October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and in honor of this I wanted to do a blog post about one of the most pervasive, and detrimental, issues we have as a society when it comes to dealing with domestic violence (DV); victim blaming.
The title of this post is "why doesn't she just leave?" (please note that I am just using the pronoun "she" for simplicity, but it could just as easily be "he" or "they"), because this is something I think we've all heard, or maybe even asked ourselves, when the topic of DV comes up. I have two main issues with this short, seemingly harmless inquiry. One, it clearly shifts the blame for DV from the abuser to the victim by insinuating that the victim could simply end the DV if she only left, therefore she is making a choice to stay. More about this in a minute. The second issue is that this statement indicates a clear lack of understanding (or misunderstanding) of all the complex social and psychological factors that are at play in a DV situation.
Let's talk about victim blaming first. Victim blaming is a social psychological concept that shifts responsibility for certain behaviors from the perpetrator to the victim. This concept has been with humanity for pretty much as far back as can be recorded (if you know what to look for). Myths about sexuality , biology and consent, as well as the cognitive shortcut "belief in a just world" (we all know this one; good things happen to good people/bad things happen to bad people, so when something bad happens to someone "good" it means they did something to deserve it), have created a perfect storm where we decide to let the "bad guy" off the hook and focus on what the victim could have or should have done differently.
You see this most often with sexual assault victims. They are criticized for what they were wearing, where they were walking, or how much they had to drink. Asking the question, "why doesn't she just leave?", shifts blame to the victim in a similar way. It's like saying "there wouldn't even be a problem if she just left him". Which completely ignores the fact that a crime is being committed and that there is a guilty party who should be held accountable. When this is typed out in black and white most people like to think that they would never engage in these types of thinking errors. Most people are quick to realize that the perpetrator is one hundred percent responsible for the situation. So why is this such a common reaction?
People engage in victim blaming for a pretty simple reason. That "belief in a just world" thinking error I mentioned earlier is mainly responsible. If this belief is challenged with evidence, like when something bad happens to someone good, it makes us uncomfortable because we realize that we (good people) could have something bad happen to us as well. Somewhere in our mind it registers that this could have been us. We could have been sexually assaulted walking home after a late class one night, we could have ended up in a domestic violence situation. This is scary, so our brain tries to protect us by coming up with ways that we are "different" from the victim, like how we would never walk home alone or how we couldn't possibly ever end up marrying someone who engages in a DV cycle of abuse, and even if we did we certainly would NEVER stay. And that's how you end up saying something like "why doesn't she just leave".
Okay, so now that we've talked about how victim blaming occurs, let's talk about how to avoid it. All we need is a quick self-check, and half the battle is just being aware of the thinking errors we engage in every day, so we're all wiser now! Anytime you catch yourself (or other people) saying something that shifts the blame or the focus of the conversation to the victim you can remind yourself and others that the focus should be on the perpetrator and the crime that has been committed. Just imagine people talking about a mugging victim the same way ("why was he walking around with that fat wallet in his pocket anyway?", that generally quickly refocuses any victim blaming.
My second issue with the title inquiry is that it unjustly oversimplifies a very complex situation. I'm just going to touch on it briefly, because I would like to expand on it more in next month's blog as well as start talking about how we can help someone leave.
Several factors contribute to why a victim of DV doesn't just leave, and they all have to do with what we call Power and Control areas. Abusers use multiple tactics to gain power and control over their victims. It is pervasive and includes isolating them from family and friends (people who could assist them with leaving), controlling access to money (an essential item for purchasing bus tickets and hotel rooms, not to mention starting your life over), controlling access or continued to access to the children (I know all the mothers out there can empathize and therefore understand how a DV victim would react given the idea of possibly not having her children with her), and power over a victim's self concept (making them feel incompetent or weak, basically incapable of making it on their own). There is of course threats of what would happen to her or the children if she left, and plenty of past experiences to give those threats credence. Again, this is a very surface discussion of a very complicated issue, but I hope to keep this ball rolling over the next couple months and through the holiday seasons.
Even if you take just one of the power and control areas we talked about above, it's easy to see why the title inquiry is such an unproductive (and even dangerous) response to a conversation about DV. There is so much that we can do to empower and assist victims, all we need to get started is to place blame where it belongs and understand what the barriers are. The very complicated answer to "why doesn't she just leave" is everything we've talked about today! So help me keep this conversation going in the right direction this month and beyond. Feel free to comment on my blog or please log in to any of our chatrooms and practice with our trained facilitators and fellow survivors!