Domestic violence has spent a lot of time in the news recently. Thanks to social media, when an event like this happens, everyone has access to a platform for their opinions – whether they are a news anchor or one of the millions who use Facebook and Twitter to connect with their social circles.
As this commentary unfolded, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the content. “She’s seeing dollar signs,” a friend of a friend commented on a Facebook thread. “She threw the first punch,” added another. And then, over and over again, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Especially among women, the commentary was increasingly focused on scrutinizing and criticizing the actions of the victim in the situation.
When given voice on television and social media, these comments are incredibly dangerous. The people posting these comments had no way of knowing whether their friends were struggling with some level of abuse in their relationships. How many people’s worst fears were confirmed when their friends publicly denounced the kinds of women who stay?
Central to addressing and ending the cycle of violence is learning how to be a supportive friend, family member, or ally to someone who is experiencing intimate partner violence. Following the best practices for supporting a victim often feels counterintuituve, and is hardly ever easy. But if we are genuinely invested in a better future and genuinely focused on the best outcomes for victims, then it is time to change the conversation.
There are many organizations in Texas whose sole focus is addressing domestic violence and/or providing support for those who experience it. The Hotline and loveisrepect offer 24 hour assistance to those experiencing domestic violence, their friends, and family members. Along with online resources for friends and family, The Hotline has a series of 50 answers to the question, “But why did she stay?”
The series is based on the work of Sarah M. Buel, who took her experience in the field of domestic violence and compiled 50 reasons for staying she had encountered over 22 years. Buel’s work, and the blog series by the Hotline, help to show many of the ways victims of violence become trapped in an unsafe situation.
Breanna Rollings, the Communications Specialist for the Hotline, explained,
We always try to emphasize that domestic violence or dating abuse is not the victim’s fault, so blaming or shaming them should be avoided. Additionally, telling a victim they should just leave the relationship – although it might seem like the most obvious solution – can be very counterproductive. Leaving can be a very dangerous time for a victim, and there are many reasons victims stay in abusive relationships.
What many of the people who waded in to the conversation around domestic violence last week failed to understand is the incredible difficulty of leaving an abusive relationship. According to the Hotline, it takes an average of seven times for a victim of abuse to break the cycle and leave the relationship for good. It isn’t because they are weak or somehow otherwise deserving of abuse at the hands of their partner. It is part and parcel of the nature of domestic violence.
According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, an estimated 5 million Texans will experience family violence in their lifetime. In 2013, 11,544 adults and 13,753 children sought shelter from family violence, and over 50,000 more sought counseling to address domestic violence in their lives. 10,896 individuals were turned away from shelters due to lack of space. There were 185,453 incidents of family violence in Texas last year.
Domestic violence is killing Texans. 114 women died in 2012 as a result of domestic violence. None of them deserved it.
Domestic violence is a social problem. It continues to happen across the country, in every community, in every state. The change has to start with us. We must intentionally shift the conversation around domestic violence through our own interactions with those who experience it, our commentary about the subject, and a willingness to intervene when we see harmful comments being made.
Most importantly, those who are in abusive relationships need to know that they have support. Many victims are purposefully isolated from their friends and family members, which can make leaving even harder. Providing non-judgmental love, friendship, and support helps victims see that they aren’t alone. Blame and shame have to be left out of the conversation. Many abusers have already told their partners that the abuse is all their fault. Your loved one doesn’t need another voice in that chorus – they need a friend in their corner.
Whether you know someone who is in an abusive relationship or are talking about domestic violence in a public way, we all have to remember that our words and commentary carry a heavy weight. In the conversation about domestic violence, we have a choice to make: will we be a part of the problem? Or will we help move the conversation forward into a better, safer future?