For most of us, accepting that violence against women is wrong is straightforward. But violence against women isn’t necessarily as clear cut as we have historically made it out to be. It is not just something perpetrated by strangers in dark alleyways, or alcoholic partners. Domestic abuse does not just happen in ‘dysfunctional’ families; sexual harassment does not only happen in ‘unsafe’ places. In recent years, we have learned to be more open in terms of how we define violence against women. We have also learned to accept that violence is not just physical.
But attitudes which resist this broader definition remain entrenched in society. When women come forward to discuss the violence they have faced, they are often met with responses that are at best old-fashioned and are fundamentally unproductive. These responses typically seek to downplay the existence of violence against women and to pretend as though the society we live in is an equally safe place for men and women. These pretences are problematic, because they so often take hold in our psyche.
So what are some of the responses we should be on the lookout for?
She should have been more careful
This response is often found where victims of sexual assault are concerned. The idea that the assault could have been avoided if only they had taken more care is of course ludicrous, but it is widely perpetuated.
After all, the idea that women are responsible for making sure they aren’t attacked is embedded in our safeguarding structures. Indeed, in 2018, after a spate of sexual attacks on women in Cricklewood, the Metropolitan Police advised that women should avoid looking at the phones or wearing their headphones when out and about to remain safe. While some regarded this as merely practical safety advice, others argued that this was simply another way of turning violence against women into the responsibility of women.
You see, the ‘don’t wear headphones’ suggestion may seem innocuous, but it encapsulates a broader attitude that seeks to blame women when they are attacked by suggesting that the attacks would have been preventable if only the women had behaved differently somehow.
At its core, this is victim blaming, and it goes no way towards resolving the prevalence of violence against women. In fact, it only makes the acceptability of this violence greater, as it convinces us that when women are attacked it is their fault. Every time a woman modifies her behaviour to pander to some idea of protecting herself against male violence, the threshold for how she should change (according to those espousing this view) shifts once more. A woman may stop wearing skirts out at night through fear; when she still doesn’t feel safe or gets harassed, she may then simply stop going out at night at all. Women can never win while they feel that the onus is on them to change instead of the men who commit acts of violence.
He wouldn’t do that for no reason
This skepticism in the face of a victim’s story is galling to hear for anyone who has opened up. Saying ‘he wouldn’t do that’ first and foremost sounds like disbelief in a woman’s story. Victims often find it very difficult to open up and talk about the abuse they have experienced; meeting their courage with dismissal is a surefire way to close society off to victims’ stories and make victims feel more isolated and ignored than they already do.
The idea that a man simply ‘wouldn’t’ perpetrate violence against a woman is misleading. While it may be difficult to believe that certain people have the capacity for violence, being categorical in our beliefs around whether someone would or wouldn’t perpetrate it is highly unhelpful. Besides, we know that just because someone may seem ‘nice’ it doesn’t preclude them from being abusive or terrifying to people who aren’t us. Using your experience with an individual to totally invalidate someone else’s experience with that same person is self-centred and is not an objective approach.
Additionally, the idea that the attacker or abusive partner must have been ‘provoked’ into acting the way they did is implicit in this phrase – and not at all fair. Only the abuser is responsible for the abuse they perpetrate – we must never act as though victims are to blame.
Fighting is normal in relationships
Yes, most couples argue, but again, if you dismiss a victim’s claims as if they represent an exaggeration of the situation, you are likely to push that victim into silence and therefore into further harm.
Fighting is normal, but it is different from coercive control and domestic abuse. In the BBC’s documentary Is This Coercive Control?, some participants argued that the scenario presented to them (showing a coercive relationship) was totally normal and that if it was a crime everybody would be in court for their behaviour in relationships. This is worrying, and it does tell us that abusive behaviours have certainly been normalised within relationships. But that does not make them ok, and it gives no-one the right to tell someone else that they are complaining about something they ought to just accept.
For one, as an outside observer, you can never really know what is going on in someone else’s relationship, and secondly, if someone is hurt or feeling pain, don’t think you can deal with that by telling them it doesn’t exist.
Only some women get attacked
This fallacy serves only to divide. The idea that some women are ‘natural victims’ because of their life circumstances and personal attributes is as damaging as it is false.
It convinces those women who do not fit those profiles that abuse is something to be ashamed of, and convinces wider society to ignore abuse as a ‘social problem’ related to low-income or perceived vulnerability. While it is important to recognise that there are certain risk factors for abuse, convincing ourselves that only ‘some’ women face the risk of abuse allows those with decision-making capacity in society (usually privileged people) to dismiss the plight of those they deem to fit the mould of abuse victim.
We need to remember that abuse can affect anyone – and we should not treat abuse as something that only happens because other things are not right in a woman’s life.