We’ve got this domestic violence thing mostly wrong.
Physical or emotional violence toward an intimate partner is never acceptable. Violence is especially unacceptable in the context of a romantic relationship because of the vulnerability, interdependence and love present within intimate relationships. It is a deep, deep betrayal. One for which there should be significant consequences. We’ve got the consequences part down - some of the time. It helps if the abuse is captured on tape and/or the victim is an “acceptable” victim.
We’ve got most of the rest of it wrong.
Treating the survivor like a child
When abuse happens in an adult relationship the only person who gets to decide what choices the survivor makes is the survivor. If you don’t like their choices, you can shut the fuck up. Unless you live in that relationship, you don’t know what is going into the survivor’s decision making process. A key part of abuse is control. When you try and control the survivor’s choices, you abuse the survivor all over again.
There is no “type of person” abuse happens to. It can happen to anyone. It can happen to you, it can happen to me, it can happen to your child. Even your son. No matter how old he is, how big or how straight. People of all genders and orientations receive abuse. People of all genders and orientations dish it out.
Stop joking, concern trolling or making fun of people who stay in abusive relationships. You never know what’s going on behind closed doors. That friend you’re talking to may need your help one day. Don’t make it harder for them to ask.
We need to approach survivors with compassion and respect for their decision making abilities. If they are staying in a relationship that is abusive, they have reasons. In some cases these reasons are related to finances, destroyed self image, children, religion, a hope that things will get better, denial or love. Frequently, it’s multiple reasons. If we truly want to support survivors we must never, ever imply that someone who is abused is less than, weak or stupid. They get plenty of that at home. We need to make it as easy as possible for them to ask for help and support. We need to honor the strength in their survival. Living through emotional and/or physical abuse is an act of courage. And asking for help, saying out loud that someone you love is hurting you, is one of the hardest things in the world.
Turning the abuser into a super villain
Most people who have engaged in abusive behaviors are not monsters. They are flawed humans. They are people deeply in need of help, healing and therapy. They should experience consequences for their action, but they should not be ostracized. Isolating an abuser, or worse both the abuser and the survivor only creates an environment rife with the possibility of continued abuse.
It’s easy to vilify someone who has committed abuse. It’s comfortable. It makes it seem like abuse can’t happen to you. Or that you would never be the kind of person who’d abuse another. Hopefully you aren’t. But I guarantee that you know someone who has. You may care deeply about this person. They may be deserving of your love and compassion. They also may have committed the crime of hitting someone in anger or intentionally belittling someone they love. Abuse happens in real life. With real people. Sometimes good people do horrible things.
Our current conversations about abuse don’t acknowledge the humanity of the abuser. We say, “a real man doesn’t hit a woman”. We throw them out with the rest of the trash. So, what is someone who’s abusing their partner supposed to do if they actually want to stop? How are they supposed to ask for help when the social cost is so high?
Abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in context. We foster a culture that allows this abuse to happen. If it weren’t a cultural as well as in individual problem, it wouldn’t be so pervasive, 1 in 4 women wouldn’t have experienced abuse. Each and every one of us is a part of the problem. Each of us can be part of the solution.
Over genderizing intimate violence.
Domestic violence is absolutely disproportionately directed at women by men. A part of addressing that kind of violence lies in addressing fucked up patriarchal assumptions about men owning women, how men should express emotions, the acceptability of male violence and the commodification of women’s bodies. However, abuse is about more than that. It’s about wounded people making terrible choices that hurt, maim, even kill people they supposedly love. Intimate violence occurs in same sex relationships at similar rates as it does in opposite sex relationships. Sometimes in opposite sex relationships the woman is the perpetrator. According to the National Coalition on Domestic Violence 1 in 14 men have survived domestic violence – that’s 835,000 men each year. Men, straight, gay or bi have nowhere to go if they need to flee a violent relationship. The stigma for male survivors is huge. Services and shelters for men are almost completely non-existent. The same is also true for trans or gender queer people. Intimate partner violence is a result of gender oppression, a cultural understanding that some level of violence is somehow acceptable, lack of accountability for abusers, untreated mental illness and/or addiction and insufficient education on appropriate relationship & communication skills.
Intimate violence only affects the people in the relationship
Violence such as domestic violence and sexual assault have wide ripple affects in both families and communities. We saw that yesterday. How many of you are angry or disappointed in Ray Rice? I am. When he implied it was a mutual combat situation in which he over reacted, I chose to believe him. It wasn’t. When he said that he and his wife were seeking counseling and working on their issues, I believed him. I’ve seen relationships with a history of violence heal from that violence. I hope deeply that the Rice family is able to find healing. In the mean time, thousands of fans are also angry and hurt. Monday night a family member of mine who’s 11 years old was crying when he found out what happened. He felt betrayed. This is what happens on a smaller scale in communities. People lose friends and family. People lose jobs (both abusers and survivors). Friends, family, children and co-workers feel hurt and betrayed. It’s ugly. It’s painful. It’s not ok.
It’s not black and white
Domestic violence happens on a continuum. Have you ever been so mad you slammed a door? Or threw something? Or said something intentionally hurtful to your partner? Then you, like many people, have been on that continuum. Culturally, we have to recognize even these gateway behaviors as unacceptable. The more we accept them, the easier it is to keep stumbling down that path to violence. It can start with a door slam and end in a death. Each step down that path makes the next one easier. It’s never ok to hit your partner. It’s also not ok to throw the mail at them.
Domestic violence is layered and vicious. It is born from pain and a desperate grab for power and control. It is utterly unacceptable. So how do we stop it?
· We let people know it’s not acceptable.
· We acknowledge that in intimate relationships, rage can happen.
· We provide people with the tools to prevent violence resulting from rage.
· We teach people that relationships are about supporting each other and never, ever about controlling each other.
· When people fail, we to call them on with severe compassion, consequences and help.
· We start talking about anger and appropriate responses when our kids are toddlers.
· We model appropriate behavior to our kids and do this on every level, with our partners, with strangers in the grocery store, even in the car at other drivers. When we fail, we explain that what we did was wrong, why and demonstrate making amends.
· We stop harassing women on the street and denigrating women and femininity with our words.
· We respect each other’s body autonomy.
· We never, ever demean a survivor.
· And, when someone has fallen, when they have been violent to a partner, if they have had the strength to follow through on taking responsibility, making amends, seeking therapy and changing their behavior, we don’t throw them away, we provide them with a path to redemption. We allow them to earn back our trust and respect. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s motivation for hard, deep and painful work of healing.
Consequences are important. But we need to start with prevention and policies that focus on the survivor’s needs We need to stop violence it before it starts. We can stop this. So let’s get busy.
If you or someone you love is currently being affected by domestic violence, please reach out. You are not alone. RAINN, the domestic abuse hotline for men and women (888.7HOTLINE) or the National Domestic Abuse hotline (tel:1-800-799-7233) can provide you with local resources and support. If you feel you are at risk of abusing someone or are currently in a relationship in which you are the abuser, The House of Ruth in Baltimore has a program for abusers (410) 889-7884.