“Why didn’t you just leave?”
I want to know why also. I want to know why that is the question. When a survivor discloses that they were in an abusive relationship this is the wrong question.
Why doesn’t she leave? Or why didn’t she leave sooner? Some flavor of that is inevitability asked when hearing of the terrors of an abusive relationship. Why don’t they think to first ask, “why did he do that to her?” or “why didn’t he get arrested?” or “why was he allowed to go on that way?” Aren’t these more appropriate questions? Don’t they more correctly address the core problem? The cause of the abuse is the person doing the abuser after all; not the victim. Why does she have to answer for not stopping it?
The asking of this first question is a form of victim blaming. It is putting the onus on the victim to stop the abuse instead of on the abuser. It is one of the many subtle ways victim blaming is woven into the way we talk about abuse. Some of the things commonly said are more obvious than others, but they are all damaging to survivors of abuse and to our culture if we are to move away from abuse in relationships. We need to change the way we talk about abuse and the way we question survivors.
We have, as a society, made fewer strides in decreasing victim blaming and increasing protection for victims of abuse than we would like to think. We would like to hope that people don’t see intimate partner violence as a “private matter” anymore. That we aren’t telling victims to tread more softly on those eggshells, so as not to set him off, or that when the police arrive they don’t arrest the victim because she seems “hysterical” (and anyway “it takes two to tango”). We hope that victims of abuse are not accused of lying, of instigating, attention seeking or being a slut/drama queen/bitch or just plain deserving it. But, I am here to tell you that these things happen all the time.
I have been told by CPS that, “they just really love each other.” As if, loving each other too much is what led to the violence, instead of a need for power and control on the perpetrators part. And, as if violence in a relationship is acceptable if the cause is too much love. I have heard from the police that, “they are just kids. She’ll bounce back” Meaning that, if her boyfriend raped her, she will get over it easily because kids are resilient. There was a strong and unmistakable message of disbelief there. She is probably just a lying, bored kid. Or a kid that regretted giving up her virginity so easily. I have heard the police accuse a woman of dressing in an outfit that was too brightly colored. This was used as evidence that she was crazy. I have been told by a judge that after enduring several days of unrelenting, threatening and harassing messages to just “ignore it” and that I was engaging in it too when I replied to tell him to stop. I have heard women be told to leave their homes and everything they own; otherwise, they must not really want to get away. I have heard therapists and friends tell women that they must be getting something out of it or like it in some way.
Nobody likes being abused. No one deserves it or triggered it. It is always the responsibility of the perpetrator of the abuse to stop the abuse.
As a domestic violence counselor and as a survivor of abuse myself I am exhausted from explaining and defending. Stop asking victims to explain themselves. Ask the perpetrator why instead.