Domestic violence has been plastered all over the news with a big focus on the NFL's disciplinary actions. Before the video of Ray Rice pummeling his future wife in an elevator was made available to the public, the outcry was at a dull roar. After the video, people were rabid. While I think the recent outrage has led to more public awareness - which is always a good thing - it's sad that it took a video to spur people into action. When people turned on the victim for her to decision to stay in the relationship, I was angry - not with her, although I feel afraid for the child - but with the people verbally bashing her. The hope that the NFL roast was a signifying landmark in a shift away from victim blaming was dampened.
A History Of Blame
I was reading a very well written article by Rebecca Onion, and it went into great depth about the "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" column in the Ladies' Home Journal. The advice being doled out by the experts was shocking. Throughout the 1950's - the heyday of the quintessential American housewife - there were were examples of women writing in because their husbands had hit them - even in front of their children. Overwhelmingly, the psychologist's advice was to stop doing things to anger the husband. The magazine's focus was about educating women in the skills necessary to keep their husband happy (cooking, cleaning, and sewing, of course!). The experts consulted advised focusing on these skill sets and drawing together lists in the morning of chores, prioritizing the husband's demands to avoid irritating him.
It wasn't a unique perspective for that time. Watch clips of The Honeymooners on Youtube as the live studio audience laughs along to Ralph threatening to punch his wife so hard she's sent into orbit because she neglects to provide him with a hot meal.
Alice: "You seem to have forgotten that I am a woman."
Ralph: "I forgot that you're woman? How could I? You're always yappin'!"
I asked my grandmother if she knew of people abusing their spouses when she was young. She grew up in a small logging community, and everyone knew everyone else's business (supposedly). It surprised me when she said she couldn't remember one story. At first she argued that people were less violent, and then she remembered a man who murdered his family. The abuse was still happening. It was just hidden.
My police officer friend has seen a change in willingness for people to become involved. Neighbors are less likely to turn up the volume on their television to drown out the sounds of violence and more likely to pick up their phone. I have seen a shift in how open people are about discussing the topic. When stories are heavily featured in the news, there is open discussion. At work, our Fantasy Football team debated what to do with Adrian Peterson after hearing the allegations of child abuse. People had frank discussions about spanking and physical violence. It was a far cry from the days when my grandmother was shooed from a room at the age of thirteen so the adults could talk about someone who was "in a family way."
Supporting The Victim
I hear people ask, "Why did s/he stay with him?" whenever there is a case of domestic violence on the news. People are so quick to point to the victim and say, "S/he could leave if s/he wants to."
If it were as simple as getting hit once and then using that interaction to decide whether to stay or leave, the question might be valid. Unfortunately, things are not that simple. If a relationship started out as overtly abusive, more people would leave. Instead, it's a slow build that could start with years of humiliation, isolation, and ridicule. The abuser tells the victim they are worthless, stupid, ugly, and will never find someone else. When a person tells you these things enough times, you start to believe them. Reality gets warped, and confidence goes out the window. The physical violence could happen years into the relationship. After being groomed and manipulated into believing they are worthless, that first slap happens, or maybe he or she gets grabbed so hard there are marks the next day. And of course the reason they get hit is also the victim's fault in the eyes of the abuser. "I love you, but you shouldn't make me so angry."
I have seen this happen with beautiful, vibrant friends. They stay with someone who isolates them and devalues them, and they begin to believe it. They lose sight of who they are because they are so busy changing to make their emotionally or physically abusive partner happy. Which ultimately fails.
"Why would she stay with him?" is just another way of saying "It's her fault because she stayed." We're still blaming the victim. We need to stop.
Let's keep that anger focused on the abuser. If enough people band together and shout at the top of their lungs that abuse is wrong, maybe the victims will see they don't deserve that kind of treatment. Maybe a kind friend will encourage them at the right moment, and they will find the courage to leave. Instead of disparaging the victim, let's focus on harsher legal penalties for abusers. Let's focus on shunning the @$$hole who raised their hand to their partner.
If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, there are resources you can call on. Here are just a few of the national organizations:
Your local police department will typically also provide a list of local resources. As an example, here is a link to the Seattle Police Department page: