When people hear horror stories of domestic violence, so often their first thought is "why doesn't she just leave?" This tends to assume that, 1) she can, 2) she hasn't tried, 3) it will make her safer, and 4) it might help end the bigger social problem. But what our area's recent spike in domestic violence murders highlights is that for most victims, leaving doesn't instantly spell freedom, and for some, the "choice" is pared down to extremes between a man highly dangerous to live with, but maybe deadly to leave.
Sadly, that dilemma is neither random, nor rare. Aside from many societal barriers that can keep victims feeling stuck, research in the U.S. shows that women have a 75 percent greater risk of being killed after they leave a violent relationship, than they do if they stay in it, because to certain batterers, leaving is a lethal betrayal. Many victims have stayed for years under death threats, and endured countless forms of cruelty along the way. Every day, three women are murdered by intimate partners, and children are killed about 20 percent of the time. It's also estimated that the mere presence of a gun increases the risk of homicide by five times in domestic violence cases. But victims themselves can't go by statistics; they must trust their own instincts, judge their own risks, and read minuscule signs to survive. And every single day, brave and terrified women do try to flee.
Still, that doesn't end society's problem, because abuse is a learned behavior which most batterers will use again, moving from victim to victim. Battering is about entitlement and about power and control, which abusers have a huge stake in maintaining. What they expect, and in extreme cases get, is essentially a hostage who's visible to all. And herein lies the unique plight of victims of domestic violence -- their captor may not need a key, and in the long run, their community may not keep them safe. If we're ever to make meaningful change in our culture, we must first resist that age-old impulse to analyze the victim's thinking or behavior over the perpetrator's, because that avoids the real problem, and affects every protective system along the way. We must also look beyond the Cleveland tragedy of three women locked up for a decade, and realize how terror itself can block a way out.
Clearly, in any relationship, even a single death threat will hang in the air like a weapon from that point on. Plus, in most dangerous cases, there's been such a build-up of violence that just a tweak of the overall fear may be enough: If you even think about leaving ... while a mere fingertip suggests pulling a trigger. Leaving is usually a process, and not a single event for any victim, but no two exits are alike, and there are always open questions. Safety planning, support, and rigorous law enforcement are critical, but even so, there are still women who do everything "right," or do whatever they can -- maybe get protective orders, or flee the state entirely, but they're found by their abusers time and time again. They may be pulled back, or, as so many recent headlines bear out, may also be killed for leaving. We now have 1924 shelters around this country -- that's certainly progress, but it also shows how far we still have to go. And that's what begs the central question here: How far does any woman have to go to just live a life safe from abuse? Some literally choose to disappear, change their names and whole lives, and try, in our hyper-trackable age, to leave no trace. And some, understandably, may weigh all their risks and options, and decide there's really nowhere to hide.
We're about 40 years into this movement now, and despite all the gains, allies, and inspired activism around the country, there are still many ways batterers can hide. And not just behind literal bushes as stalkers, or behind blatant misogyny. Most people want women safe and don't intentionally harbor abusers. But, as a culture, we have a long way to go when we still examine a victim's mindset more than our own, whether by blaming, shaming, or otherwise belittling her cause. Like what was she thinking/wearing/doing there in the first place? Or the classic why didn't she just leave?
Few crimes are as common, or as rooted in patriarchal thinking, as domestic violence, which is still the leading cause of injury to women in America -- more than rapes, muggings, and car accidents combined. Every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten here, and yet collectively, we tend to resist looking this giant bully in the eye. And that's how male privilege still functions, and violent masculinity thrives. Any misplaced focus, or placating reflex -- whether from a cop, a judge, or the neighbor next door -- just helps a batterer hide. Victims don't create batterers, it's the other way around. We're all still caught in this culture of violence, and could spend another four decades describing the effects, but the one progressive leap is to address the cause.
The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/womensfreedomcenter and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.