Yesterday, I joined an interesting discussion at work.
One of my lab-mates believes that any American adult, regardless of his or her background, can work hard, save money, live decently, and eventually retire. Failure to do so means that the individual is at fault. He or she made poor choices. He cannot imagine a scenario so terrible that he could not, with time and effort, climb out of financial difficulty and eventually live comfortably. It’s harder for some people, he admits, but it’s always doable.
I don’t agree with this view on multiple levels. There are systematic reasons why it is almost impossible for certain demographics in the US to simultaneously care for their children, maintain their own health, and save money. Additionally, there are psychological barriers that present significant challenges to making the “obvious” or “right” choice as determined by a detached, rational observer.
To better understand his perspective, I posed this scenario, based off of a Humans of New York post:
Imagine the daughter of an abusive, drug addicted single mother. By the time she is ten years old, she is the primary caretaker of her younger siblings during her mother’s frequent disappearances. At 13, she runs away and spends several years in shelters. At age 16, she meets a much older man who promises her a safe home. By the time she is 18, her husband becomes physically and verbally abusive, but they already have two kids together, so she stays. By 20, she has four kids under the age of 5. She decides, for her children, she must leave her abusive partner, sneaking away with the kids to seek refuge in a shelter.
If this woman – a single mother of four with limited education, no savings, and a history of abuse – fails to save enough to retire comfortably at the age of 60, is it her fault because she made stupid choices?
In my mind, I’m screaming, No, Good God, absolutely not!
Apparently my colleague was not on the same wavelength.
First, he addressed the thorny issue of taking care of those kids. Wasn’t having children an illogical decision in the first place? He mumbled his thoughts. I missed it the first time. He said, a little louder, “Well, sex is a choice.”
This is when the blood started pounding in my ears. What the actual fuck, dude? How can you be so fucking sheltered that the concept of rape doesn’t even cross your pristine little mind? But I didn’t say this out loud because a verbal outburst was only going to make our ridiculous open office arrangement more awkward.
Luckily another friend maintained his cool and explained that sex in an abusive relationship is not necessarily consensual. Rape is a very real problem. If our not-so-hypothetical woman is financially dependent on her partner, she might not have access to contraception. The choice to have or not have sex, to have or not have kids, was taken away from her by her abusive partner.
And my lab mate replied, perfectly serious, “Well, abusive relationships don’t make sense. Why doesn’t she just call the police?” The implication: she chose not to call the cops so this situation, and its long term financial implications, are still kind of her fault.
I’m surprised I didn’t actually explode in flames at this point. I was so incredibly angry. And frustrated. And horrified. This person I sit across from every day at work just casually dismissed the traumatic experiences of millions of Americans who have suffered from intimate partner violence.
My calm, collected friend started to explain how abusive relationships can undermine a person’s self-worth and make it difficult to leave, but I was already halfway out of the office door. It wasn’t until I had walked most of the 2+ miles home from campus, in near-freezing cold with a Chicago wind, that I cooled down enough to actually consider his question. Why doesn’t she just call the police?
So next time I encounter someone who asks this question, instead of freaking out (Is there blood dripping from my eyeballs? Because I am preternaturally pissed off right now) or being judgmental (What the fuck is wrong with you?), here is what I will say:
- Every victim has different reasons for staying, but we should be wary of victim-blaming. The abuser is the one committing the crime.
- Fear: abusers can threaten not only the victim, but their children and families with violence, even death, in retribution for speaking out or seeking assistance. This is not an unjustified fear: one third of female homicide victims are killed by their current or former partners.
- Financial insecurity: The victim and the victim’s children may be financial dependent on the abuser, making it difficult to leave without putting the children at risk. Again, not an unfounded fear: there is a deep, twisted link between domestic violence and economic hardship.
- Shame: Abusers can isolate their victims and manipulate their relationships. Victims may fear blame (Why did you let this happen?), disbelief (There’s no way he would do that!), and social rejection. Once again, sadly, this fear is rooted in reality: despite the prevalence of domestic/partner violence, the topic is not widely discussed.
- Lack of resources: Victims may be unaware of resources available to address the preceding problems. Taken together, these factors may lead the victim to believe that he/she has no choice but to remain.
All of this seems glaringly obvious to me. I can imagine standing in the victim’s shoes, surrounded by terrible choices, trapped by options that only hurt people I love. I can understand why someone might stay in an abusive relationship.
But some people can’t empathize with the victim because it’s so far outside of their realm of experience. And losing my shit doesn’t help at all. Hopefully, this explanation, supported by data on the prevalence of and lack of response to intimate partner violence, will be more a productive foundation for discussion.
I didn’t expect to write a blog post about DV. I feel kind of uncomfortable doing it – my one and only boyfriend is the sweetest guy that’s ever lived, so what do I know about intimate partner violence? But I think it’s important to contribute to a culture of openness and acceptance by discussing this difficult and disturbingly common issue. -xoxo, A