This post is part of Anytimeyoga’s Domestic Violence Blog Carnival. The Hub post for the carnival is here.
[TW for Domestic Violence, misogyny, violence, rape, victim-blaming, disableism]
ETA: If you want to read essentially what I’m about to say, but more coherently and personally, I suggest you check out this post by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano on Feministe.
I don’t remember how young I was when I became aware of domestic violence. Before college, I’d never seen it in real life. I’d never known anyone who came out as or was known to be in a violent relationship. Yet the images of the relationships between men and women I was exposed to growing up had such an undercurrent of preoccupation with and fear of violence, so many interactions on television or in movies encoded with the possibility, that I couldn’t help but notice, even when young.
Human beings tend to pick up patterns from their surroundings. Appropriate and inappropriate behavior, justifications and rationalizations, models for interpreting human actions and emotional signals… I say patterns because it’s not a one-to-one transfer, but rather the subtle impressing of repeated signals upon the mind. That’s how stereotypes are formed, that’s how kids know without being told the nebulous but powerful negativity of “slut” and “bitch,” of the devastating power of an accusation of being “gay” before they are even sure what the words literally mean or where they came from. The ideas imprinted on us when we are young have consequences – they affect our conceptions of what is acceptable and what is abuse, where the line is between passionate love and controlling violence, what is romance and what is stalking, how consent should be negotiated, etc. The vision of domestic violence I was exposed to, before I encountered it in person, did not prepare me at all for its realities.
We grow up in a culture that encourages us, particularly those coded female at birth, to deny our discomfort. We let others transgress the boundaries of our personal comfort zones because speaking up would not be “polite” or because the behavior is considered “normal” and expected by others. We are taught to allow others to persuade us out of our hurt feelings when we are offended, to question our perception of reality when it contradicts the stated intentions of others (in spite of our gut feelings about their actual intentions), and to swallow hurt and fear and pain to avoid upsetting the supposed harmony that a still surface would seem to indicate. In our kyriarchical world, we are taught that the other gender lies to us, that the other gender is crazy, that jealousy and stalking behaviors are natural expressions of passionate love, and the occasionally temper tantrum is to be expected. Of course we can’t expect humans to be perfect, every relationship has its rocks, we learn to tell ourselves. The line between domestic violence and “mere bad behavior” is blurry and victims must negotiate that boundary with all the cultural baggage that accompanies our stereotypes. Is it “severe” enough to warrant the label? Do I match the pattern of the victim? Both those involved and those watching from the outside measure against a pattern that often comes from images, not experience. In our current popular conception, domestic violence carries a lot of baggage and associations, particularly if one is the victim.
In the popular stereotype, domestic violence is pretty easy to spot – look for the quiet, cowed woman covering her bruises with long sleeves in summer and handing out strained smiles. People look at her with pity and cluck their tongues behind her back about how she just needs to leave that no good husband of hers. People surrounding the victim are often totally aware – via magical discernment methods or a checklist which, in real life, is gray and fuzzy and often difficult to classify – that her relationship is abusive, and either try to force her out, or abandon her because “she obviously doesn’t want help.” In the media, the complexity of reality is wiped away, individual circumstances disappear, and the warning signs are blindingly obvious.
The images of domestic violence I was exposed to when young were almost exclusively of adult cisgendered men abusing adult cisgendered women by physically beating her. The woman was weak, physically and/or emotionally, and the man was always strong and loud. That is what I remember the most – the frail shape of the quintessential battered woman, failing to hide a bruise under her make-up, silent and cowered, deprived of voice, of agency, of any role in the abusive relationship. I do not mean that she is responsible for her abuse, rather that, in this construction, she becomes merely an object of violence, not a subject who experiences violence. Because of her voiceless, non-agentive, object status, the ways in which she may resist, negotiate, or survive are ignored. The reasons for which she remains the relationship are dismissed out of turn – her very experience of her relationship is ignored in favor of external judgmentalism, which usually goes along the lines of “I cannot imagine why anyone would remain in that situation!” The message is clearly sent, and it blames the victims: Of course the abuser shouldn’t abuse, but you’d have to be stupid to stay with him! That was a message I got very strongly: only a weak or stupid person can be abused. This is, of course, preposterous.
A friend who survived an abusive relationship still has episodes, sometimes, where zie berates hirself for being so “weak and stupid” as to stay with an abusive partner – an attitude towards herself which our society supports. In the stereotype of victims that we are presented with, whenever domestic violence is discussed, there is an implicit positioning of hir (usually her) as weak, defenseless, pathetic and pitiable, maybe even a little stupid. Convincing victims that they are, in fact, weak and stupid is such a huge element of abusive dynamics, yet if they escape the situation, they continue to be told that they are weak for even being in that position in the first place.
Abusive manipulators are good at what they do. They perfect their techniques as they go along, many of them becoming quite subtle and avoiding detection as abusers because of their skills in convincing others that their victims are just “crazy” or “overreacting.” Portrayed in popular conception as hulking, physical Cro-Magnons with the subtlety of an anvil, abusers of a subtler nature (most of them) are often missed. The abuses start small, and we have been taught to distrust our own instincts, to be “reasonable” and “logical” and “rational” even when something inside is telling us to run away. We got up on the wrong side of the bed, our partner is tired, there are a million reasons to rate this incident low on the scale of threat so it does not reach the level which we consider “real” domestic violence or abuse. Maybe we are “crazy” and overreacting.
The utter passivity of the victim, in the messages society sends about domestic violence, suggests that only “weak” people “allow” themselves to be abused. Someone who is feisty, a feminist, outgoing, and outspoken is excluded from the category of allowable victims. It couldn’t happen to him, he’s so strong! It couldn’t be happening to hir, zie always argues back! She couldn’t be abused, she’s a black belt! This ignores not only the complex ways that abusers maintain an emotional hold of whatever kind of their victims, but also the various manifestations that domestic violence takes. A black belt does not protect one from emotional manipulation or gaslighting, financial control, threats of violence to loved ones, any of hundreds of terrible manipulative methods which abusers will employ when their victims resist. For that matter, a black belt does not give one the automatic ability to inflict harm on other human beings, even in self-defense (however much the popular conception of martial arts suggests that it does). Arguing back does not mean the power in the relationship is balanced.
Furthermore, the stereotypical image of domestic violence is a scene from the middle or end of the relationship – there is little awareness of how patterns of abuse grow, how emotional investment over time can contribute to the decision to stay with an abuser, and most importantly: many young people never get hints about the warning signs of abusive relationships and their patterns of escalation. The violence is presented as the inevitable result of the victim’s vunerability and the abuser’s bad character. If the victim were so weak, our narrative goes, zie would never be with hir in the first place. The focus on large acts of violence – beating, mostly – ignores the ways in which the small temper tantrums, the little boundary violations, the less obvious demands set the pattern and reinforce the boundaries of the relationship so that the big explosions of violence are only infrequently, in many relationships, needed to shore them up.
What’s more, narratives about domestic violence usually portray leaving the abuser as the end point, the hardest part. I thought it was. It didn’t occur to me, until I saw it happen, the sheer lengths an abuser would go to to torment hir victim. Not just following her around, but emailing or calling hir workplace, threatening hir friends and family, killing pets, attacking hir online at every turn…the depths to which some people will sink to try and maintain control over someone who is trying to escape them shocked me, and I was horrified at how ineffective our legal measures are at keeping survivors safe once they leave. No wonder some people feel staying might be safer.
I have watched good friends be abused, all the while denying that their partners’ behavior is problematic. In my experience, my more feminist or self-advocating friends had a harder time labeling their relationships as abusive than my more stereotypically feminine friends, because they believed they were too strong to be abused – “if it were really abuse, I would have left already,” one of them told me firmly. It took a huge escalation which finally hit the intensity of stereotypical images of domestic violence before zie started calling that relationship abusive and took the long, scary steps to end it.
The reality of victims of domestic violence was beyond my comprehension before I saw it in person. The nuances of threat and insult, the depth of psychological abuse that can occur, the victim’s acquiescence or even hir belief in the just nature of that treatment – they were not part of my experience, not part of my cultural education about domestic violence. So when a friend told me about her relationship, which involved blowup after blowup, fight after fight, fear and insult and disregard for her bodily autonomy and her emotions, I just lent her a sympathetic ear, believed her excuses about what stress he was under, and occasionally suggested that she should break up with him. I knew that intimate partner violence wasn’t just being physically struck, but I didn’t have any conception of how to put together his pattern of controlling and abusive behavior to come up with the right name for what he was doing. My first reaction was that she needed to grow a backbone and break up with him already, since clearly he sucked. I could not see, in her excuses, the specter of her own doubt about his motives, nor her fear of breaking up with him, not until much later.
Domestic violence means physical violence, emotional violence, sexual violence, the threat of physical violence, the threat of emotional violence, blackmail, gaslighting, and a huge range of other behaviors that can be murky and difficult to define. Sometimes the victims are aware, and sometimes they think they are too strong to be abused. Sometimes they have nothing to say, and sometimes they make excuses. Sometimes they resist and sometimes they are compliant.
That friend’s abuser escalated, when she tried to break up with him, in a big way. By this time, he had succeeded in socially isolating her from almost everyone, so when he raped her, impregnated her, broke up with her, abandoned her to get an abortion on her own, spread rumors about her, and moved into her dormitory where he could keep an eye on her and continue to threaten her physically and emotionally, it was to her estranged friend in my dormitory that she came. The rape meant I finally recognized that pattern of behavior as violent, as domestic violence, as something serious and dangerous. I was horrified, I wondered how a relationship that wasn’t “that bad” from her earlier descriptions could escalate like this. My friend, too, was surprised. She had gotten used to his jealousies and insecurities, his need to cut her down every once in a while, his misogyny. She had excused and defended these things, forgiven him a million times. She had been sucked into the twisted, upside-down world of an abuser, and I had too. She felt that the escalation had come out of nowhere, rather than being part of a larger pattern of abuse and control.
Domestic violence doesn’t just cover physical violence that leaves contusions. The complexities of actual situations of domestic violence do not erase the tragedy of it, and they do not help heal its wounds – they can make healing more difficult, because a victim who does not have a track record of hospital visits is not accorded the same belief and respect and sympathy (however condescending it may be) – because a “strong” person, a “smart” person, would have “known better,” would have gotten out, would have recognized the abuse as abuse and not been abused. A survivor who does not have physical wounds to show will get less help in protecting hirself from hir abuser.
This is the damage of our current cultural narrative. This is the damage of over simplification. This is the damage of stereotypes. The emotional and physical toll is real. No victim of domestic violence should feel that “abuse” is too strong a word to be applied to hir situation – no one should be told they should grow a thicker skin or their situation “wasn’t that bad.” No survivor should have deal with disbelief or blame in addition the very real wounds (physical and psychic) of an abusive relationship. No survivor should be left vulnerable to the retaliation of hir abuser because zie was not believed.
Abuse is tricky, and a lot more widespread than anyone wants to admit. The silence, the shame, the fear can be hard to escape. Sharing a story is work that should be admired, and met with support, but too often survivors are met with disbelief or judgment. They may be met with worse. The best tool we have for helping ourselves, our loved ones, and our families to fight domestic violence is our voices. I hope this blog carnival helps you talk about patterns of abuse with people you love. I hope you reaffirm your commitment to respecting intimate partners, to the unacceptability of any form of abuse or controlling behavior. I hope you remember to believe in yourself, listen to your instincts, and enforce your own boundaries. Be safe. That is my greatest wish for all people: may you be safe.