(Written by Maria De Santis of the Women’s Justice Center, Santa Rosa, CA)
There’s a seemingly simple little exercise we’ve done dozens of times at workshops on violence against women. The usual responses, however, are anything but simple. They’re confounding and cause for concern.
Recently we repeated the exercise with a conference room full of 70 social workers, advocates, therapists, and mental health workers. “Why don’t some domestic violence victims leave the relationship,” we ask? “Call out the reasons!”
The answers, as always, come fast and freely. “Because she doesn’t think she can make it on her own.” “Not enough money to feed the children.” “She feels obligated to her marital vows.” “It’s learned helplessness.” “She doesn’t believe she deserves better.” “She doesn’t know where to go.” “She wants the children to have a father.” etc.
I jot down the familiar list until the group exhausts their thoughts. And there, again, is the enigma. How, at this date, with this group, – with almost every group – do so many miss the obvious? To be sure there’s truth and need for remedy in every reason given. But the one thing that should top the list, the thing that freezes so many women in place, is not even mentioned at all.
Women often don’t leave domestic violence because they know that when they do leave the danger of more severe violence increases dramatically. Violence, and the sheer terror of it, is one of the principle reasons women don’t leave. And the women are right!
Fact: When domestic violence victims attempt to leave the relationship, the stalking and violence almost always escalates sharply as the perpetrator attempts to regain control.
Fact: The majority of domestic violence homicides occur as a woman attempts to leave or after she has left.
Fact: The most serious domestic violence injuries are perpetrated against women who have separated from the perpetrator.
The women know these dangers. They know them because they’ve already experienced the violent responses when they’ve attempted to assert themselves, even minimally, within the relationship. They know because the perpetrators have usually threatened precisely what they intend to if she does try to leave.
“Instead of Helping Me, They Sunk Me Even More”
The women also know these dangers are heightened still more because so many officials, first responders, and courts are also in denial of the gravity of her situation. And she’s right again. Despite the modern-day rhetoric about treating domestic violence seriously, the reality is that the critical protections she needs when leaving are still as precarious and unpredictable as a roll of the dice. One responder may help effectively. The next may ignore, mock, underestimate, misdiagnose, walk away, blame her, take her kids, shunt her into social services, arrest her, send her to counseling, or one way or another refuse to implement real power on her behalf, abandoning her to a perpetrator who is now more enraged than ever.
The paths leading up to so many domestic violence homicides are paved with officials’ failures to protect. Just weeks before she was murdered by her estranged husband, Maria hauntingly summed up her own, and so many others’ experiences with officials. “Instead of helping me,” she said, “They sunk me even more.”
You can work tirelessly and compassionately to social work, counsel, and support the victim. But if you ignore this critical piece of making sure the system puts failsafe brakes on the perpetrator and his violence, it will be for naught. The perpetrator will continue to stalk and terrorize or worse. The victim will still be trapped in the violent relationship no matter where she has moved and how much independence she has attained. In fact, the freer she is, the angrier he gets.
And if you look just a little closer, you’ll see that for domestic violence victims there really is no such thing as leaving, or escaping, until the system does, in fact, step up and effectively stop the perpetrator. There is no Mason Dixon line over which women can run and escape and be home free. The perpetrators can and do hunt her down anywhere.
Domestic Violence! Not ‘Domesticated Violence’, nor ‘Violence Lite’!
It’s interesting. When you do the same exercise, but merely shift to other forms of violent relationships, a group’s responses are dramatically different. “Why doesn’t the field slave,” for example, “Run away from the plantation in the middle of the night while the master sleeps?” The answers are immediate and unequivocal. “Because the slaves know they’ll get hunted down.” “Because they know if they’re caught they’ll get beaten like never before.” “Because they stand a good chance of getting killed.”
The first answers out are never ‘learned helplessness’, ‘low self esteem’, or ‘not enough money’ even though there’s no question these same psycho-social factors are just as much at work. In fact, if one were to lead off their explanations as to ‘why slaves don’t leave’ with the ‘learned helplessness’ or ‘not enough money’ aspect, the insult of it would ring perfectly clear.
Whether you ask the question in regard to slaves, prisoners of war, kidnap victims, concentration camp captives, or residents of violent regimes, etc., the horrific dynamics and dangers of attempting to escape are well understood by everyone. Some victims of these violent relationships do, in fact, make a run for it. Some succeed. Some are killed. Some are recaptured and punished unmercifully.
Most victims, however, never go beyond an initial evaluation of the risks. The obvious dangers are just too great. They stay. Violence works. Violence, and the sheer terrorizing threat of it, has always, everywhere, worked better than anything else to keep victims compliant and pinned in place.
So why the glaring blind spot in regard to domestic violence victims? Why are women denied even the validation of the dangerous dynamics of her dilemma? Why do so many people still hold a view, as cloaked as it may be in paternal tones, that is more in sync with the perpetrator’s stance than with the victim’s? The view that the problem rests with her. That it’s she that needs to be propped up and fixed.
As if this violence that plagues women around the world is a ‘domesticated violence’, or ‘violence lite’!
The Patriarchy Still Rules! And Still Needs to be Upended!
The glaring blind spot is rooted deep in the self-preservation mechanisms of patriarchal rule. If the violent repression of women were to be recognized on a par with other violent repressions it would require nothing short of upending the missions of law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, and service organizations, and not just the adjustment of rhetoric we have now. The male-dominated power structure resists implementing its real powers on behalf of women in order to preserve the power for itself. That’s fairly obvious.
But what about the blind spot of so many social workers, advocates, and therapists? Those who care about the women, and dedicate their lives to helping them? Perhaps it’s one more layer of the battered women’s syndrome that needs to be exposed. Because if we ourselves truly recognize the gravity of women’s plight, we, too, have to move beyond the safety zones of the nurturing, supportive roles we find so comfortable.
We will be compelled to step out, challenge, watchdog, fight, demand, and make sure that the powerful, male-dominated institutions are, in fact, upended, and that they, indeed, begin to implement their full powers on behalf of women, and against the perpetrators. Only then will domestic violence victims truly have a real choice to leave.
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