently: http://www.abuseandrelationships.org/ including the fact that the oft quoted 40% of domestic abuse victims being male, is actually false since when the knowledge of primary aggressor dynamics is incorporated into research the figure looks more like 5% male victims (for the USA anyway.)
I hope your mum has managed to build a better life for herself now, and wish you all the best in hopefully continuing to recover from those difficult experiences yourself. God bless.
My Mum is now happily married to a kind and gentle man I’m happy to report. She left eventually.
Thanks for the link. The false statistic of 40% of victims being male comes from dodgy reporting which doesn’t take into account severity or frequency of abuse. Although there are some male victims, anybody working in the field can confirm that in reality these numbers are very low. I work with children affected by DV and have not seen a case where the woman was the primary aggressor in my work so far.
Hi, you have put this so eloquently, I understand what it is like, it’s true it’s this background of your life that is so normal until you have a new background. I have just begun blogging about my experience growing up and would love to know your thoughts, my experience doesn’t quite fit the family violence that people write about in the media. This leaves me confused and I wonder if anyone else might help shed more light x
Thanks for this. I have sent you an email x
this is total BS. stop spreading these lies. as someone who has suffered abuse I broke the cycle myself . i’ve studied and live through trauma and abuse and PTSD so I know what I’m talking about . after a certain point when you recognize you are being abused and you don’t do anything about it you become the enabler . if u have any self-respect you would do everything to get away from your abuser, that’s what I did. and no I didn’t have outside help or resources. if you stay with your abuser you deserve to be abused . as a woman who has survived and escaped abuse all I have to say to other abused women stop being a victim and yeah you do you seek out bad relationships. if you started taking responsibility for your own actions you wouldnt be abused . only I’d rather be dead than to stay in abusive relationship
I am also a survivor and this has informed my perspective. It sounds like you are very strong and I’m really pleased you have escaped the abuse you suffered.
No woman deserves to be abused by anybody and I can’t believe a fellow survivor would wish that on anyone else. It sounds like you are blaming women for their own abuse which is what this article is all about. I hope you realise some day that not everyone’s experience mirrors yours. I work with survivors and have done so for many years so I feel fairly confident that this isn’t BS as you put it but each to their own.
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This may sound convincing to young people and those who read such materials but not people who have lived to see it all happen. In reality these situations are not similar at all you can’t ggeneralise. As we are created differently also domestic violence have ddifferent causes while both partners may become victims of domestic violence. It’s in the same way why a partner doesn’t get out of relationship not necessarily women only. I suggest any information that is for public consultation should be well balanced.
I have lived it – I’m a survivor of childhood domestic abuse and as an adult in a previous relationship. I also work as a domestic abuse specialist and a therapist and these are all comments I hear all the time, often from professionals.
I think girls and women should be trained from a young age to identify what sort of behavior is unacceptable and most importantly to have self-respect because if you do, then you wouldn’t be putting up with any of this rubbish from a man. There are signs that indicate an abusive person, and by teaching young girls and women self-respect, they can see the value in themselves and refuse to put up with potentially abusive partners.
I think boys and men should be trained from a young age not to abuse women. I do agree that healthy relationship education is very important but I think the emphasis needs to be on teaching potential perpetrators to respect women.
Reblogged this on outsidelawyer and commented:
Most of us have said at least one of these at some point in our lives. I know I used to say the first one. I didn’t know any better.
Thanks for your honesty, I have thought them too, even as a survivor.
Thank you for writing this and showing us all our blind spots.
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Yes, I am yet another survivor of abuse and I am disappointed by some of the comments written under this article. Not as agressive and poisonous as the comments you see under any article about domestic abuse or womens rights on the Guardian website, but then, those are written by misogynists and obvious abusers.
Comments that blame the recipient of abuse for the abuse are very damaging, it isn’t as if you don’t get told enough times by your abuser that its your fault he’s being abusive.
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And it’s particularly ironic given that the point of my article is that women are blamed for the abuse. Thanks for your comment.
I’m not quite finished. We all have to be responsible for our own behaviour, and that includes people with abusive behaviour patterns.
I am not responsible for the actions of my ex-partner, and neither is any other person who has found themselves in an abusive situation.
I think these ideas are a reflection of our culture, as we do seem to have a habit of blaming the abused in many other types of abusive situations too.
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well thankyou for listening, and for writing about such a painful subject, it’s a subject that needs to be aired out, so that young women may have access to such important information , and might avoid what some of us have been through.
An abusive relationship can be devastating to your mental and physical health.
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Yay I am a survivor! I am alive to tell the tale! I enjoyed your piece very much. Many of the points ring true. But just to mention that women are not the only ones to live under the regime of abuse, men do to. It is an epidemic that is not gender specific nor hetrosexual or homosexual.
I’m glad you liked it. Whilst men do experience abuse, the vast majority of perpetrators are also male. I therefore see domestic violence as gendered violence, which arises largely as a result of gender inequality.
Very well put. Glad I stumbled across your post 🙂
Just wanted to say how well articulated your post was and how it really shines light onto one of the biggest faults of our society where we tend to always blame the victim. This reaction may not be deliberate, and something that we all automate to doing but as you have said, is unfair and insensitive to ask “why don’t you just leave” as each situation is different and as outsiders, we can never fully understand what is going on behind closed doors. Thanks for sharing your story and your views.
We have recently started this campaign that aims to raise awareness to the issue of domestic violence and our blog discusses topical issues relating to the matter. One that you might be interested in reading is about ‘Why do we always blame the victim?’ https://onecoupleonepunch.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/why-do-we-always-blame-the-victim/
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Thanks for your support and for the link to your important campaign. I will have a look!
I witnessed my mother go through domestic abuse for many years, unfortunately all three of her children were a victim of the backlash of her dating a violent abuser. This subject is so important. I had so much anger towards my mother for the longest time because I blamed her for the sexual and physical abuse we endured as children. Now I realize she was a victim too. I have wholeheartedly forgiven my mother. My abuser died last year of stomach cancer and although one of his last wishes was to see us, I couldn’t find myself to do so. Thank you for raising awareness!
I am sorry you had to endure domestic abuse too and also to have to live through your abuser trying to see you again. Thanks for reading my blog and I wish you all the best.