The Taboo of Acknowledging Victimization

Somehow, ‘victim’ has become a dirty word to many people when they are discussing partner abuse and domestic violence. Because of this, we stigmatise women who flee from abuse and try to come to terms with their ambivalence and regrets over the loss of home, possessions, and respectability in their communities. Understandably, they react to critical and blaming attitudes by retreating still further within themselves. They will often stop talking about what has happened and stop seeking help. They may struggle with the continuing effects of trauma and displacement for years, in lonely isolation.

More tragically, women still considering whether to leave, or how to do so safely, often do not report abuse or ask for help. It is not only fear of the abuser’s wrath that makes a woman withdraw assault charges after a violent incident. It is also the certain knowledge that at least some of the people she needs will fail to support and fully protect her. She accurately perceives that they are just as likely to blame, criticize or disbelieve her, as they are to offer help or corroborate her testimony. Sometimes it becomes easier to resign ourselves to the situation or to believe we deserve to be abused, rather than to face the heartlessness of people around us.

When a woman flees during a violent incident, or musters the courage to tell someone about her partner’s threats and assaults, she is likely to hear the question, “What did you do to provoke him?” People who want to be more ‘polite’ may ask “What do you think made him do that?” or “Why would he do that?” or “Why would he act that way?”

These questions all usually imply the same thing. Asking an abused woman to account for her partner’s violence, or to take responsibility for it, is as insensitive as asking the victim of a vicious rape what she did to make her assailant think she wanted to have sex with him.

Violence does not have a direct cause and effect connection that the victim can reasonably predict, anticipate, understand, explain, or provoke. In any case, the target of abuse does not owe anyone an explanation; she needs help for her injuries and protection from further harm. The person who asks an abused woman to explain the assault, treats her as they might treat a child who has been bitten by a friendly pet, “What did you do to provoke that dog to bite you? Did you hit him with a stick or throw a rock at him?” A human perpetrator is responsible for his actions, though he rarely accepts responsibility.

Life is full of events and interactions about which we may become upset, irritated, or angry. As adults, we are required to make wise choices about how to express those emotions, and our aggressive acts toward others are punishable by law. If a man becomes enraged because his neighbor has parked blocking his driveway, for example, and reacts by throwing a brick through the neighbor’s window or by assaulting the neighbor, we do not imply that the neighbor is to blame for causing the vandalism or the assault! It is clear to everyone in this situation, that the person who acted violently has broken the law, irrespective of his neighbour’s negligence, habits, lack of consideration, or ‘provocation’.

Abusers mistreat their partners habitually, and the woman usually has done little or nothing wrong or objectionable at all, certainly nothing to deserve punishment. No one deserves to be abused, regardless of her actions. Chronically abused women live with constant stress and upheaval. The typical victim of domestic violence spends most of her time trying to appease her partner, trying to anticipate his moods and reactions in order to avoid any kind of conflict with him. He has most likely told her many times that he is violent because of what she does or does not do. If a trusted confidante says the same thing, she may strengthen her resolve to try even harder.

When this happened to me repeatedly, I reasoned that others must be right. People questioned me each time I asked for help. They seemed to believe that I wasn’t telling them the whole story. I began to think that maybe they could see something irritating, obnoxious and unlovable about me which could make my partner want to harm and threaten me. They knew him as a mature, personable and respectable professional. The abuse I described was ‘out of character’ for him, as far as they could tell. I had no reasonable explanation for the violence, no answer to their persistent question, “What made him do that?”

Eventually, I started to agree with them: I must be causing it, somehow. Something about me must be truly abominable to have brought on his extreme antagonism toward me. In fact, by his actions, it seemed clear that he was out to destroy me, body and soul! Was he profoundly offended by something I said, or my tone of voice? Something I did, or the way I did it? Was it because I could not offer him something essential that everyone else does naturally, something that I had somehow failed to do? Did I have a disgusting habit I could not observe in myself? Maybe it was something about who and how I was… my very personality! 

It seemed my only option was to ‘discover’ what that provocative thing was. I returned home after many violent incidents and discussions with others I thought I could trust, feeling humiliated, confused and ashamed. Each time I went back to him, I was terrified that he would become violent again, yet determined to somehow make sure I did nothing at all to ’cause’ him to be unhappy, disappointed, frustrated or angry with me. I scrutinised my every word, my every action, response, and lack of response.

I tried to evaluate every possible way of handling his temper fits, his threats, his unpredictable moods and preferences, his suspicions, jealousy, accusations and impossible demands. I did my very best to always use a gentle, respectful tone of voice and to explain things carefully to him so he might clearly understand my intentions and thoughts. I asked dozens of times a day what he wanted or needed or preferred about every little thing. (This infuriated him, because he said I ought to ‘just know’ what he wanted or what I am supposed to do.)

But his preferences and expectations changed unpredictably and illogically. I would often be abused one day for the same thing he said he wanted me to do the previous day. So, I watched him more and more carefully and mentally replayed every word he said to me, trying to read his mind, to imagine or anticipate his every whim and desire. I vowed to myself that I would be on the alert day and night, in future. “I am a smart person”, I told myself. “Surely, I can work this out”.

A woman who is turned away when she asks others for help, who is told as I was, that she must be provoking her own abuse, will most likely react exactly as I did, thinking, “This is my problem. It must be my fault. I have to do better. I will get through this and try to make it work with him even if it kills me!” When that is exactly what happens, the shame and guilt lie not only with her murderer, but also with those who have blamed and questioned her, telling her to go back home and stop ‘provoking’ her own abuse! 

A recent television program showed an interview between a woman and a clergyman. She was discussing her fear of returning to her abusive husband. She said she had suffered so greatly in the marriage that on one occasion she tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists. She felt that if her husband really loved her, this act for which she now felt extreme remorse surely would have made him understand the depth of pain he was causing her. She told the clergy person she was convinced he would continue abusing her if she returned. The religious authority remonstrated with her about the sinfulness of her suicide attempt. He said that if she could be forgiven for such a sin, then surely she should forgive her husband.

There is a chilling regularity to the faulty logic employed by religious leaders when they confront risky domestic situations. Perhaps the flaws in this man’s ‘counsel’ to the abused woman are obvious. However, I want to state my objections clearly: Equating the ‘sin’ of a distressed woman’s self-harm on one occasion, with her husband’s habitual and continuous maltreatment not toward himself, but toward her, is a horrible abuse of ‘reason’ and probably a distortion of religious tenets.

Caution and common sense seem to go out the window when religious authorities apply their dogma to persuade women to remain in abusive marriages. Would we be unreasonable to think that exerting spiritual authority over another person, persuading them to return to a harmful situation, may be tantamount to endangerment in some cases? 

Is a trusted spiritual leader not bound by an obligation to protect those in his care? Is he not morally obliged to intervene, perhaps confronting the perpetrator of abuse or helping the victim seek alternatives, even police protection, if it is needed? Religious and moral authority figures have a duty to speak out publicly on the subject of domestic abuse, condemning criminal and hurtful acts. They are certainly in a position to know how prevalent domestic abuse is among those in their care, because people turn to them for confidential help and advice. Yet, how many sermons do they preach in which they boldly condemn spousal abuse and domestic violence? I have not heard of a single one!

What are the consequences for a woman who defies instruction from an authority figure in her community? How will her family members cope with the contradictions between their love and care for a daughter, sister, or mother, and the respect and reverence they feel for their leader? Conversely, how will a woman rebuild her life if she chooses to disregard the advice of authority figures, leaving her spouse in order to care for herself and her children, to save their lives? Isn’t it clear to us how impossible this dilemma becomes for her? She will be rebuked for her lack of ‘self-respect’ if she stays; and for disregarding authority, even for ‘defying God’s law’, if she leaves.

People outside her faith community, where we purport to care for her human rights, will scoff at her weakness, implying that by considering or following the advice of repressive religious leaders, she has contributed to her own abuse and endangered her children. Her children could be taken into care by civil authorities if they determine that she has put them at risk.

People believe that authoritarian advice and pressure from religious leaders only occur in strict ‘fundamentalist’ religious sects, those in which women are generally repressed. I can state with certainty that male clergy and counsellors in liberal, mainstream religious denominations, as well as some misguided female clergy and counsellors, often give similar advice to women in their pastoral care. Although the larger governing bodies of many denominations have published guidelines and educational reports about proper responses to domestic abuse, these are very recent developments which often go unnoticed. Documents will do little to protect people from abuse and manipulation. Adequate measures are not taken to insure that those in responsible positions are properly trained and cautioned; it appears that little is done to protect vulnerable persons seeking help. No truly widespread campaigns seem to be underway to remedy the ignorance and injustice that persist.


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