When the #MeToo movement gained momentum and resulted in several high profile public figures facing their reckoning for committing sexual offenses dating back decades, many domestic violence survivors and advocates watched with hope that the movement would expand to include intimate partner violence. Conversations on sexual violence changed. Victim blaming was addressed more often, and consent became a central point in discussions on sexual violence.
Months later, domestic violence survivors and advocates have found that they were largely left out of the conversation. Facing an unchanging environment, survivors and advocates alike find themselves identifying key factors hindering a similar movement in intimate partner violence advocacy.
There are obstacles buried deep in the dynamics of domestic violence that make creating a movement as public as #MeToo problematic and sometimes dangerous for victims speaking out. If we are to realize an equally effective movement, several things need to be addressed.
Silence is Systemic – This does not occur accidentally. Abusers condition their victims through fear, gaslighting, and manipulation to maintain silence and protect their secret. Often, this manipulation includes physical enforcement and profound psychological scarring. When coupled with shame, victims are fearful and reluctant to disclose the abuse. After leaving, victim blaming and shaming from those around them often discourages the open discussion imperative to healing. Breaking that silence often comes through a massive struggle, and it is not an easy one to win.
Overcoming Risk of Retaliation from the Abuser – Although victims are at greatest risk of harm and fatality when leaving an abuser, there are other instances in a survivor’s life that can reawaken that risk over time. Significant life changes are common causes, including children graduating or marrying, survivors starting a new relationship, a new job, securing a promotion, or buying a home or vehicle. Any positive life changes made by the survivor free of the abuser’s control can lead an abuser to retaliate against them.
Speaking out in the limited arena of law enforcement, court systems, and advocates is risky enough for those who come forward to report the abuse they endured. Doing so using public platforms inherently requires assuming the risk that your abuser could retaliate. It’s typically easier for anyone who is connected to the survivor or abuser to figure out who is accused, so privacy and anonymity are concerns even without naming the perpetrator.
Celebrities, Athletes, and Authority Figures Are Excused from Consequences – Unlike the very public fall of powerful men during the #MeToo movement, similar figures who commit domestic violence are not held to the same standard. Societal standards and institutionalized misogyny often save musicians, athletes, and politicians from having their reputations destroyed. Penalties are often minimal and do little to discourage the behavior from continuing.
The System is Broken – Victims often face uncaring community responses from law enforcement, court systems, employment, and housing. There is a lack of understanding in these areas dramatically decreasing the effectiveness and access to life-saving services. Programs are defunded, budgets are slashed, and laws are limited in scope or negatively impact victims of abuse while protecting abusers. Survivors with children are often forced through lengthy legal proceedings battling for custody only to be given no choice but to co-parent with a person who has shown themselves to be dangerous. Nuisance ordinances allow landlords to evict victims relating to domestic violence incidents “disrupting” others.
Victim Blaming is Institutionalized into Community Response Services – Some police and lawyers imply victims instigated assaults, and their line of questioning is a tactic meant to plant doubt in the minds of observers. Those who have not been abused and therefore do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence ask victims and survivors why they stay, tell them what they would have done, and often accuse them of exaggerating or outright lying. These reactions only further encourage silence; where there is silence, shame is not far behind.
The Media Singularly Uses Minimizing Language in Domestic Violence Reports – Headlines and verbiage in televised news reports reflect the lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and, by proxy, miseducate the public on what abuse is. Links to mass shootings are disregarded. Assault victims die from injuries. Deaths of couples or families are called “murder-suicides,” and domestic assaults are often referred to as “incidents.” Using words to cushion or minimize the severity of what happens in domestic violence ultimately ends up endangering other victims and survivors and encourages the spreading of myths. It also allows the insidious nature of domestic violence to evade the public attention so desperately needed to incite change within the current system.
What Can We Do to Encourage a DV Movement?
- Create a new legal system comprised of courts and lawyers who specialize solely in intimate partner violence. Ensure that all parties working on these cases complete domestic violence, trauma, and sensitivity training. Design a network of partner groups with specialized domestic violence task forces that work together to streamline processes and give victims the option of appearing separate from their abuser.
- Join an advocacy group on campaigns that pressure elected officials to draft laws that protect victims and hold abusers accountable for their actions – regardless of their status and celebrity – and urge them to continue funding programs.
- Design community outreach programs to bring awareness of the true nature of domestic violence to the communities where we live, shop, work, and pursue education.
- Don’t exclude our children. Make domestic violence a mandatory part of the curriculum starting in elementary schools. Teach our youth the difference between healthy and abusive relationships and provide them with the resources they need to help themselves or others. Empower them early by educating them not only on consent but boundaries and red flags as well.
- Engage community influencers and celebrities both in person and via social media to speak out against domestic violence.
- Encourage those who feel safe enough to share their stories. This lets others know that they do not have to be bound by silence, and it helps reduce shame and isolation.
- Perhaps the most powerful: listen, believe, and respond with compassion. Being heard is a profound experience. The more we accept each other’s vulnerability with compassion, the more others will follow our lead.