Domestic Violence: Behind the Stereotypes

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Many
of the statements surrounding last month’s Domestic
Violence Awareness
drive were ‘anti-knowledge’: things generally
believed to be true even though they are false.

For
example, the general assumption “women are victims, men are abusers”
ignores data indicating that battered
husbands
comprise a significant percentage of domestic violence
victims. Equally, women who do not fit the stereotype of victimhood
are ignored. The fault lies with the stereotypes, not with the non-conforming
victims.

The
underlying ideology of domestic violence is politically-correct
feminism which considers women to be oppressed by male power and
the institutions of society, including traditional marriage. Accordingly,
domestic violence has been subjected to a black-and-white analysis
that rests upon stereotypes.

From
the politically correct perspective, a domestic violence victim
is a woman so traumatized by violence that she has become virtually
incapable of making the choice to leave. Children or financial dependence
may be complicating factors.

The
domestic violence abuser is portrayed as a dominating man, but he
is more than this. He has become a symbol of the violence presumed
to lurk beneath the surface of ‘everyman’. Some anti-domestic violence
ad campaigns even target young
boys
in order to nip their violence in the bud.

For
the many real world victims, the realities of domestic violence
flatly contradict such stereotypes. For them, the characterizations
serve as barriers to understanding and healing.

I
know because, for over a decade, I’ve struggled to make sense of
my own abuse and feminist explanations made that torturous process
more difficult than it had to be. Domestic violence is a shattering
experience because the victim is betrayed by a loved one. Self-respect
is slowly stripped away until he or she is left psychologically
naked, not knowing who to trust or what a normal relationship looks
like.

Some
domestic violence victims undoubtedly fit the description offered
by PC feminism. But gender stereotypes become destructive when they
cease to make general claims and purport to say something that is
necessarily true of every individual woman or man, every victim
or abuser.

The
inadequacy of the stereotypes became clear to me through one question.
“Why did I stay?” It is a question PC feminism never asks because
to do so would acknowledge a fact that contradicts its theories.
Namely, some victims choose to stay, which means they could choose
to leave.

For
PC feminists, even an intelligent and otherwise competent woman
who can explain why she
stays
– for example, to help a loved one through a temporary
addiction – is not deemed to have really chosen.

There
are several reasons why the very idea of choice is rejected.

For
one thing, staying is viewed as a bad choice. As true as this may
be, however, it does not negate the fact that staying is a choice.

Another
reason: with choice comes responsibility and, for some people, having
victims bear any responsibility seems tantamount to blaming them
for their own abuse. But being accountable for your own decisions
and assuming the blame for the actions of someone else are two entirely
separate matters.

No
one deserves to be beaten; no one is to blame for being on the receiving
end of a fist. An abuser doesn’t escape legal and moral culpability
so easily. But a chronic victim owns it to herself or himself to
seriously explore their own participation in a relationship of continuing
abuse.

This
is not callousness; it is an attempt to help. The path out of victimhood
may well lie in acknowledging the power of choice that lies inside
each victim. Some choices are incredibly more difficult than others.

And,
yet, some choice is almost always possible, even small steps like
phoning an anonymous helpline or unpleasant ones like asking for
help.

Only
when I took responsibility for my choices was I able to answer,
“Why did I stay?” As long as I denied responsibility for my actions
and bought into theories that pathologized my choices out of existence,
I couldn’t get past that one question.

The
stereotype of an abuser also does not describe the reality of many
victims.

It
is not merely that abusers can be women. It is also that the current
stereotype seems to make no distinction on matters such as the frequency
and severity of abuse. This lack of subtlety obscures rather than
informs.

For
example, I don’t believe a man who slaps a woman (or vice versa)
during a lover’s quarrel is comparable to an abuser who batters
on a daily basis. As unacceptable as a slap in a moment of passion
may be, it is different in kind from deliberate and ongoing sadism.

In
addition, I don’t believe that an abuser who hits once will necessarily
do it again. A close friend once became drunk and literally attacked
her fianc so viciously and without cause that the relationship
almost ended on the spot. She swore off alcohol and nothing remotely
similar has occurred in the years since.

The
PC stereotypes that have defined the issue of domestic violence
are inadequate and they are hurting victims who do not conform.
Male and same-sex victims, women who choose to stay, victims of
one-time abuse…these people are being ignored or damaged by the
current approach. There is no excuse for ignoring the reality of
victims who need desperately to be heard.

But
ideology makes many so-called “victim advocates” turn a deaf ear
to their cries for help.

November
11, 2004

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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