Consider the following:
In the time it took you to read those lines, 2 women were beaten by someone who claims to love them. Those two women were not confined to any socio-economic class, ethnic background, race, creed, age, sexual orientation or marital status. Domestic violence cuts through all those barriers like a hot knife through soft butter. YOU CANNOT TELL AN ABUSER BY LOOKING AT THEM! There are no obvious signs visible for the world to see. Abusers can be attorneys, bankers, clergy, doctors, executives, police officers and all those others we think are "above" that. The ONLY thing abusers have in common is that they abuse the woman they claim to love.
Many ask why a woman would stay in an abusive relationship. There
are five basic reasons most women stay.
Abuse comes in many forms and is intended as a means of control. Just as rape is not about the sex, but about power, abuse is NOT about what the victim did or did not do, but about the power the abuser has over the victim. Regardless of what a victim may do, even if she becomes abusive herself (in which case she is responsible for HER actions only), the choice to abuse is ALWAYS the responsibility of the abuser. Being drunk or high is no excuse and should not be accepted as an excuse by the victim, the police or the courts.
There are those who say that abusers have a problem controlling their temper. To be quite blunt about it: BULLSHIT! They can most certainly control their temper when they're angry at their boss or at the cop who pulled them over for speeding or at their best friend for not sharing those 50-yard line tickets to the big game with them. They can most certainly control their temper when the pastor/priest comes to visit or a social worker drops in for a situation assessment or there are friends/family around who might witness their abuse and testify against them at a later date. They can most certainly control their temper if the one they're angry with might be able to get the better of them. It's not about controlling their temper. It's about seeking power over the one they abuse.
The most visible form of abuse is the physical abuse. It may start as a simple push, or even grabbing hold of the woman's arm. It usually will not end there. Slaps, punches and kicks are often aimed at places that will not show up when in public. Anything within reach of an abuser becomes a potential lethal weapon— anything from a cigarette to the gun kept locked in the nightstand. Spousal rape is also a common form of physical abuse as well as sexual abuse.
The next most visible form of abuse is verbal. Insults, name calling and berating of the woman's abilities or choices serve to deflate her self-esteem making it even less likely that she will find the courage and strength to leave. Putting her down in front of family, friends, co-workers, employers or even strangers makes the woman feel isolated and alone. If she is told these things often enough (especially if she grew up in an abusive home), she will begin to believe them and then to act in that same manner. An insult becomes an almost self-fulfilling "prophecy" when uttered by an abuser.
The virtually invisible form of abuse is emotional. A woman is slowly isolated from her friends and family by her abuser. She is told to prove her love by NOT seeing a certain person again. Her self-esteem is assaulted along with her body. She is left feeling useless, helpless, completely dependant on her abuser for everything.
Probably the most destructive form of abuse that is finally gaining recognition and acknowledgement is sexual abuse. Any time a woman is pressured into sexual activity, she is being sexually abused. It can be as forceful as being raped by her husband or as subtle as "Aw, honey, it's been so long and if you don't do it tonight, I may just find someone who will." Quite often it is the children in a relationship that are the victims of sexual abuse. Despite the fact that we warn our children about unwanted touches from strangers, very little is ever said about abuse by family members. Therefore, kids grow up thinking that what they're experiencing isn't abuse since it's done by someone they know and not a stranger. The penalty in most states for raping a child is a lengthy one— unless you're related to the child. And then the sentence is usually probation IF charges are ever filed.
While women are the primary victims of abuse, the entire society suffers from its aftermath. Children are the second main victims. When a pregnant woman is abused, the baby can be born with birth defects, retardation or the woman may suffer a miscarriage. Children of abusers are at a greater risk of being abused themselves. Emotional and pyschological scars stay with the children even if there is no actual physical abuse. Because abuse is often cyclical, children of abusers are more likely to grow up and become abusers themselves.
Even the abusers themselves suffer from the abuse. Some feel guilt and shame but are unable/unwilling to seek out ways to stop their behavior. The stigma associated with being an abuser often prevents them from seeking help. Some abusers will wind up in prison, where many are often hurt or even killed by other inmates. Some women who have suffered at the hands of an abuser may suddenly fight back, sometimes even killing their abuser. It's only been in the last ten years or so that the abuse a woman has suffered has been able to legally be considered as part of her defense.
And finally, we as a society suffer the aftermath of domestic violence. Half of the divorces in this country involve some aspect of abuse. Drugs and alcohol abuse are present in many violent families. Courts are being overloaded with women seeking what little protection is offered by a protection from abuse or restaining order. More and more abusers are ending up in the already overloaded prison system and are rarely offered any sort of counselling to help them deal with their violent tempers and misplaced anger. The results of domestic violence can often spill over into other homes creating more victims: the family of a police officer slain while answering a call about a domestic dispute, an enraged abuser who walks into his victim's office and starts shooting, the families of the health care, legal and advocacy workers who must face this depressing and frustrating situation day in and day out.
So what is the solution? There are many changes that need to be made. Legal changes, societal changes and personal changes. Let's start with the easiest...legal changes.
All police departments need better training in dealing with domestic violence situations. Many women in shelters have shared horror stories of their encounters with law enforcement agencies— even to the point of a cop asking what the woman did to provoke the attack. Victims of both genders need to be informed of their options, including local shelters, the laws regarding protection from abuse orders and/or restraining orders, how to go about filing charges and assisting victims with emergency services. Law enforcement must also learn to view the violation of a protection or restraining order as a serious offense and take appropriate action against the offender.
The courts need to create a more effective and victim oriented procedure for obtaining restraining and/or protection orders. In many cases, a judge will insist on seeing a history of abuse, not realizing that even a second instance can be deadly. Sentencing of violators of protection and restraining orders must be more than a slap on the wrist. It is a sad commentary on the courts that in many states, beating your spouse brings a lighter sentence than abusing an animal.
Lawyers, especially prosecuting attorneys, must press charges when a victim files charges. Legal aid programs must increase services to victims of abuse...not only in the filing of charges stemming from the abuse, but with divorce, custody and support issues that are often the result of abuse.
And finally, the laws themselves need to change. Stronger, more effective laws need to be made governing abuse and the violation of protection and restraining orders.
Societal changes are going to be harder to make. Violence has been glorified in everything from cartoons to movies to professional sports to the evening news to video games. Getting revenge is seen as something to which we have an unalienable right. The difficulty lies in our perception of when we have been wronged. Stereotypes of women and of marriage in general need to change. How many times have we used the term rule of thumb without knowing that its origins lie in an old law that prohibited a man from beating his wife with a stick any thicker than his thumb? Women are still treated as second class citizens in this country despite 20+ years of the women's movement. Many religions teach that the breakup of a marriage is the last resort and encourage victims of abuse to try to work it out while staying in the marriage. Society needs to stop blaming the victim. "Why do you stay?" is simply reinforcing a victim's belief that the abuse was their fault or that they can't make competant decisions. Men who are the victims of abuse have to face the additional stigma of not being manly enough to stand up to their abusive partner. The taboo of talking about domestic violence must be removed. Not talking about it will not make it go away and will only serve to isolate victims even further.
The effects of abuse are felt by the entire society. Children who grow up in an abusive home are more likely to be abusers themselves. They are more likely to turn to criminal activity, drugs and alcohol (as a means of escape or as the result of seeing such activity in the home) or to run away from home, resulting in their further victimization on the streets. Women who leave abusive partners are likely to end up on the welfare roles, especially if children are involved. Here they once again face society's stigma against those on welfare. We as a society need to commit the necessary funding to support victims of domestic violence— funding for housing, job training, day care and medical/phsychological care victims often need.
The hardest changes to affect will be those of the individual. Domestic violence is not someone else's problem. It is everyone's problem. Shelters are in constant need of donations: monetary, supplies and time. Support groups are in need of places to meet. Community education needs to be expanded. Ask a local shelter to speak to your company or organization. Volunteer to accompany victims to court, to interviews, to work. Provide day care for the children of victims. And, perhaps most importantly, do not turn a blind eye to abuse. While you cannot and should not attempt to force a victim to leave, let them know you are there to listen and to offer support. Educate yourself about the available shelters and services in your community. Offer to transport the victim should they choose to leave the relationship. Or simply to call the police or even to allow them to use your phone to do it themselves.
Domestic violence will NOT go away by itself. It will NOT go away by not talking about it. It will NOT go away by pretending it doesn't happen in your community or even in your family. We all must get involved in order to solve the problem. It is not someone else's problem, it is your problem too.
L.O.S.A. (Loved Ones of Survivors of Abuse) is dedicated to providing information for those who love abuse survivors: parents, friends, partners, spouses, significant others. These people are the secondary victims of abusers since the effects of abuse are felt for years after the abuse has stopped.