Domestic violence is not your fault

Periodically, domestic violence flickers up in the news, and I feel a little thrill of excitement — perhaps this is the time we will actually get serious about it, and the time we will have a meaningful discussion about how to change the narrative on domestic violence. I am, inevitably, wrong, because we do not live in a world where people want to create meaningful change. We live in a world where systemic institutional problems are reduced to individual issues to be tackled one at a time, despite the fact that this markedly doesn’t work.

I notice a lot of themes coming up when I see domestic violence in the news, and I could have a whole series about them, but there’s one thing in particular that’s grinding my gears lately. That’s the insistence that victims have a responsibility to report and to testify. This is often framed as a plea for them to get the justice they deserve, another creative iteration of ‘we know what’s good for you, ladies, just settle down and do what we tell you.’

But it’s not, really. I mean, sure, some people probably definitely do ardently encourage victims to report and testify because they genuinely believe that this will help them achieve some kind of closure. And for some, it totally does. Being empowered to take legal steps and being supported by people who can assist them throughout the process can be tremendously valuable. But that’s not the only reason people encourage victims to report, and I hope that we all know that.

There’s a common attitude that domestic violence is the fault of the victim — she shouldn’t be doing whatever it was she’s doing that makes him hit her, say. Or she should leave him if it looks like he’s abusive, rather than staying with him and enduring it. If she’s not ‘strong’ enough to leave, she obviously doesn’t serve social supports, because she’s just a pathetic woman who’s unwilling to take action to defend herself. There’s no accounting here for the complex sociocultural factors that surround domestic violence, including the way that abusers use manipulative tactics to be as controlling as possible — that power and control are actually a huge part of why people are abusive in the first place.

Some people don’t leave because they’re terrified of what might happen, because they’ve been repeatedly threatened and warned with dire consequences. Some don’t leave not just because they fear for themselves, but because they’re worried about children, or pets, or other family members. Some people are ashamed and fear that leaving or asking for help will be humiliating. Some cannot afford to leave abusive partners, relying on them economically and in other ways. Some know that they won’t be believed — ‘he’s not that kind of man,’ they’ll say. Some are experiencing PTSD, which is a very real and serious problem in domestic violence contexts, and it’s making it extremely difficult for them to function on a daily basis, let alone make and execute a plan to get away from an abusive partner.

The other sinister message that people like to send when insisting that people report and testify is that if they don’t, their partners will go on to abuse someone else. I cannot even begin to explain how harmful this logic is, and it horrifies me to see people reinforcing this messaging. I expect it from conservatives and people who like to undercut domestic violence activism, I expect it from misogynists. I do not expect it from self-identified ‘feminists’ and social justice activists, some of whom absolutely argue that domestic violence victims are responsible for reporting to prevent other assaults.

Uh, no. The only person responsible for preventing domestic violence is abusive people. Their partners are not responsible for what happened or is happening to them, and they are also not responsible for what abusive individuals may do to other people. However, being told that you’re responsible for your abuse or that of others is a pretty great way to further entrench shame, stress, and humiliation. Victims are incredibly vulnerable, especially in the midst of ongoing abuse, and they don’t need to be hearing that society thinks they’re to blame for what’s going on.

Reporting domestic violence takes tremendous means and courage. It’s scary to approach law enforcement to ask for help, especially if you’re in a social group that tends to be belittled and ignored — disabled women, for example, and women of colour. In some communities, women of colour are even told that they shouldn’t report partners of colour because it perpetuates the violence of the legal system. And reporting is just the beginning of a very long process for victims, who have to sit through giving a statement, submit evidence like photographs of injuries and medical records, and deal with pressure from their partners to drop the issue.

When cases go to court, testifying brings up a whole new host of issues for victims. With some distance from an incident, they may be dealing with PTSD that makes it hard for them to testify, or they may have convinced themselves that it was a one-time event, and they should let sleeping dogs lie. They may fear retribution, or be concerned about the potential fallout of a case. Dealing with these complex emotions is even worse when people are breathing down their backs, telling them they’re responsible.

We need to treat domestic violence as what it is: A systemic cultural problem of toxic masculinity. When we approach domestic violence narratives, we need to flip the story away from the victim and onto the perpetrator. The problem isn’t that some people are physically and emotionally abused. The problem is that some people physically and emotionally abuse other people, and they, not their victims, are the ones who should be in the spotlight.

Image: Jane Fox, Flickr