Full disclosure: I am a domestic violence survivor, which may or may not (oh, who are we kidding, of course it does) color my opinions on this topic. I’ve also published a couple of pieces on the topic, which you can read here and here, if you’re interested.
A few days ago a read this newspaper article detailing the fact that advocates who respond with police to domestic violence calls in Indianapolis would no longer be providing advocate services to survivors between the hours of 7PM and 7AM (you know, the times when intimate partner abuse is most likely to occur) due to budget cuts, cutting services to 20 – 35 survivors each week.
As a survivor and advocate, I, of course, was incensed and posted it across the social media world. A friend of mine (we’ll call her S) in Hawaii contacted me later that evening (in shock) to share her experience in talking about the story with another of her friends (we’ll call her P). Here’s a brief paraphrase of their conversation:
S: Wow, P, can you believe this?! ::insert brief recap of Indianapolis story::
P: Yeah, that’s insane.
S: A guy comes home at 2 am, drunk, beats up his partner, and there’s no help? WTF?!
P: Yeah, and those poor women. It’s just going to get worse.
S: It’s such a complex issue.
P: Yeah, it is.
AND THEN (prepare yourself, readers), P says this:
P: And then they get murdered and it’s all their fault.
Yes, dear readers, you read that correctly. P, a woman (not that that should matter, I guess), just blamed domestic violence victims for their own murders. Let that soak in for a moment.
Have the feelings of ever-so-slightly-murderous rage subsided enough for us to continue? Yes? Then allons-y.
S: WTMF?! They’re victims! It’s not their fault for being murdered. It’s, YOU KNOW, the MURDERER’S fault.
P: Yeah, but they should have left and pressed charges before it got that bad.
S: ::shocked into mostly silence:: It’s not that easy, P. After potentially years of physical and emotional abuse, of being told you’re incapable and worthless, after the cycles of apologies and promises it won’t happen again, it’s hard for women to leave. Not to mention issues with resources like having money, or having to leave behind belonging, or children.
P: Of course there are resources. They should leave and press charges. And if they don’t, they only have themselves to blame.
S: ::jaw drop::
P: Like, I’m careful when I walk somewhere. And if I get rear-ended and don’t wear a seat belt, it’s my fault if I’m hurt.
Let’s pause again for a moment to take in the fact that P just compared domestic violence survivors and victims to people who don’t wear their seat belts. Because making the choice to not wear your seat belt is EXACTLY like making the choice to “let” someone abuse you.
S: So….I have to go.
The saddest and most infuriating part about this whole tale? The fact that it’s not uncommon. Victim-blaming happens far to often in cases of intimate partner abuse, and in cases of violence against women, generally. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard the phrase, “well, why didn’t she just leave him?”*
The reason we hear these comments far too often is largely (though not entirely) due to a lack of education on the subject, and the promulgation of myths about domestic violence generally, and specifically the ease with which victims can “just leave.” Though it’s very likely that most of us know someone who has been abused or assaulted – 1 in three women will be abused or assaulted by an intimate partner in her lifetime – it’s also very likely that we don’t know it. Because victim-blaming is so common, and because survivors are made to feel so guilty and shamed by their victimization, they often don’t share (even with their family or close friends) their experiences.
Setting aside the inappropriateness of the question (as one survivor has put it, “my staying wasn’t a crime”), there are a thousand and one reasons that a survivor doesn’t just up and leave her abuser. A major barrier is the fact that lethality increase dramatically at the time of separation. The most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is the moment she tries to leave; in at least one study, over half of abusers who killed their partners did so at the time of separation. Many women know beyond a shadow of a doubt that when her abuser says he will kill her or her children if she tries to leave, it is not an empty threat.
Other barriers include a lack of financial resources and a lack of an actual place to go. Abusers’ efforts to control and isolate their victims often means that relationships with family and friends deteriorate to the point that survivors do not feel comfortable going to others for help, even to those with whom they were formally very close. Additionally, nearly 20% of women still live in counties without a domestic violence shelter or emergency housing, and currently available shelters are facing budget cuts leading to service cuts. If the choice is between staying with your batterer and having a roof over your children’s heads and food in their stomachs, or leaving and having them face homelessness and hunger, it’s not hard to see why many women choose to stay.
Layer on top of those every day necessities cultural societal and religious beliefs about marriage, families, and children; the stigma of divorce; a fear of not being able to make it on one’s own; still caring for an abusive partner; believing that a partner can change; and a lack of community demand for perpetrator accountability, and it becomes even more apparent how difficult the choice to leave can be for women in abusive relationships.
While we can’t (and shouldn’t want to) force survivors to share their stories with others to help educate the ignorant as to why they “didn’t just leave him,” we CAN educate OURSELVES about domestic violence, and stand up against comments like P’s when we see or hear them. Breaking down the stereotypes and myths about domestic violence is key in this regard. As one author put it, “How can we hold batterer’s accountable when we may not fully understand the complexities of the relationship? And how can we begin to understand the complexities if we are held back by myths?”
If you’d like to learn more about domestic violence, please visit: www.domesticviolence.org
And if you or someone you care about is involved in an abusive relationship, there is hope and help available. Please visit www.thehotline.org/ or call 1.800.799.SAFE
* In my choice of the words woman, she, and her, I do not mean to ignore the male survivors and victims of intimate partner violence. They are used for both for simplicity’s sake, and because the vast majority (estimates range from 85 – 95%) of domestic violence survivors and victims are female.victim