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Domestic violence: Behind the stereotypes
By Wendy McElroy
Many of the statements surrounding last month's Domestic Violence Awareness drive were 'anti-knowledge': things generally believed to be true even though they are false.
For example, the general assumption "women are victims, men are abusers" ignores data indicating that battered husbands comprise a significant percentage of domestic violence victims. Equally, women who do not fit the stereotype of victimhood are ignored. The fault lies with the stereotypes, not with the non-conforming victims.
The underlying ideology of domestic violence is politically-correct feminism which considers women to be oppressed by male power and the institutions of society, including traditional marriage. Accordingly, domestic violence has been subjected to a black-and-white analysis that rests upon stereotypes.
From the politically correct perspective, a domestic violence victim is a woman so traumatized by violence that she has become virtually incapable of making the choice to leave. Children or financial dependence may be complicating factors.
The domestic violence abuser is portrayed as a dominating man, but he is more than this. He has become a symbol of the violence presumed to lurk beneath the surface of 'everyman'. Some anti-domestic violence ad campaigns even target young boys in order to nip their violence in the bud.
For the many real world victims, the realities of domestic violence flatly contradict such stereotypes. For them, the characterizations serve as barriers to understanding and healing.
I know because, for over a decade, I've struggled to make sense of my own abuse and feminist explanations made that torturous process more difficult than it had to be. Domestic violence is a shattering experience because the victim is betrayed by a loved one. Self-respect is slowly stripped away until he or she is left psychologically naked, not knowing who to trust or what a normal relationship looks like.
Some domestic violence victims undoubtedly fit the description offered by PC feminism. But gender stereotypes become destructive when they cease to make general claims and purport to say something that is necessarily true of every individual woman or man, every victim or abuser.
The inadequacy of the stereotypes became clear to me through one question. "Why did I stay?" It is a question PC feminism never asks because to do so would acknowledge a fact that contradicts its theories. Namely, some victims choose to stay, which means they could choose to leave.
For PC feminists, even an intelligent and otherwise competent woman who can explain why she stays-- for example, to help a loved one through a temporary addiction -- is not deemed to have really chosen.
There are several reasons why the very idea of choice is rejected.
For one thing, staying is viewed as a bad choice. As true as this may be, however, it does not negate the fact that staying is a choice.
Another reason: with choice comes responsibility and, for some people, having victims bear any responsibility seems tantamount to blaming them for their own abuse. But being accountable for your own decisions and assuming the blame for the actions of someone else are two entirely separate matters.
No one deserves to be beaten; no one is to blame for being on the receiving end of a fist. An abuser doesn't escape legal and moral culpability so easily. But a chronic victim owns it to herself or himself to seriously explore their own participation in a relationship of continuing abuse.
This is not callousness; it is an attempt to help. The path out of victimhood may well lie in acknowledging the power of choice that lies inside each victim. Some choices are incredibly more difficult than others.
And, yet, some choice is almost always possible, even small steps like phoning an anonymous helpline or unpleasant ones like asking for help.
Only when I took responsibility for my choices was I able to answer, "Why did I stay?" As long as I denied responsibility for my actions and bought into theories that pathologized my choices out of existence, I couldn't get past that one question.
The stereotype of an abuser also does not describe the reality of many victims.
It is not merely that abusers can be women. It is also that the current stereotype seems to make no distinction on matters such as the frequency and severity of abuse. This lack of subtlety obscures rather than informs.
For example, I don't believe a man who slaps a woman (or vice versa) during a lover's quarrel is comparable to an abuser who batters on a daily basis. As unacceptable as a slap in a moment of passion may be, it is different in kind from deliberate and ongoing sadism.
In addition, I don't believe that an abuser who hits once will necessarily do it again. A close friend once became drunk and literally attacked her fiance so viciously and without cause that the relationship almost ended on the spot. She swore off alcohol and nothing remotely similar has occurred in the years since.
The PC stereotypes that have defined the issue of domestic violence are inadequate and they are hurting victims who do not conform. Male and same-sex victims, women who choose to stay, victims of one-time abuse…these people are being ignored or damaged by the current approach. There is no excuse for ignoring the reality of victims who need desperately to be heard.
But ideology makes many so-called "victim advocates" turn a deaf ear to their cries for help.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.
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