The statistics are so familiar as to have become banal — one in three, one in six — it’s neither especially important nor possible to nail this down with any accuracy. What we all know is that it happens, and we euphemise it or ignore it or, with a deep and abiding sadness and anger, we may even stand back and let it happen. I started doing this when I was very young and as I got older I learned that my instincts had been correct, at least in terms of social expectations.
Our actions in the face of this don’t condemn us as unfeeling or selfish. They are culturally sanctioned and in many ways we don’t know what else to do. To intervene seems unthinkable or ineffectual, or worse, we fear it will make things worse. We struggle with issues like people’s right to privacy, embarrassment, and fear — fear of the abuser, the victim’s reaction, or that we have it all wrong. We may even, like the victim, love the abuser very deeply, which makes it even harder to face the truth and act.
These are some of the struggles facing those of us who suspect our loved ones may be victims of abuse at the hands of their partner. It’s a good place to start in trying to understand what the actual victims are experiencing, as well as the abuse itself.
It’s also instructive to look at the changing nomenclature of the crime. Before it was codified in law, society recognised intramarital violence as a distinct and less serious crime. This was reflected in the legal term “domestic violence” which was nevertheless a step forward in advancing the right of women not to be beaten by their husbands. It certainly genders the crime in a way that most uses of the predicative “domestic” do — but it also came to trivialise it.
The change to “intimate partner violence” not only reflects the changing dynamic of relationships in modern Australia (including de facto and same-sex couples) but a need to reframe the crime as different but no less serious than common assault. In fact, the most recent raft of legislative changes in Victoria to address violence against women require the police and the courts to view these crimes as more heinous than those perpetrated by strangers. Whether these legal changes have any real effect as a preventative or punitive measure is debatable, but the intent is there.
So what constitutes intimate partner violence? In Victoria, the law views physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse as specific forms of violence perpetrated on victims by their intimate partner. This covers everything from putting them in hospital with broken bones, through to restricting their access to funds, or other essentials of living. It is overwhelmingly male-on-female, though it’s a significant problem in same-sex relationships too and, on rare occasions, men suffer sustained abuse at the hands of female partners. It remains for another article to delve more deeply into those issues, while I focus here on female victims.
A victim of intimate partner violence in Victoria has a few options. One is to take out an intervention order, which compels the accused party to keep a certain distance from the complainant, and in all other ways obey the law (which he was already subject to at the time he previously broke it). Alternatively, she may choose to press charges and have the matter heard in court. This is a rare occurrence. In situations where she has no alternative accommodation, or she is in fear of being detected and assaulted again, she may need to be housed in a state-funded refuge. The other option, of course, is to remain in a relationship and a living arrangement with her abuser.
This is by far the most common course of action. The reasons for this are varied and complex and may include financial constraints or the logistics of co-parenting, despite being in fear of physical harm. She may have long since stopped wanting to be there and feels she has no choice. She may have been threatened with consequences if she leaves (with or without the children) and it’s almost certain that she feels she has little choice. But as the stereotypical explanation goes, mostly she still loves him, so she stays.
Another cliché (that exists for good reason) is that she will invariably blame herself. This is not necessarily because she is hardwired for self-loathing or because she was brought up in a violent home (though these may be factors) but what we should face is that blaming female victims for violent crimes committed against them is an inescapable feature of our cultural landscape. What did she expect? What was she wearing? and Why was she out so late? join with Why doesn’t/didn’t she just leave? She should never have married him and Stupid, stupid girl as some of the more obvious examples. I have heard all of these used without a trace of irony.
Something that we often say to victims is “What happened?” which seems logical but is really a variation on “What caused this to happen?” as though it would be less appalling and more easily digested if there was a reason. It is worth remembering that this is mostly curiosity and horror on our part — a desperate need to make sense of the event but unless you’re the officer taking the statement it’s not a question that is asked to benefit the victim. So why is it so often the first thing that we ask, even before “What do you need?”
The victim may want to discuss the details of the assault but it’s possible to offer our support without knowing “what happened”. They know already, are we asking because we need to know before we give aid? Of course our assistance is not dependent on knowing, so it helps to consider our motives for asking. Wanting to know reinforces the idea that there may be some fact that would explain what “set him off” or how she could’ve avoided it. Even if we’re desperate to understand and want to know specifics it might be possible to wait until they tell us.
What we can do, besides whatever they ask for that we feel able to provide, is reiterate that this is not their fault. This is hugely important. The cycle of abuse within partnerships makes it unlikely that a violent assault occurs with no context of emotional and psychological abuse beforehand. The victim may have internalised a view of herself as not only of little worth but possibly culpable for the abuse. As horrific as this may be to us, it doesn’t work to simply refute it.
But you can check your own actions to make sure they don’t contribute to this view. Pouring scorn on the abuser is especially unhelpful, as it sends a powerful message that by choosing this partner she has chosen these circumstances. It negates the complexity of the love she has for her husband or partner or co-parent and reinforces her sense of powerlessness, bad judgment and stupidity.
When you factor in how often children are used as bargaining chips, leverage for emotional blackmail or ameliorating agents, as well as the reality women face in terms of financial ruin, estrangement from family and religious support networks, loss of income if they’re unable to continue working, and the fact that they may love their partner and desperately want them to be well, and we can see the kind of psychological and logistical terrain women operate in when weighing their options.
We are all stakeholders in this debate and can effect change in small but significant ways:
- Ask loved ones to talk to you and talk to them, if you suspect they are experiencing (or have experienced) intimate partner violence
- Get help with how to do this and support during and afterwards
- Be on the alert for warning signs of power imbalances in your own relationship
- Push back against myths of victim-blaming in your friendship groups, families, churches and workplace
- Check your own preconceptions about intimate partner violence
It’s the least we can do.