Last night, a friend of mine forwarded this article to me about the Rice domestic violence scandal. While, as a white female, I do not fall anywhere near his target audience (black men), I found a lot to relate to in his article. As the author very astutely points out, the excuses for Rice coming from black men bear a frightening resemblance to those that came from white individuals in the wake of the Ferguson shootings. The same fears and excuses permeated the discourse of both situations and yielded similarly dangerous results.
Over and over again, we see similar stories play out not just in the media, but our communities and sometimes our own families. Regardless of whether the alleged perpetrator in question is a celebrity, a luminary, a mentor, or a family member, the same pattern emerges. And all too often, it’s the victims who face the biggest brunt of scorn. I saw similar dynamics play out all the time with my sexual abuse cases. When the survivor finally mustered up the courage to name their perpetrator, they were the ones who faced the brunt of family scorn. They would be accused of lying or, if the abuse were substantiated, of tearing their families apart. It was an all too rare exception when the survivor was believed and the perpetrator shunned.
Why does this happen? How is victim blaming the rule and not the exception? Call me naive, but I simply cannot believe that there are that many bad people in the world.
When someone we idolize or has power in our lives commits a violation, it can be very difficult to reconcile. When said person commits an egregious violation such as sexual assault or intimate partner violence, we go into a tail spin, and our brains try to compensate accordingly. By acknowledging that our idol, or boss, our relative, is capable of causing such harm to another person, we force ourselves to sit with the realization that we trusted someone capable of monstrosity. We open the door to some frightening questions; How can this nice guy, this role model, and this monster be one in the same? What does it say about me that I trusted this person? That is a very scary and vulnerable space.
And so, many of us simply refuse to believe; our defenses go into high gear. It’s too scary, too unsafe to direct our anger at the true perpetrator. So we try to mitigate the situation to keep our world on kilter by making excuses, minimizing and, worst of all, victim blaming. Our hard wiring kicks in and tries to find some reason, some way for this not to be true. Ironically, the more we are admonished for victim blaming and minimizing, the more we cling to our defenses.
The price of these defenses on ourselves and others is huge. And while minimization and victim blaming are natural knee-jerk responses to abuse, they are not to be excused or cultivated. I feel that part of my responsibility as a clinician and advocate is to help people move from fear and denial to acceptance and healing. Survivors of abuse need support and allies. Theirs is a journey that cannot be taken alone. It is therefore imperative that we as individuals and as a culture find a way to move past those defenses. We have to find a way to face our own fears and demons so we can be the supports, advocates and allies that survivors deserve.
I have not been able to follow much of the goings on through the #whyistayed and #whytheystayed social media campaigns. Some of those stories have been too hard for me to absorb. They speak to so much pain. That said, I am glad that they exist. These stories need to be heard, and it’s so important that those affected by intimate partner violence get out from under the shame of going back to abusive situations before finding lasting safety.