With October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, there’s a good chance you’ve witnessed a few discussions regarding how our culture handles domestic violence. Personally, I’ve found many of these open conversations in the general dialogue to be nice, though lacking a few of the crucial elements of what makes domestic violence such a widespread and devastating aspect of our society. It can be enticing — especially to the media that often sensationalizes interpersonal violence to a disgusting amount — to look at the various forms of interpersonal violence as individual anecdotes. This is misleading, a mirage presenting domestic violence as something that is awful, but takes place in a vacuum. Domestic violence is a societal problem, and as such, it is an issue to be handled at a societal level. This is not something that can be resolved through charity, or simply by good will and a vague sense of “awareness.” It is also not something that the victims of domestic violence should bear the burden of solving. To sufficiently tackle the issue of domestic violence, communities as a whole need to have an understanding of power and how to impede the enablement of its abuse.
Never. Never should the onus or responsibility of preventing violence — domestic, sexual or otherwise — be on the victims of said violence. The concept of victim-blaming and its residual harm is one that, thankfully, has been centered in the progressive public discourse regarding instances of abuse and assault for the past few years. However, we must explicate even further. Victim-blaming is not merely the biases and failings of an individual who partakes in it, but rather a cultural concern in how we are all raised and socialized to disparage those who are most vulnerable, to denigrate those who lack access to power in the systemic meaning of the term. Blame should only ever be placed on those who are the perpetrators of harm and the abusers of power. This is without question. With that said, we cannot adequately address the causes of such abuses without acknowledging the communal responsibility we have to each other in setting an expectation for the society we live in — the expectation that those who harm others will be held accountable.
Statistically, we all know at least one person who is an abuser. We all know someone who has assaulted someone, harmed someone, abused someone. In having the discussion on preventing interpersonal violence, we are not simply talking about the perpetrator and the victim; we are also talking about the role we play in each person’s life. It has been so difficult to witness in our current climate, where movements such as #MeToo have become topics of mainstream discourse, that even during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, many narratives will opt to focus on the “adversity” of the perpetrator, and what their crimes mean for them. As easy as it is for the media to excuse offenders such as Louis C.K. and Roman Polanski, it can be even easier for students such as ourselves to excuse our friends. “They’re just not that kind of person.” “They honestly had good intentions, they just messed up this once.” These excuses help no one — not the people who carry out harm, and especially not the people who are harmed. Preventing such harm from happening starts with holding the people closest to you in check for whatever predatory or abusive tendencies they may have. This means taking your friends aside when they’re clearly making someone uncomfortable, not being afraid to stand up for someone else when the people you’re closest to do them wrong. Taking people to task for telling rape jokes isn’t simply just because it’s impolite or offensive; comfort in the indulgence of rape culture is a manifestation of power from those who celebrate predacious behaviors over those who are especially vulnerable to it. These imbalances are central to how abusers are enabled by the people and society around them to continue to harm others. While there is a general understanding of how physical coercion is used to manipulate victims, most mainstream discourse ignores the coercion implicit in many of the unbalanced relationships in our day-to-day lives.
Boss and worker. Professor and student. Guard and prisoner. These are all examples of asymmetrical relationships of power. These come to be through an inequality of status, privilege and access in a given context. It is relationships such as these where power imbalances can frequently result in an abuse of power. From a worker enduring harassment for fear of losing their job, a professor manipulatively advancing a student in return for personal favors, a guard beating a prisoner for not strictly obeying their command — these are all forms of violence enabled by the differential of power between people. While there is the appearance of choice — that the victim can just walk away and escape whatever abuse they’re experiencing — this is often just an illusion of choice that does not reflect the material realities that would put someone in such a susceptible position to begin with. In the context of domestic violence, these material conditions are often the factors of why it is so hard to escape an abusive relationship. The examples above are all forms of violence that manifest even in less formal relationships, between any kind of person to one another based on the various factors of how we can be marginalized by the systems of oppression we all operate under. It is why the victims of interpersonal violence are often people who find themselves vulnerable in our society: women, undocumented workers, poor people, transgender/nonbinary folks, people with disabilities, people of color — the risk is only raised with each intersection of such identities.
Statistically, we also all know someone who is a survivor. As we all have a role in preventing interpersonal violence within our communities, we have a role in supporting the survivors of it as well. Just as the systems of capitalism, patriarchy, ableism, white supremacy, heteronormativity, imperialism — so on and so forth — have manipulated the disparities that lead to many abusers being enabled to harm, they also lead to survivors of abuse being unable to receive justice for the anguish they’ve endured. It is hard enough for many survivors to contact the authorities when they’ve been assaulted with the way the legal process interrogates and retraumatizes victims — how safe would a battered person feel calling the police when almost half of families with a police officer experience domestic violence? What’s more, what about a black or brown person whose community constantly gets terrorized by their local police department?
To adequately provide support for survivors of domestic violence, it’s important to know what you can do yourself, but even more so what a community can do collectively to care for its own. If there are no institutions, resources or pillars of support that are left for us, we must build our own. If there is no power that can be taken, we must make power on our own. There is so much strength that is required to continue to move in an oppressive world as a survivor that when we’re able to work together collectively, there is no greater power. This means creating spaces for survivors to be able to share and heal, methods to encourage checking in on one another and the trust to build a society that supports and relies on each other. Above all, this means promoting values of care — cultures of love — where those who are most vulnerable do not get left behind.