So far this summer, I’ve blogged about doctors who don’t want to screen their patients for intimate partner violence, even when it will take a minimum of time out of their exam schedules. I’ve written about employers who would rather fire victims than develop effective domestic violence policies. I’ve quoted numerous journalists making misinformed or outright obnoxious statements about victims. Besides the obvious link in subject matter, there’s another common trend. These are all people who should know better, but they continue to ignore or trivialize a problem which exists right under their noses.
One the biggest challenges for domestic violence advocates is getting the issue to a level of national recognition that will provoke policy change, increased education, and widespread awareness of how to end the problem for good. People care about domestic violence – but it’s just not the kind of issue that consistently riles people up, gets them to donate money and time, and that they regard as a widespread issue. It’s more prevalent among women than diabetes, breast cancer and cervical cancer, but whereas we all hear about the screenings and vaccines we should get if we want to stay healthy, the same level of education and care does not exist for women at risk of domestic violence. There will always be misogynists who think that domestic violence is prima facie acceptable. But there are far too many people who agree that intimate partner violence is never justified, and yet treat it as a less important issue than any number of other social problems.
My question is: why is it so difficult to get people to rally against such a widespread, common, and devastating phenomenon? I have a few ideas, which I’ll voice below, but I’m interested in hearing your answers in the comments section.
Theory #1: People think it will never affect them.
Despite an ever-growing list of counterexamples, from Halle Berry to Madonna, people draw upon their own stereotypes to conclude that such cases are exceptions. Too many assume that domestic violence only occurs in poverty-stricken households with substance problems, where the victims are too economically downtrodden and uneducated to leave. They think that they don’t need to worry about their neighbors, friends, or children being victims – and, they certainly don’t think that they would ever be ‘foolish’ enough to enter into an abusive relationship themselves.
The doctors, lawyers, and politicians who can start to implement real-world policies that effectively combat domestic violence don’t have the same gut-wrenching personal incentive to fight DV that they do to, say, combat drunk driving. Anyone can get hit by a drunk driver on the highway, but if domestic violence is almost exclusively the domain of the uneducated poor, then those in charge of addressing social issues at a policymaking level have no chance of being affected. This, of course, is the result of an enormous cultural misconception about domestic violence; the reality is that domestic violence cross-cuts all socioeconomic backgrounds, and manages to influence those it does not directly affect in the form of rising insurance premiums and taxes.
Of course, I’m being a bit unfair to humanity here. People are certainly able to feel huge amounts of sympathy for the victims of, and even take action in response to, large-scale tragedies that will never affect them. They do it all the time. Plenty of Americans rail against foreign genocides or corruption; many, many people donate to aid organizations like the Red Cross in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or a spate of earthquakes. The issue is not that people are never capable of focusing on issues that will not directly affect them – it’s that, for some reason, domestic violence is not the sort of issue that raises people’s sympathies to the point that they actually take action.
Theory #2: People think it’s the victim’s fault.
Unfortunately, domestic violence may fall by the wayside simply because society still can’t shake some degree of victim-blaming. We’re thankfully light-years past the time when most people would just assume that a battered woman had done something to antagonize her husband and think nothing more of it. Now, the victim-blaming is more insidious. Some wonder whether there is some commonality among DV victims that makes them seek out abusive partners. Others – many, many others – are confident that any strong woman would be out the door the first time a partner hit her. The “why doesn’t she just leave?” mentality seems, on-face, to be the natural product of a belief in female independence. Women are no longer expected to be tied to a man, so that means victims are liberated in a way they never would have been previously, right?
Unfortunately, the assumption that leaving an abuser is a crystal-clear option fails to account for the myriad of complexities that might stop a victim from leaving. The abuser might have sole access to the bank accounts. He might be able to petition for sole custody of the children or the pets. And, of course, victims are typically placed in increased danger after leaving or making plans to leave. The narrative that all it takes to end domestic violence is for a woman to be ‘strong’ and leave an abusive relationship is oftentimes just as damaging to victims as the narrative that they should stay with an abusive husband for the good of their family.
This is what sets domestic violence victims apart from the ‘innocent’ victims of natural disasters, random gun violence, or our other societal woes. The attitude is not that victims deserve the violence – it’s that, given that they don’t leave when it’s clearly so simple, they don’t deserve to be helped.
Theory #3: People think it’s a private matter.
These misconceptions could be addressed by increased communication and discussion about domestic violence and its true effects. Yet it still seems that a truly far-reaching and candid discussion about domestic violence is far on the horizon. We are far from the days when domestic violence was considered a perfectly acceptable form of wife-discipline, and we’ve even made great strides from the default legal assumption that most abuse is a private relationship issue, but domestic violence is still treated with a large degree of stigma.
There are, of course, still the backwards sorts out there who honestly do believe that a man has the right to do whatever he wants to his own wife in the name of ‘discipline’ or ‘keeping the house’ or whatever other twisted excuses he can concoct. To add insult to injury, however, there are also those who think that it’s bad for society to discuss violence against women for the victims’ own good. These so-called feminists think that calling the act of domestic violence is wrong because it automatically means that people treat the recipient of that violence like a fragile victim, ignoring her autonomy and personal strength. They reject a discussion of domestic violence because of the preexisting societal stereotypes of victims as weak, ineffectual, and submissive – and while doing so, completely disregard the fact that those stereotypes are the things that need to change. Carol Sarler’s explanation of why calling Nigella Lawson a victim of domestic violence is degrading to Lawson and to feminism is a prime example of the latter stance. It may be true that social attitudes toward victims are misinformed at best and counterproductive at worst. But this doesn’t mean that we should pretend that instances of violence do not occur, simply because labeling them as ‘domestic violence’ allows people to exercise those attitudes. Instead, we should work on changing attitudes about victims at the same time that we address domestic violence in a broader context.
What does this mean for a broader societal discussion of domestic violence? No one wants to talk about it: not the people who think it’s not a big deal or victims are ‘making it up’; not the people who think the home is inherently private; and not even the people who care the most about women’s rights, since they are worried that to harp on the ‘victimhood’ of the women involved erodes their independence. It also means that victims are not likely to step forward and share their stories, because to admit to a history of abuse is to invite criticism on the ground of their seeming ‘weak’ or ‘passive’ (two other accusations leveled at Nigella Lawson).
When people don’t talk about a problem, they can’t understand it. No one can truly appreciate the devastating consequences of domestic violence without hearing about those consequences, either from advocates or from survivors themselves. And in a world where the conversation is muted as it is now, it’s all-too-easy for people to assume that domestic violence is ‘just’ a man hitting his wife around a bit when he’s drunk – not the cycle of violence and manipulation it actually becomes.
Theory #4: People don’t think they can do anything about it.
A final obstacle to getting society to confront domestic violence is the fact that even when people realize that DV is a problem of shocking magnitude, they don’t think that domestic-violence-specific legislation or support is an effective way to address it. As with all of the other roadblocks, this mainly stems from misunderstandings surrounding domestic violence itself.
If you believe that domestic violence is the natural product of poverty, substance abuse, poor anger management skills, and disregard for the law, as many people are wont to do, then it’s natural to also believe that tackling all of these ‘root causes’ will conveniently solve the problem of domestic abuse. If you believe that women would flee their abusers in droves if only they had a little bit of financial support, it’s natural to support better social welfare in general over specific domestic violence programs. These attitudes ignore the fact that domestic violence can rear its ugly head in relationships of all stripes, from high school couples to a wealthy, middle-aged couple – and they seek to apply a generic solution to a highly complex and specialized problem. Of course we need to devote more resources and energy toward helping people to economic independence and better education. But we can’t do this at the expense of addressing the specific causes of violence toward women, and the specific solutions which can help women of all backgrounds leave their abusive relationships.
The Mary Byron Project looks for solutions to the individual problems surrounding the very complex issue of domestic violence, and often finds them. Changing entrenched attitudes and perceptions, however, can be much more difficult. That’s why I’m interested in hearing what you have to say on the issue. What makes domestic violence such an ‘invisible problem’? And, most importantly, what can we do to change this?