This International Women’s Day, millions of women will suffer domestic violence in silence. It’s time to tackle the stigma that prevents women from speaking out – starting with these dangerous myths.
Since last International Women’s Day, a furore erupted after Ray Rice was caught on film punching his partner. Much of the outrage focussed not on the actions of the sportsman, but on his victim’s decision to remain in the relationship. Domestic violence survivors and advocates lashed back at the widespread victim-blaming with hashtags such as #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft.
Little has changed since then. As the world talks about celebrating and empowering women, victim-blaming and ignorance still hinders effective action against all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence. Today, fear of being judged will prevent millions of women from reaching out for help. We must demolish the dangerous myths that fuel stigma. We must no longer enable the domestic violence epidemic to continue unabated.
MYTH #1 Only vulnerable women experience domestic violence.
Vulnerable women are indeed at increased risk. According to the World Health Organisation, women who have witnessed domestic violence as children are more likely to be abused themselves in later life. Women who have experienced domestic abuse may also be drawn to men who appear strong enough to ‘protect’ them from their abusive ex – only to wind up in another destructive relationship.
However, women who consider themselves successful and educated also find themselves on the receiving end of domestic violence. Even the world of celebrity is not immune – Rihanna, Pamela Anderson, Nigella Lawson, and Halle Berry are just a handful of stars thought to have experienced violence at the hands of their partners.
In particular, sociopaths and narcissists target successful women, hoping to leech on to their social and economic status – and to demonstrate their own ‘power’ by destroying them.
MYTH #2 It is easy to identify and avoid an abuser. Women that don’t only have themselves to blame.
Whilst there are often early warning signs, abusers are accomplished manipulators. Few declare their true colours at the start of a relationship, and they often wear a carefully constructed mask. Conditioning begins early, so a power-dynamic is already in place by the time full-blown abuse becomes obvious – making it harder for women to escape.
Combine this with a society which affirms to women – from early childhood – that abuse is not abuse. As children, we are taught that love is Beauty and the Beast – a fairytale in which a young woman is kidnapped by a monstrous villain, whom she eventually ‘transforms’ through her love. As young adults, we are offered Twilight, which encourages us to value a bond with a dangerous man who stalks, isolates and manipulates his partner. As adults, we get the Fifty Shades franchise: an abusive relationship is packaged up as a woman’s fantasy to titillate the masses.
If society itself struggles to define and recognise abuse, how can we blame individuals who find themselves in an abusive relationship?
MYTH #3 It’s unfair to focus on women when talking about domestic abuse.
Both men and women can perpetrate domestic abuse, and it happens in same-sex relationships too. Thanks in part to much-needed awareness programmes, reporting of female on male intimate partner violence is improving. Statistics vary, but some sources say that men are the victims one in three cases of domestic violence in Britain. It is right that awareness and programmes are tackling domestic violence in these contexts.
However, it is also right that the focus must be on the group which are most overwhelmingly at risk: women. One in three women will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, and:
“women are considerably more likely to experience repeated and severe forms of violence, including sexual violence. They are also more likely to have experienced sustained physical, psychological or emotional abuse, or violence which results in injury or death.” Women’s Aid
MYTH #4 Men are violent because they are angry.
Abusers do not abuse because they are angry. According to perpetrator programmes, abusers deliberately manufacture anger so they can abuse their partner. Some admit they were not as angry as they seemed. Survivors of domestic violence report that they have been attacked for no apparent reason. Often, abusers change their ‘rules’ without notice, to provide an excuse to abuse their partner. Many will use drink or drugs as a cover for their abuse.
Childhood abuse does not cause domestic violence. Neither does a stressful job, or any number of traumatic past relationships. Perpetrators regularly trot out ‘reasons’ which are, in truth, simply excuses designed to deflect the blame away from themselves. Such excuses enable abusers to avoid accepting responsibility for their own actions.
Domestic violence occurs when an individual acts on their overriding need to control their partner, by whatever means necessary.
MYTH #5 Women who stay are weak and complicit in the abuse.
Women do not stay with their abuser because they are weak, or because they accept the way they are treated. Many women develop sophisticated coping-mechanisms and actively seek to manage the risk of abuse. They are resourceful and strong (though they may not always realise this).
Leaving is hard. Women may remain in the relationship because of practical factors, such as a lack of financial independence. However, the biggest obstacles are a complex web of emotional attachment – including trauma-bonding – and fear. To escape, they must overcome a variety of challenges and often endure emotional blackmail and determined hoovering campaigns.
Around 76 per cent of women that do leave a violent partner will still be assaulted by him (Humphreys and Thiara 2002). Women are more at risk from being assaulted or killed by a violent partner, after they leave (Paradine and Wilkinson, 2004). Violence and abuse often do not end when a women ends the relationship.
Have you encountered any of these myths? What impact do you think such misconceptions have on those of us grappling with domestic violence?
> Article adapted from a post published on this site on 8 March 2014.