A couple of years ago, in one of my stories I wrote in a character who being a survivor of domestic abuse and rape, went on to live a normal life. She completed her education, gained success in her career, grew extremely independent, and also found love again. Unfortunately for her, she was after many years tracked down by her ex-husband and brutally beaten and raped. Numerous situations, events, and other character influences led to that outcome, not to mention the ex-husband himself who did everything in his power to gain that outcome.
It was a difficult piece to write, because for one thing I needed to place my female character back into a situation from her past I had not described in too much detail, yet had to show it as a familiar and devastating fact of her life. It also required me to eliminate the story’s male protagonist completely from the picture and not let the plot line result in the cliched “boy saves girl in the nick of time.” scenario.
The reason I bring it up, is because of the reactions that part of the story received from some of my readers at the time. I received a few comments and emails questioning the victim’s lack of action in that situation, some asked why I had not shown her in a position of strength when she had already overcome so much, a few even held her accountable for her predicament. I remember one person asking why the character didn’t see past the deceit that allowed her abuser entry into her home, another mentioning that she should have at least learned some self-defence during her years away from her abuser.
Why did she let him in? Why didn’t she fight back? Why didn’t she kill him? Why didn’t she run?
It sparked discussions on the chapter, debates, and even a couple of fights. I have to say I was surprised that even in our society (South East Asia) where being a divorced woman is still considered a huge taboo and failure, women are so vehemently expected to do this.
The other day I was reminded of those discussions, when I almost literally stumbled into some intense “living room” conversation on sexual abuse and violence.
The discussion these women were having revolved mostly around a woman they all knew (and I have seen but do not know personally) who apparently has been living in an abusive marriage for the last several years. I sat by quietly for a while, listening to accounts of how sad her situation is, how often her husband abuses her, when he does it, the suggestion that the abuse is sometimes sexual as well, and how things are getting worse for her everyday. She is in her early thirties, has a good job, drives her own car, has a college degree… and so on.
Initially there was plenty of sympathy being shown towards her, and I voiced mine as well. Then, sadly, I waited for the inevitable to happen, sincerely hoping this group of women would disappoint me. But, they didn’t.
“Why doesn’t she leave him? Why is she just taking his abuse?”
Such questions have always made my hackles rise, and send my blood into a slow boil. When I was younger, I was more easily outraged by these thoughts and lashed out badly at people who I heard uttering such garbage. It’s difficult to not do that, even now, harder to understand where it is a lot of women feel they’re coming from when they ask this of a victim.
The question comes eventually because it is a thought, an expression which refuses to fully acknowledge the cause, the effects of abuse. It is I feel a form of denial.
“She should leave him.”
“How long can she keep taking his crap?”
“Why doesn’t she tell someone? Get help?”
“If I were her, I would *insert appropriate life altering action.*”
I have always wondered if the above thoughts are some sort of psychological defence mechanism for many who view abuse from the outside. Are these questions formed in womens minds because they lack empathy for their victimized sisters? Or is it because they are too afraid to actually consider they could very well become victims themselves and therefore assume a position of false superiority?
It is a thought I have never understood, and I don’t believe I ever will.
I don’t believe safety is the issue behind such questions and thoughts, and care for fellow women certainly isn’t. Are people really challenging abuse when they say this, or are they simply promoting more traditional ways which keep teaching women to “save themselves” while allowing the abuser to retain all power?
Isn’t safety basically a function of power? Isn’t power what all abusers really want? Isn’t constantly expecting and demanding that women save themselves just protecting predators?
I am not saying victims of domestic violence should stay put and never leave. But, why is there so much impatience shown towards them when they don’t, or feel they cannot? Why is society so quick to first question/blame the victim instead of questioning/blaming lack of prevention and punishment for the abuser in national laws? Do people really believe this world is just so hunky dory that a victim of any kind of abuse can simply up and walk away from what terrifies, beats and batters at her every single day of her life?
Apparently, many believe it is just that easy. After all, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and women who don’t conquer their abuse simply lack that will.
- Have you avoided walking down an empty street at night for fear of being assaulted?
- Have you purchased a more expensive train ticket to avoid being subjected to sexual harassment?
- Have you worn “appropriate” clothing in an effort to appear “decent” in any situation, and/or because it was expected of you by relatives/society?
- Have you visited the washroom in an unfamiliar place with one or more female friends, because there is “safety in numbers?”
- Have you ignored a catcall/sexually suggestive remark from a male stranger on the street, and dismissed it as “one of those things which happen to girls?”
- Have you quietly disengaged from certain online activity in order to avoid a possible sexual predator?
- Are you constantly “aware” that there are “rapists out there” and so you must exercise caution while inwardly just praying it will someday get better?
- Have you ever kept a safe distance from a male relative/family friend because you find his behaviour with you sexually uncomfortable? Have you not spoken up about it in the presence of other family members for fear of what they will think of you?
- Have you told on a sexual predator and been blamed for “encouraging” him, or been advised to “just ignore/avoid him” which left you feeling frustrated and outraged?
Most women will answer yes to one or more of these questions, and/or know another female who will. These are things we do often, and mostly without even a thought as to what it is we’re really conforming to. Protecting the abuser, and allowing him to feel entitled to his violence against women.
Isn’t avoiding walking down that lonely street really the same kind of precaution a victim of abuse takes when she doesn’t enter her own bedroom where her abuser is sleeping? Instead of wanting her to, we expect her to leave that house, that presence in her bedroom which frightens and violates her. Yet, we continue passing our own lonely street daily, glance quickly towards it and hurry away at the mere thought of what might happen, whereas she knows for sure what is going to happen.
As women we all have this abuser in our lives, and we conform to his rules which enable and encourage him. How many of us can truthfully say we have saved ourselves from him? Isn’t he still out there raping us, beating us, harassing us, instilling us with fear of his power?
He is out there, everywhere. He dictates, and we do his bidding. We tip toe around him praying we don’t antagonize him, hoping we’ll be spared from his wrath, careful to either never challenge him or defy him too much for fear of consequence from both him and the society which protects him.
We are all his victims, he violates us every single day.
“Why don’t we just leave him? Why are we just taking his abuse?”