Victim-Blaming Abuse Survivors is Re-abusing Them: How We Can All Be Better

I wrote this essay in fall 2014 because I’m a survivor of domestic violence who was badly triggered by the Ray Rice abuse video. I wrote quickly and, without considering the implications of it being the first time I ever spoke publicly about my own abuse, I pitched an earlier version of this piece and it was published in fall 2014 at Luna Luna Magazine. Earlier this year, my essay became unavailable on Luna Luna’s website without explanation. Shareen Mansfield was kind enough to republish it, and I’ve revised some parts to reflect my deeper understanding of victim-blaming since the essay first appeared. Thank you for reading.

TW: Physical, emotional, and verbal abuse; gaslighting; stalking; brief mention of sexual assault 

Nearly two years ago, I was a huge supporter of the people coming forward to share their stories, via social media and the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft. I feel it’s important to open a dialogue about the dynamics of abusive relationships and to give public voice to victims and survivors who, in addition to being abused, have been silenced.

But I got mad that we have to explain ourselves.

Why was there no #WhyPeopleHit hashtag, where psychologists versed in DV shared information to raise social consciousness? Why was there no #WhyIHelpedThemLeave hashtag, where supporters, family, friends, and DV shelter staff could have been the ones saying things like, “I met her for lunch twice a week so we could talk without him being around, because he isolated her from everyone who might have been able to help her” and “I could tell he was struggling financially, so I helped him find a job as a first step towards leaving”? These are statements that could illuminate some of the complexities of DV situations and demonstrate compassion that readers could emulate.

I think we’ve reached a point where hearing only from victims and survivors isn’t cutting it. In other words, un-silencing is great but I don’t always want this mic. We, as a society, need to see non-victims showing that they understand, care, and are willing to do something about it.

Victim-blaming is a real thing. We did it when we asked why Janay Rice married her abuser instead of why Ray Rice punched his fiancé; or when we accused the nearly 60 women alleging rape against Cosby of a mass collaborative take-down plot instead of demanding to know why Cosby admittedly drugged young women; or when we harp on the fact that Brock Turner’s victim was drunk and unconscious instead of why Brock Turner penetrated an unconscious woman—let alone when we discuss whose life is more severely impacted. We do it in response to every. single. news. story. about domestic violence and rape.

In America, if you are accused of a crime, the burden of proof lies with you. The most visible exception to that rule is when people report being abused, stalked, or raped. Prove it, society says. And even when we can, our proof often isn’t enough.

When I was younger, I casually dated a guy I’d known for years. When I broke it off, he couldn’t deal and began bombarding me with emails, texts, phone calls, and eventually, unwanted and unannounced visits to my apartment and workplace. One night, he followed me as I walked home from work and tried to block my entrance into my home. Yet another night, he showed up on my porch after being in a bar fight, his knuckles bloodied. Two of my male friends came over and convinced him to leave. When I went to the police, I was told there was nothing they could do unless he trespassed or hurt me. And that even then, it was my word against his and I’d have to prove whatever I alleged.

The stalker went away after a couple months, which makes me lucky. Years later, though, I found myself in an abusive relationship. I remembered that visit to a police station in another town, and I didn’t feel like anyone could or would keep me safe. I had to rescue myself, and it was going to take some time. Even my abuser, at one point, asked me why I stayed. Why, if I was so miserable and scared, didn’t I just leave him already?

“You love being a victim,” he sneered in conclusion.

Unfortunately, the ones committing the violence are by far not the only ones who have a warped and reductive view of what it means to be a victim.

It began to feel to me like #WhyIStayed, while illuminating and visible, was inviable in terms of boiling it down to one concrete reason—or multiple, easily communicated reasons—that people might understand and accept. Distilling #WhyIStayed into a couple tweets sort of suggests that it’s easy to do so in our minds. It simplifies abuse trauma. #WhyIStayed is a hot mess of reasons, and #WhyILeft is really quite simple, at least for me personally: I realized I couldn’t live that way, he didn’t love me, and it would never change. What’s crucial to, and seemingly missing from, our understanding of domestic violence and pre-supposed victim mentality is acknowledgment of the way being abused paralyzes, micromanages, and holds hostage every aspect of the victim’s life. Let me give you a glimpse into my thought process as I planned my escape:

 I have to get out of here. I can’t live this way anymore. He’s going to kill me if I don’t go soon. I need to save more money. Should I quit my job and move back with my parents? No, I have a good job and make decent money—I need my job. I need to move out. I need first and last month’s rent, security deposit, a moving truck. How will I get my things out if he’s here? I need to do this when he’s not here or he’ll hurt me. I need to do it in one day, while he’s at work. I need help, I need strong people to help me move quickly. I need the apartment before I can move. I need to save money. Should I borrow money? I can’t ask people for money AND to help me move. I don’t know that many people I want to tell about this. He might found out. Who can I tell? Who can help me? There’s no one. I should go to a shelter. I still need my things if I’m going to live in a shelter to try to keep my job. I should go to a therapist. I can’t afford a therapist. I need to save money. Can I live with someone until I can save enough? He might find out. I still need my things if I’m going to crash on someone’s couch to try to keep my job, and who will let me live with them knowing an enraged violent person could show up at any moment? There’s no one. I need to save money. There’s no one…

That’s not, by the way, less than 140 characters.

And all that was after I decided I’d had enough, when making it work and agonizing over whether we loved each other were no longer my biggest considerations. This cyclical, obsessive, dead-ended thinking all but consumed me then.

Now, chatter by acquaintances and the media about DV nearly consumes me. I am certain that many don’t realize there is no “typical victim” of abuse. I’m not a “gold-digger” or “fame-whore,” not a “bitch who deserved it,” not too dumb or self-loathing to stick up for myself. Those epithets don’t exist, though you wouldn’t know it if you read and listen to commentary on such news stories. I’m not even riddled with shame. I knew then and know now that I did nothing wrong; mostly, I felt no one would believe me because my abuser is one of those entitled sociopathic charmer types. But I’m an educated and sensible woman. I knew that ending the cycle of abuse and salvaging the relationship was, to understate, statistically unlikely. I had the hotline numbers and the pamphlets, a plan, and at the end, a support system. I had more than many do.

But logic, reasoning, “facts” that even the strongest self-respecting women “know” don’t mean shit when an enraged man with 45 pounds on you drags you away from the door by your hair, throws you down, sits on your chest, pins your arms to your sides with his knees, presses his hands air-tight over your mouth and nose, and leans in close to your face to hiss stop screaming, cunt, no one’s coming to help you.

Now. I am writing this from a safe place where I rarely feel those hands anymore, and where I experience more support than victim-blaming. I believe the world is collectively more caring than the loudest victim-blamers would suggest. But I will tell you that what has stayed with me is the fact that neighbors saw this man assault me (more than once) and heard my pleas for help, and they went inside and drew the shade. His family and friends, who witnessed plenty of aftermath and sometimes even the assaults themselves, told me I needed to communicate better and begged me not to go to the police. My ex’s oldest friend once sat outside on our picnic table, playing a game on his phone and ignoring the sounds of breaking glass and my pained pleas for help coming from inside the house. Another reminded my ex of how thin I was when he saw him knock me to the kitchen floor: you’re gonna REALLY hurt her someday and then everyone will know. And so what if they did? No one’s coming to help you.

Fear has a funny way of compounding when you realize you’re surrounded by indifference toward you and concern for the person you fear. That fear didn’t go away just because I did.

And #WhyIStayed can be distilled, if we must, to that one word: fear. Unless we fully understand the unchartable complexities of living in fear, we shouldn’t be asking victims why they acted all victim-y. That’s part of the problem, and not a small part. Denial of abuse is a form of abuse.

If we want to help (and we all should want to help—nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States), instead of perpetuating a cycle of misunderstanding about domestic violence by blaming, doubting, and profiling victims, we should be asking why abusers hit and rapists rape, demanding that they be held accountable, and asking victims and survivors what we can do for them:

Be a good listener. If someone shares with you that s/he is being abused, ask what you can do and really listen. Is s/he asking for advice, or just in need of an ear? Giving unsolicited advice can verge on victim-blaming because our gut instincts—mine, too—are to say, leave now. As I outlined earlier, the thought process for escaping DV is exhausting. It is even more so to try to articulate to someone else while you’re in it without feeling like you’re making excuses for staying, burdening others, asking for charity, exaggerating, or being pressed for proof. Additional barriers to leaving include, but aren’t limited to, the presence of children; lack of access to one’s own money or vehicle; no support from one’s friends and family; stigmas associated with same-sex relationships and non-binary gender identity; and obligations to uphold certain family, cultural, or spiritual values. Trust victims to know their own challenges and limitations, but ask how you can help them to navigate those challenges and overcome those limitations. If you can’t listen, then refer them to someone who will. If you only suspect abuse but don’t know for sure, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE and ask for advice on how to help.

Believe people who say they’ve been abused. No one has ever become rich or famous by accusing someone of domestic violence or sexual assault. There are precious few up-sides to going public about having survived such crimes, but there is one big one: the act of un-silencing itself. It can be very liberating and therapeutic if the survivor is supported. It can be re-traumatizing and nightmarish if not.

Evolve as a human being with a heart. Stop believing that your discomfort upon learning about another’s struggles, or your opinion that others should “toughen up,” is more important than being a compassionate, empathetic member of your community. Conditioned and unchecked lack of compassion for other human beings is a trait common among abusers.

Speak up when you hear victim-blaming comments. You don’t have to do battle or spout statistics, and you shouldn’t be a bully yourself. You could say, “None of that matters more than the fact that this person assaulted that person.” Re-center the victim in considerations of empathy, and re-center the criminal in considerations of wrongdoing. You don’t even have to directly engage a bully; your “speaking up” could be as simple as talking directly to the survivor, at a gathering or in a Facebook thread, and expressing empathy: “I’m so sorry that happened to you. What can I do?” Normalize an empathetic response toward survivors—and when you can, do it so others, especially the bully, take notice.

Support local domestic violence shelters and organizations. Volunteer if you have time; donate if you have money. Help publicize their events and fundraisers through social media, and then participate in them. Learn the hotline number and hand it out.

Educate yourself on these issues, and share what you learn with others. Start with The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

*

Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbook poetry collections, most recently antidote (Winged City Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Fourth River, Barn Owl Review, UCity Review, decomP’s Best of 10 Years anthology, Crab Creek Review, Knockout, Best of the Net 2011, and more. Her essays have appeared at Quaint Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine and Delirious Hem. She co-founded Blood Lotus, teaches online writing courses for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing, and works for the Peace & Conflict Studies department of a private liberal arts college in central PA. She’s @shapeshifter43 on Twitter and blogs at anotherwritingmom.wordpress.com.

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Poet, essayist, editor, blogger, online writing instructor, nature-lover, music freak, reader, unsophisticated foodie, survivor, and mama of a happy little man.

26 thoughts on “Victim-Blaming Abuse Survivors is Re-abusing Them: How We Can All Be Better

  1. “In America, if you are accused of a crime, the burden of proof lies with you”

    True but this happens only in a court with a judge, often expensive lawyers, and possibly a jury. If the abuser has more money, then the abuser often has the better lawyers and justice is not fair. The truth often loses to the side with the best lawyers and the most paperwork. Who wins a court case often goes to who can afford the better lawyers without going bankrupt.

    And when the media publishes stories, the public often judges victims and criminals without a trial. Once someone finds you guilty from what they read or heard in the media, many never change what they think regardless of the final verdict in court.

    This is wrong but what can we do about bias and hatred guiding what people think?

    We can accept the fact that this happens and let our real friends and real family rally around us and offer their support for our survival. It is harsh times like these that that try our souls and reveals who are real family and friends are.

    Like

  2. Wow! First of all, thank you for writing this. I’m a big fan of Jackson Katz. He is one of the first men I’ve seen who makes sense around this issue. Violence against women and children is not a “woman’s issue” it is a “man’s issue” because they are the ones abusing others. If you haven’t seen the Katz Ted Talk, I posted the link below. I show it to my college students each semester. I completely understand the situations you have described. I am angry that men have harmed so many of us, yet still people ask if we like being victims. Maybe there are so many brutal men–so many stalkers, rapists, controlling, abusive boyfriends/husbands out there that if a woman lives long enough she will most likely run into one or more of these types. Many of them are not held accountable in courts of law or by family members.

    I’ve run into my share men who have shocked me, though I still believe the majority of people are good. I think, like Jackson Katz, it is time good men and women stand up for vicitims and stand up to abusive men and demand that they change. https://www.ted.com/talks/jackson_katz_violence_against_women_it_s_a_men_s_issue?language=en

    I, too, had stalkers in my early twenties. One man was part of a writing group and I went out on one date with him and decided I wasn’t attracted to him. We briefly stayed in touch, mainly because he moved to the town of a great graduate school I was interested in attending. Passing through that town, I asked if I could stay on his couch. I was young and broke. I would get a hotel now, but I trusted him when he said he no longer had feelings for me and it was no big deal to let me stay one night. Immediately, he became sexually harassing and frightening. Needless to say, I didn’t go to the graduate school I wanted to attend because the town was small. I didn’t want to be anywhere near him. Later, he visited my town and used his physical force to knock me over in a public place and then claim not to “see me” standing there. The other stalker I briefly met at a poetry reading. He offered to publish one of my poems, and I gave him a copy of a magazine that featured one of my poem and had my picture in it. I gave him my parents address to send me a copy of the magazine he published. We briefly talked before I left to teach overseas. He called my parents and got my address overseas. He sent me the oddest package. He blew up my picture and put my picture all over his house and next to his mother, his cat, and pictures of him. He took blurry doubles of all these pictures and wrote hundreds of erotic poems, often grossly graphic, and included them in the package. The pictures he took of himself were disgusting and weird. I should’ve taken pictures of this package for evidence, but I threw it in the dumpster in disgust and quickly wrote him a note telling him never to contact me. He wrote back saying he had close to seven restraining orders from different women (who he blamed), and his friends talked him out of flying to see me. I will always be grateful to the friends who talked him out of coming there. Over the years, he continued to email me, often making it look like I emailed him first and then writing pages about how he is doing. So sick!

    These two freaky men and the rapist I encountered overseas shut my voice down for years. I’m sorry to use your blog as an outlet, but I am finally writing again after close to twenty years. In my forties, I am no longer afraid of these men. In my twenties and thirties, I was terrified and thought it would be better to hide as much as possible and not write much.

    I want to make this world safer for young women. I want to help other victims heal. I want men to be reeducated about how to respect and care for the women in their lives. I want to be a part of a healing movement starting at the college level. That is my life work from this point forward. I love meeting people like you in blogland. I wish you much healing and energy to keep speaking your truth and helping others. Here is my story about being a rape victim if you are interested. https://triciabarkernde.com/2016/06/11/recovery-from-rape-a-spiritual-in-response-to-the-sentence-for-brock-turner/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tricia. Thank you for your comment, for sharing your story, and for reading. You might not believe this, but I actually read your post a couple hours before you left this comment. It’s brave and powerful, and I’m better for having read it. I’m sorry you’ve had to experience stalking and rape. Too many of us have. I hope you feel safe now. I love meeting people like you online as well because it makes the world seem less scary, more supportive. I will check out Jackson Katz’ TED Talk for sure. Stay in touch, and thank you again. Solidarity!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love it that so many of us are writing with intensity about these topics. I’m encouraged when I see my college students stand up to stalkers and abusers. I want to see education focus more attention on prevention and reeducation of young men. We need lots of Jackson Katz’s in this world:-) Keep writing!

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Being the male presents a world of the exact same problems and adds a complexity of further issues…You learn and many things are written saying excuse me if your the male you’ll have to chance the he to she… some writings have used the term s/he which is nice… I understand trying to write something is hard enough never mind having to be politically correct while doing it.. also when there are children involved so much information and advice is written and if you have children you have to pick a couple of points of advice you can relate to or consider ..This topic the Victim blaming can take on another massive level when its the male victim and being the male with two children .. when 6 year old son reported major incidents to school the third time then investigation was launched.. then she attempted kidnapping… then five days of trials .. where you learn theres no perjury in family court…but luckily her claims were so outrageous.. and easily proved false… they had to grant placement with me. but still gave her unsupervised visitation.. we also had a 1 year and 6 month old daughter so i guess they just couldn’t not give her parenting time…3 and a half years of abuse continued the feeling of not being believed is devastating but being told from day one to shut up and not say one bad thing against the mother was insanely difficult somehow i managed to realize this so wrong advice was the way things had to be….I was told just do the best when the children are with you thats all you can do….After a couple months when someone finally told me i was abused and needed help and then got a therapist and learned to google the word abuse… I then learned Document document document and ABR always be recording… and Parrael Parenting and Grey Rock.. and then learn what i lived thru… gas lighting and projections and circular conversations.. and the Cognitive Dissonance ..etc etc……. I managed to get in home therapy 20 hours a week for each child 2 years ago and they managed to get into the mothers house…The 2 years or them and school filing mandated reports 8 months ago major incident placed her on temporary supervised visits… then 2 months ago she harassed and threaten the in home therapists who were assisting with supervised visits and their company filed they refused to continue with her…. WE have a court date from the issue 8 months ago this coming tuesday the 19th.. she is on her 5th lawyer…So anyway i am warned again i better find a way to provide access for the mother ..I found a program at a childrens museum a reunification thing at 50 dollars an hour… she did two visits then last week lost it and started loudly berating me in front of children… I don’t think she knows the worker at this program is a child welfare lady who does this part time…and so she contacted me after incident and want back ground info… ………………………………………………… Feeling again now how i can’t say how bad it was and is….. but so worried …..and having been told so many times to not complainer i will look like her …. it was so difficult to write that email trying to hint that its sheer horror what we have and are still living thru every second no one is looking……But anyway i hate feeling a glimmer of hope …..But 2 weeks after the temporary supervised visits were ordered 8 months ago… two weeks later our son who is classified autistic… he tests as genius in perception and stuff and below in everything no one not versed in trauma and in my state no-one seems to be can make any sense out of his scores.. so they call him autistic so he can get devices … He was being tracked by IEP team at school and teacher and school psychs… He was self abusing fro 10 to 35 times a day.. negative self statements….10 to 20 times a day .. full blown crying meltdowns 2 to 7 a day…..Two weeks later they informed me they were stopping the tracking program because behaviors had all but vanished.. in the last 7 months he hasn’t had but 0-2 incidents of crying a month…Not one self aabuse or negative self statement … He was awarded most improved 4th grader at his school and honored at a Triple AAA Big Stadium baseball game brought on the field with a microphone ( along with a hundred other kids around the state i know a good way to sell tickets but also priceless he was on the jumbotron introducing himself and his school……my daughter who 10 months ago was placed in a pediatric partial hospitalization… by her pediatrician and in home therapists… Has basically the same review from her daycare….

    And still i am warned by my lawyer and in home therapists.. ( i came to learn the in home therapy are what my really understanding therapist too me they are Behaviorists… they victim abuse in trying to help without realizing it like most people… the You’ve got to learn to ignore it/her…..When something happens with children and you try to discuss it and bring up past incidents.. they quickly state that was in the past we are dealing with this now….

    Basically i believe no human mind wants to think of abuse .. especially of a mother against her children… any normal mind doesn’t want to exist in a reality where that happens…… I have learned not to et it upset me in front of them i need all the help i can get…. Plus for 6 years thats basically what i did…My mind told me the abuse was just against me and she loved the children.. it had to .. in order to exist and remain close to the children knowing their only chance me remaining in sight… Al thou so much is written about you should leave because its bad for children staying in a house hold like that… I just couldn’t imagine them being left alone and me only seeing them wednesdays and every other weekend……
    I have stories no human would believe and i have learned the words that unless you’ve been thru this you can’t understand and i can’t explain it to you… And if i did you couldn’t believe it bud have to think if it was that bad you would have left etc etc….
    So when i saw this victim blaming article i clicked on and have been triggered….
    When i first found the online support places and got Stop Walking on Eggshells and then many others..

    The two I’ve found for me are Gentling by William Krill jr… and Just Like his Father by Liane Leedom… you have to change it in my mind to just like his mother….

    This has been my main abuse now it seems people trying to help with the you gotta not let her get to you and you gotta go out and have some you time or hobby…or thats in the past…

    If you mention the abuse you can feel people looking at you like you have a problem…
    and granted what normal person wants to her of sadness and horror..their mind will come up with something quick to protect itself from having to exist in a world where this stuff is happening..

    I can now list all the benefits…
    I have learned of this world of abuse and horror…
    I can teach and make sure my children get therapy and learn…
    The 12 rules of a relationship
    The 100 red flags of personality disorders..
    Dangers of being an empath…. and about love bombing and crazy making and circular conversations and projections and cognitive dissonance etc etc…. not an education you want but one that could be valuable saving some else… But so difficult to advocate for because A.. The human mind does not want to hear stories of abuse… B.. When telling people who don’t understand you can feel them thinking your vindictive or hung up on the past or exaggerating their mind has to do it to protect them ……

    Like

  4. ps i forgot my usual send off I got so triggered…it is ps… i never reread anything i type before i hit send because if i did i would never send a single thing

    Like

  5. This was a really well articulated essay which highlights so many key issues surrounding domestic violence and really demonstrates how multi-faceted this issue is. It was utterly devastating to read that you had experienced such crisis situations like stalking and abuse, and had the bravery to speak out but no one listened. We believe this inability to listen carefully to what is being said is a key downfall within society and across cultures as well as the lack of courage displayed by individuals to provide help – it’s especially hard when, as you mentioned, those closest to you ignore the situation.

    We have recently started this campaign that aims to raise awareness to the issue of domestic violence and our blog discusses topical issues relating to the matter. One that you might be interested in reading is about ‘Why do we always blame the victim?’ https://onecoupleonepunch.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/why-do-we-always-blame-the-victim/

    Liked by 1 person

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