Saturday, October 17, 2009

Abuse: the myths (part 1)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, so I thought it would be a good time for a post on some of the cultural myths about partner abuse.  First, we'll start with some of the general misconceptions.

Myth #1:  Abusers are easy to spot.

This one comes in various forms.  I saw part of an episode of The Maury Povich show the other day which featured two abusive men and their partners (there may have been more, but I only made it through two before I couldn't stand it anymore and had to turn it off).  Both men were big, burly, angry dudes who yelled a whole lot and were more than happy to tell everyone how "their" women were their property and had better obey, etc.

This is a harmful misconception because it presents a very two-dimensional view of abusive men.  The truth is that the vast majority of abusive men are charming and likable, especially in public.  They are human beings with personalities just as complex as the rest of us.  They don't go around in a rage all the time, and they are very good at hiding their abusive attitudes.  Think about it: if a woman went out on a first date with a guy who told her, "Listen, bitch, from now on, you belong to me, and if you don't like it, I'll beat you," an abuser would never get a second date.

This is also one of the main reasons why people are able to feel such disbelief when the cousin/friend/co-worker/celebrity they like so much is accused of abuse.  They think, "But he helped me fix my car/walked me home all those times/stood up to my boss for me/makes such great music...he couldn't be abusive."  Abusers are in fact often unusually good at coming off as Nice Guys; they have to in order to keep abusing and get away with it.

Myth #2:  Abusers abuse because they were abused themselves.

Sometimes abusers were the childhood victims of abuse, and sometimes they were not.  But abuse is a choice, not an uncontrollable reaction to trauma.  It's true that a boy who grows up watching his father abuse his mother (or other women) is more likely to become an abuser himself, just as a girl who grows up in that situation is more likely to become a victim of abuse, but if it were nothing more than a fated cause-and-effect relationship, then all boys with abusive fathers would become abusive, and this just isn't the case.  The truth is that each individual has the opportunity to choose how he will react and whether to identify with the abuser or the victim.  I will say it again, because it bears repeating: abuse is always a choice.

Myth #3:  Abuse victims are weak, stupid, or suffer from low self-esteem.  They come from abusive homes.

Anyone can become the victim of abuse.  While there is a correlation between growing up in an abusive household and later being more likely to be abused (for girls) or to abuse (for boys), abuse can and does happen to women who had stellar childhoods, who are confident and self-aware, and who believe that they are "not the type" to ever "put up" with abuse.

The thing is, there is no type.  All-out physical, emotional, or verbal abuse does not happen overnight.  It's a gradual process, filled with deceit and manipulation, so that by the time something is happening that's readily identifiable as abuse, the victim is confused, uncertain, and convinced (due to the abuser's manipulation) that she is either somehow to blame or that there's something she could do to "fix it."

It is often implied or stated outright that abused women must "like" the abuse or that they must be stupid because they don't leave.  This is where it becomes very important to gain a basic understanding of traumatic bonding.  An abuse victim often feels unnaturally close to her abuser because of this process, which is sometimes called Stockholm Syndrome, after the hostage situation which first brought the phenomenon to public attention.  Traumatic bonding occurs when an abuser makes it seems as if the trauma is an experience that the victim and abuser are sharing and coping with together.  He hurts his victim while manipulating her to believe that he is also the only person who can make her feel better.  Abusers are also unusually good at appearing to be sensitive, engaged, and sympathetic, especially in the early stages of the relationship.  They tend to be more romantic and attentive than non-abusers because they have to have a way to draw their victims in and keep them around, despite the escalating abuse.

Another reason that women don't leave abusive relationships is simple fear.  Abusers view their victims as property, believing that the victim does not have the right to leave.  When threatened with the loss of the relationship, they make both overt and covert threats, and their track records with the victims tend to lend plenty of credibility to the idea that he could make her very, very sorry if she tries to escape.

The worst thing about this myth is that it implies that abuse victims are somehow to blame for their own abuse, an argument which is tantamount to claiming that a rape victim was "asking for it" by flirting or drinking or wearing a low-cut top or simply daring to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while alone and female.  This is victim-blaming, and it perpetuates the problem.  No one wants to be abused.  No one seeks out abuse because they have some secret desire to be hurt.  Abuse is always and only the full responsibility of the abuser.

Myth #4: Sometimes abuse is mutual.  "They abuse each other."

By definition, this is impossible.  Abuse is about power and control.  Two people cannot simultaneously dominate each other.  Sometimes, you hear about a woman screaming at her abuser or hitting him back or even hitting him first.

Think about this for a minute: let's say a woman has been raped repeatedly by the same rapist.  Let's say one day she knees him in the balls when he approaches her. Does this fact put her on the same level as her rapist?  Does this mean she has sexually assaulted him, too?  Of course not.  It means she's tired and frustrated and traumatized and has run out of options.  She does not want to be raped again, but if she can't stop it, then maybe she can at least try to fight back in the only way she knows how.

A victim of abuse lives with a feeling of powerlessness.  This is not a two-way street.  The abuser has the power in an abusive relationship, so no matter what a victim may try to do in self-defense, or even in retaliation, it does not constitute "mutual abuse."  Abuse is not a simple act of hitting or pushing or yelling a name; it's an entire pattern of controlling and manipulative behavior, and it is, by definition, a one-way street.

This myth is also victim-blaming, and as such, it perpetuates the problem.

Myth #5: Men are abused just as often as women!

It is possible for a woman to abuse a man, yes.  It happens, yes.  But we live in a misogynistic society, and the overall power dynamic creates a culture in which male abuse of females is by far the most prevalent type of abuse between the two sexes.  Abuse is based on power and fear, and in a culture where men have the power, and women have to fear that no one will believe her or help her (up to and including the police and the court system), in large part because of all of these myths, it's not hard to understand why female abuse of males would be comparatively very rare.

Women are taught from birth to be compliant, quiet, uncomplaining, and subservient, just as men are taught to be assertive, aggressive, and in charge.  Just because a woman is loud or spirited, it does not mean she hasn't absorbed or internalized these cultural messages to an astonishing degree.  Likewise, anger is considered an acceptable emotional expression for men; not so for women.  Women are stereotyped as being emotional and irrational, in need of calm, reasonable men to "keep them in check" for their own good.

All of these messages help to create and sustain a culture of male abusiveness, in which women are often not believed, and men are often excused and their abuse justified.  Even non-abusive men and women buy into these myths and wind up siding with abusers, whether they realize it or not, by saying things like, "She has a mouth on her; she must have provoked him."  See Myth #4.

Myth #6: Women often make false accusations of abuse for the sake of revenge for hurt feelings.

This myth is a direct result of female stereotypes which claim that women are vengeful, emotional, and controlling, and it also happens to be completely untrue.  Does it happen occasionally?  Sure.  About as often as women falsely accuse men of rape or sexual assault or sexual harassment.  This is red herring propaganda which distorts the nature of the problem and deflects responsibility from sexism, misogyny, patriarchal values, and most importantly, the actual abusers and rapists.

Once again, it is victim-blaming, and it perpetuates the problem.

Myth #7: Abuse is an anger-management problem.

Abuse stems in large part from an attitude of entitlement.  Abusers believe that they are entitled to have things their way at all times, to be catered to, to be the center of attention in their relationships.  When these unfair and unrealistic desires are not met, they become angry.  They use abuse as a tool to try to maintain control and to get what they want.  Abusers do not abuse because they are angry; they are angry because they are abusers.

Anger-management is not an effective form of therapy for an abuser.

This post is just the beginning of confronting harmful cultural myths which surround abuse.  There are many more that I'll attend to in subsequent posts.

If you or someone you know may be suffering from abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233).  Abuse is not only physical; you can call this hotline for concerns about emotional and verbal abuse, too.  You do not have to identify yourself; you can just talk or ask questions.

You do not have to live like this, and there is a way out.
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