Why Did She Stay? — Because We Are A Society of Victim-Blamers
By Alexandria Roswick
Just because it is a part of our culture does not mean you can dodge responsibility for your contribution to it.
I recently published a piece detailing how to effectively help a friend who is being abused. The issues of sexual, domestic, and intimate partner violence are highly nuanced and complex, so I recognize that there was a lot that my article was missing.
Within the article, I stated that victims of abuse are difficult to save simply because they don’t want to be. I received a comment from a woman who reminded me that although many survivors do trauma-bond to their abusers, this is not the only experience.
“There were many times I asked people to help me leave my abuser. They told me no. They told me to make amends with him. They told me that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as I told them. Maybe I just asked the wrong people for help, but they all wanted to sweep it under the rug and told me that I shouldn’t have called the police and ‘caused so much trouble’ when I finally did.”
This woman’s honesty allowed me to remember that I had experienced this non-bond with an abuser years ago.
I was groomed and manipulated into this relationship, but after the love-bombing phase ended, I recall being completely aware of my victimization. Much like this commenter, I reached out to trusted friends and family about my situation.
But I stayed for weeks after these conversations were had. Not because I felt any love for him — but because it became obvious that my life would be in danger if I tried to leave. I felt like a prisoner who had to plan a breakout. Eventually, I was able to devise an escape plan and got away.
The most significant difference between my experience and the narrative of the survivor who commented under my article is that I had an extremely supportive community behind me.
Even though most people didn’t understand exactly what I was going through, they validated my concerns and told me that my abuser's actions were not conveying love or respect. This support was a key factor in my eventual empowerment to break free.
It seems this survivor had a group of people who bought into outdated stereotypes. Whether they had good intentions or not, their ignorance led to a disregard for their friend’s well-being that made it more difficult for her to leave the toxic relationship.
I’m not placing full blame on anyone besides the abuser, but I will certainly acknowledge that this case is an example of how our culture completely fails women and all victims of intimate partner violence.
The horrifying truth is that abusers aren’t only manipulative to their partners. These predators are capable of grooming entire communities.
Unfortunately, community members can easily be used to aid in the abuser's manipulation. How? Our society practically gives them the tools. Abusers use our victim-blaming culture to their advantage every step of the way.
In these cases, instead of our communities being a safe place for the members within it, they become part of the abuse. If not believed by their peers, victims will grow more fearful of speaking their truths, and often they will give up on trying to escape.
How Does Victim-Blaming Work?
Unfortunately, victim-blaming culture is not simple to define. And whenever we claim something is part of “the culture”, it allows us to point the finger at something that is bigger than us.
“Any time someone defaults to questioning what a victim could have done differently to prevent a crime, he or she is participating, to some degree, in the culture of victim blaming.” -Kayleigh Roberts, The Atlantic
Our go-to examples for victim-blaming are the typical “What was she wearing?” or “Why was she at that party?” But these are only the tip of the iceberg. There are aspects of this culture that are so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we might write them off as unpreventable or “just the way things are.”
But “the culture” is shaped by the people — us. While it is not completely on our shoulders to shift the culture, there are definitely ways that we can contribute to improving it. The biggest obstacle is that people don’t tend to — or like to — believe that our day-to-day actions and words can make a huge difference in other people’s lives.
Say for instance a man makes a gratuitous comment toward a woman at his place of work and she reports him. Instead of the man apologizing, he decides to tell everyone that she was overreacting.
This is a common situation, and how it is dealt with by the employer is important, but the social implications are just as crucial. However her co-workers react to the matter, whether they acknowledge it or not, they are contributing to the overall culture of the work environment.
Do they believe the woman’s narrative or choose to give the man the benefit of the doubt? The issue can resolve in one of two ways. In one scenario, the validation from her peers will empower the woman to always speak up in the face of disrespect. In another scenario, social isolation will reinforce her self-doubt and convey that speaking up can only ever cause trouble.
The social response will also reinforce a message to her peers. It will either teach them that certain behaviors are unacceptable and there are social consequences for them, or it will relay that many roll their eyes at this kind of complaint and it is something they can easily get away with.
Neutrality is Complicity
In the example above, let’s assume that the woman’s co-workers are most comfortable staying out of it, which is what usually happens.
This neutral reaction is actually not so neutral — nor is it morally superior as these people like to think. It only reinforces the idea that her complaint is a non-issue and doesn’t need to be addressed, which is in the man’s favor. This completely minimizes the woman’s concern and protects him— and normalizes his actions.
Sometimes when survivors of abuse come forward, especially if the perpetrator is a trusted member of the community, they are faced with neutrality from their friends and it can feel like a betrayal to them.
Their friends may make unproductive comments in response to the allegations such as “ I’ve never seen him act abusively.” “Maybe he thought it was a miscommunication?” or even “There must be some explanation for his actions.”
Although these friends may not intend it, they are causing the victim to doubt her own reality, which is similar to the gaslighting she received from her own perpetrator. These attempts to “not take anyone’s side” are examples of victim-blaming.
There is a cause and effect to every action and reaction. In order to shift culture, we must recognize that our avoidance is possibly inflicting preventable pain on others and setting the standard for future occurrences in the same environment.
Cultural Norms That Keep Victim-Blaming Alive
I provided a mild example above in order to convey circumstances we’ve likely all witnessed, whether it be at work or school. While disrespectful comments made in professional settings can be made by people of either gender, they are more commonly made by men.
When men behave as this hypothetical man did, it is because we have perpetuated a culture of low risk based on patriarchal values that do not hold them accountable for most misogynistic behaviors. They are easily able to insist a woman is hysterical because she reacted to harassment instead of staying silent. And we believe this because this is a sexist stereotype that’s lived on for centuries.
Unchecking of privilege has gone on for so long that when a man is actually called out for doing the things that many get away with on a daily basis, even in a post #metoo society, a lot of us find it startling.
We always seem to be more appalled by the call-out than we are by the inappropriate behavior. Since an expressed complaint tends to be at the expense of a white man’s precious reputation, it prompts us to feel entitled to micromanage whether it is actually “valid enough” to be talked about.
Contrary to what many still believe, it is not a common occurrence for women to lie about abuse. It is completely possible for women to lie, of course. Men and women both lie. But let’s not pretend that we ever thought about it that way.
The default belief somehow became that a woman will over-exaggerate due to her propensity to have feelings, or a hyper-emotional vendetta. And these ideas are not coincidental. They clearly benefit men who are able to abuse their power.
Take for instance the fact that when forty-three women spoke their corroborated truths about Donald Trump, it was widely considered a witch hunt. Most of the country fell into the belief that all of these women wanted attention.
Due to sexism like this, we ignore the much more common scenario, which is that a woman says nothing about the inappropriate behavior because she’s afraid of being called crazy or attention-seeking. These cases will never have a chance to contribute to the statistics because they are never reported. Because we don’t encourage women to report. See how that works?
But it’s not only women who are victimized. When we assume that men can’t be assaulted or raped, or that an abuse victim fits any particular stereotype, we are subtly invalidating the narratives of victims that don’t appear to be our idea of one.
It is important to emphasize that people from any background, age, gender, or non-binary can be a survivor. And even within the most common demographic, every single survivor’s story is unique. When we limit our view of what a victim’s experience can look like, we create blind spots.
For the same reason that we must stop stereotyping victims, we also must erase the cultural idea of what a “real predator” looks like. Thousands are able to fly under the radar when we use such a narrow scope. Though there are many red flags we can use to identify abusers, we should never have a specific stereotype in mind. In order to do this, we must grapple with the uncomfortable fact that an abuser can be anyone.
In a society that values marriage and partnership above all, we define normalcy as settling down and staying loyal to one partner forever. Putting up with poor behavior is framed as a “worthy sacrifice” in a society that makes the alternative — being single — seem devastating. Countless fictional stories and rom-coms repeat the message that the more we suffer, the deeper the love.
Lack of proper education on the nuance of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse creates harmful rhetoric such as “ If you never said no, you weren’t raped” or “He didn’t actually hit you, so it’s not abuse.”
These are conversations that usually stem from a lot of people’s subconscious attempts to try to protect themselves or the people they know from accusations. And they are the very discussions that create the stigmas that prevent victims from reporting serious crimes or reaching out for help.
Many of these cultural myths intersect and even strengthen one another, which can only lead to more misconceptions and underestimations.
The effects of abuse range from severe to FATAL.
I suspect that the majority of people are able to ignore the urgency of these issues because they are not trauma-informed. Ask a random person on the streets and they will probably have no idea about the effects of an abusive relationship.
The experience isn’t comparable to your run-of-the-mill heartbreak. It’s not something you grieve and move on from like a break-up. Survivors endure psychological and often physical torture. This violence that occurs — often on a daily basis for an extended amount of time — is mind and body-altering.
An abusive relationship or traumatic assault at any time in a person’s life has devastating and lasting consequences. There can be physical injuries, developed chronic illnesses, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and/ or suicide.
It doesn’t stop there. While their mental and physical health is suffering, victims experience problems at work or school as their drive and performance decline. What’s worse is they are often reprimanded for these changes instead of receiving the help they need.
Their relationships with family and friends can also suffer at a time when they need love and support the most. A lot of victims don’t have access to the proper resources, especially if they are still with their abuser, who will likely isolate them from anyone who could potentially empower them.
As horrible as these effects are, they are the best-case scenarios when it comes to abuse. Each year one in five homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. One in five do not survive.
We sometimes use certain words so casually, like survivor, without contemplating what they truly mean. Survivors are survivors because they make it out alive. Before they could have been killed by their abuser.
Domestic and sexual violence are very common experiences, so why is this information not common knowledge?
What Can We Do?
I highlight some specific ideas in this piece if you’d like more clarity on what to do for a friend who is currently in danger. There is also an endless amount of media, content, platforms, films, documentaries, and books available for everyone to learn more about the survivor experience. Stay informed, challenge your views often and use your knowledge to help others.
It all boils down to being supportive and taking people seriously when they express their concerns. We should always think critically about the media’s messages about women, men, relationships, and violence and be careful not to let stereotypes shape our actions.
Face the Facts
If it weren’t for the support I received from my community after I confided in them about my experience with abuse, I may have been stuck in that awful relationship and endured even more compounded trauma.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned commenter was severely let down by the people around her. We shouldn’t treat ourselves as superheroes who can save every victim, but a lot of us aren’t even doing the bare minimum.
The statistics don’t lie — 1 of 4 women and 1 of 10 men are survivors of intimate partner violence. We all know or have known a victim. It’s possible that we are all guilty of victim-blaming or complicity.
Our culture is saturated in these myths, so it only makes sense for us to have fallen into them. Don’t waste time trying to deny it or make excuses. It’s happened, and it’s not about your pride or guilt. It’s about preventing serious harm.
Until we start looking at this realistically, we will be of no help to our communities. Even though a lot of uncomfortable feelings will come with it, once you acknowledge that you may have failed in the past, you’re bound to do better in the future.