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.

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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.