Recently #WhyIStayed was trending on Twitter, and gave people the chance to share their experiences of domestic abuse with the world. I joined in the conversation and found it moving and so empowering. Domestic abuse is something that we tend not to see. It happens behind closed doors, and even when it happens in public it too often is ignored or brushed off. Last week, thousands of survivors decided to change that. The opportunity to talk openly – and be believed – was something I’d never experienced before.
Writer Beverly Gooden started the hashtag, after seeing the responses to a video of American Footballer Ray Rice physically abusing his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. While the National Football League suspended Rice and there were many expressions of horror at his behaviour, there was also victim-blaming of Janay Palmer. Why did she stay, why did she go on to marry him if she knew he was abusive? Gooden decided to show that leaving isn’t simple, and that the nature of domestic abuse is to debilitate the victim and make it impossible for them to leave safely.
There are plenty of reasons why someone might stay with their abuser: financial reasons, the safety or custody of their children, disability… and of course the fact that most deaths due to domestic violence occur when the victim attempts to leave or has already left their abuser. Even when you’re able to seek help, it’s not always as simple as ‘just leaving’.
Talking about domestic abuse is a difficult conversation to have when you might have to deal with victim blaming, on top of the danger from your abuser. But it’s also a difficult conversation for a survivor to have with themselves, especially given the lack of education about just what constitutes abuse. My own experiences were echoed by hundreds of women during #WhyIStayed who said that they hadn’t realised that what was happening to them counted. There’s always someone else who has it worse than you; your abuser never really hits you exactly; if it happens on campus it’s not proper grown-up domestic abuse; if he rapes you with a vibrator, he’s really just trying to be nice, right? (Um, no, actually). Each survivor’s story is different. What stays consistent is that domestic abuse is absolutely not OK.
Information campaigns often fail to make it clear that domestic abuse isn’t always visible, as if it only happens to other people and can be spotted a mile off. If your bruises are under your clothes, internal or mental/emotional, or if you’re not a typical able-bodied cis-het woman, you don’t always make the connection between what the billboard is showing and what’s happening in your own life. In my own experience, I knew when I had been raped (but still managed to find ways to excuse him…), but had no idea that the public humiliation, dissuasion from enjoying my social life or pursuing my career and interests, guilt-tripping and sexual coercion that I experienced also counted as abuse. Psychological and emotional abuse can be just as powerful and destructive as physical and sexual abuse, and can create a debilitating climate of fear and powerlessness that helps to silence and subdue someone. The different types of abuse all go hand in hand, or one leads to another.
This was an important message that came out of #WhyIStayed. While many survivors’ stories shared similar traits, the experience of abuse is different for everyone, and people stay with their abusers for all sorts of reasons. Whatever your gender, class, race, orientation, ability or disability, age, religion, financial or family position, it can happen to you. It can even happen to the unashamed feminist.
If we’re going to stop domestic abuse and support survivors, it’s important that we understand these reasons and are sympathetic to the difficulties survivors face in coming to terms with their abuse and attempting to leave. We need to shift the conversation from a ‘why stay?’ to a ‘how can we help?’ attitude. As Beverly Gooden says on her blog, leaving an abusive relationship is more of a process than a single event. Understanding and offering support during this process, rather than questioning how long it takes, is the first step to helping put a stop to domestic abuse. #WhyIStayed proved this, allowing survivors to talk about the different steps in this process.
Words by Flo Reynolds