Why do victims of abuse so often feel shame and experience stigma?

Abuse victims stigma

Objectively, we all know that victims of abuse deserve nothing but compassion and understanding. Many of those you know will be abuse victims and survivors, but not everyone will share their stories openly.

There are several reasons for this – abuse is hard to talk about, and it can often be something that individuals may want to shut out from their consciousness. And that is totally fine. Equally, many victims may not be able to speak openly about what has happened to them because they are wary of their abuser. Even if a survivor is living free from abuse, they may be afraid that speaking openly about what has happened to them could bring back the abusive partner into their life. 

But for many victims, speaking out about abuse is really hard because of a social stigma that is very real. 

No abuse victim should have to experience this, but feelings of stigma and shame are not easy to shake off and are often reinforced by what we see in society. So what are some of the factors which leave victims feeling too ashamed to speak out?

Nice man myth abuse
The ‘nice man’ myth

We’ve talked about this myth before. It’s the misconception that just because a man ‘seems nice’ he clearly won’t be capable of perpetrating abuse. The people who perpetuate this myth are most often people with no experience of being in a relationship with that man. Instead, they assume that because of his qualities as a friend, colleague or sibling, his qualities as an intimate partner will naturally be exactly the same.

Not only is this myth really damaging to our understandings of intimate partner abuse, but it is also a significant factor as to why women feel afraid to come forward about the abuse they have suffered. They feel that they will not be believed and that because their abuser might be perceived as ‘so nice’, that their own character will be torn to pieces in the process of telling their story. 

The nice man myth is hugely prevalent in society. In November 2020, tennis player Djokovic seemed to lend support through this myth to fellow player Alexander Zverev. At the time, Zverev had been accused of physical and emotional abuse by his ex-girlfriend Olga Sharypova. 

Zverev denied the claims. Djokovic was asked about them, and while he supported the development of a sport-wide domestic violence policy for tennis, he appeared to support Zverev and his claims of innocence. 

“I’ve known Sascha (Zverev) for a very long time since he was very young. I always had a great relationship with him, he’s a very nice guy, I have a lot of respect for him, his family. I was sad to hear that he’s going through something like this.”

Whichever way you look at it, Djokovic’s language is all wrong and highly damaging. While the allegations against Zverev are just allegations at this point, it is clear from Djokovic’s words that he is inclined to support Zverev. Though he did not overtly dismiss Sharypova’s claims, he might as well have done. More than this, he makes it clear that he believes that the real burden of this situation is borne by Zverev himself, and not his former partner. For Djokovic to centre Zverev’s assumed sadness is a telling indication of the way we as global societies often think about violence against women; we see the fact of it as less important than the repercussions that face the men who are found guilty. 

In doing this, and in prioritising the feelings and careers of men over the lives and wellbeing of women, we subtly tell women that their stories of violence at the hands of men are not welcome. Is it any wonder that women feel afraid to come forward, and so often feel that their words will not be enough to convince people that their abuser really is an abuser?

The stigma of seeming ‘weak’

Many victims of violence fear coming forward because of the perceived shame of seeming weak. This is definitely a huge contributory factor as to why male victims of domestic violence don’t come forward, but it also significantly affects women. 

Consider the words of Jessica Butcher, a fairly recent appointee to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Butcher has been an extremely controversial appointment. She has voiced considerable skepticism over the MeToo movement and often seems to eschew many of the tenets of modern-day feminism.

In 2018, Butcher argued that ‘Feminism, like other forms of identity politics, has become obsessed with female victimhood’.  She refers to her personal views as ‘old-fashioned’ feminism.

But in this case, it seems that such ‘old-fashioned feminism’ can have damaging impacts on the women it is supposed to help. It is true that earlier forms of feminism often emphasised the strength of women. We are strong, and just as worthy of respect and understanding as men. But it is folly to pretend that women are not vulnerable to male violence. Men do not face violence and abuse from women in the same, systemic way that women do from men. A narrative of female strength can sometimes serve to convince women that they ought to be quiet about the hardships and barriers they experience, and circumvent them in some way. This is what Butcher herself argues about gender-discrimination in general; she says that should a woman experience discrimination, she should adopt a ‘well come on then, I’ll show you’ attitude and work around the issues she faces. 

But abuse is not just something that can be circumvented, and it is seriously damaging when parts of society pretend that women’s experiences of discrimination, including and not limited to systemic male violence, are just something women should push through. It is these attitudes which make victims feel ashamed of their victimhood, and these very attitudes that make women feel like failures for being failed by the wider system in which they live. 

women are vulnerable to male violence
The ‘taboo’ nature of talking about abuse

Abuse is something that we don’t talk about much in society – especially outside of survivor circles. The subject rarely comes up as part of general conversation. It is something that we try to hide from children and young people, even though many of them may be witnessing or experiencing it in the home. 

Of course, because teaching about unhealthy relationships in schools didn’t become compulsory till September 2020, many of the UK’s young people are unlikely to have spoken much about abuse, or to feel comfortable broaching the subject. 

Silence often lends itself to taboos; if we are quiet on abuse in general, those experiencing it may feel that they ought to be quiet too. Even if they can’t quite work out why, that silence is enough to allow an aura of shame to brew and develop. 

By having more conversations about abuse, by talking about it openly and honestly, we can encourage victims to come forward more easily. This will essentially require a culture shift – but it has to happen for us to make things better. 

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