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/