Why We Don’t Leave: The Cultural Epidemic of Oppression

I want to thank Leslie Morgan Steiner for courageously sharing her personal experience from an abusive marriage and for dispelling myths about domestic violence in her TED Talk entitled, “Why Domestic Violence Victims Don’t Leave.” Her public recognition of the hardship and judgment that she and others face when attempting to leave an abusive relationship is an incredibly brave and vulnerable act. Leaving her relationship and living to tell her story was unfortunately so unlikely that while I applaud her for her courage, I can’t help but think of those who are not able to leave a situation of violence and regain autonomy after facing the physical and emotional pain, fear, and psychological control of abuse.

Steiner articulates the question she faces as a survivor to those who don’t understand the nature of abuse, “why don’t women leave?” I can imagine that some say (or think), “she should have known better.” In my clinical experience, those who are abused and exhausted victims of violence unfortunately find an abundance of quizzical looks, denial of their pain, and insensitivity during the healing process rather than empathy and compassion. But why?

There are a few psycho-social-emotional perspectives that can explain the reactions of those who aren’t clear about the power dynamics that contribute to abuse and subjugation.  First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I don’t see the problem of domestic violence as unrelated to other acts of oppression and violence.  Each situation is unique and tragic, but oppression, violence, and subjugation are all bi-products of the irresponsible use of power, dominance, and privilege.  When a child (the powerless) is abused by a parent (the powerful), that’s oppression. When a young women is assaulted and then blamed for wearing a short skirt, that’s oppression from the perpetrator and oppression from society. When a black man walks down the street and looks at the white people passing him with looks of fear or startle, that’s societal, personal, historical, and systemic oppression. Acts of racism, bigotry, homophobia, and hatred while not always perceived as equally harmful, are acts of violence, dominance, and oppression that encourage the cycle to continue.

Let’s simplify and return to the question above: why don’t people get it?

For people who are not the victim in any given circumstance (a.k.a. the ones in a position of power), disavowing the problem and putting it in the category of “happens to other people (but not me)” can diffuse the stress of wondering if you or your loved ones qualify for this label. Creating distance between the self and a horrifying, violent cultural epidemic makes it less scary, more palatable.  For most, the thought of our own loved ones being victims of violence is far too difficult to imagine.  So we ignore, we do our best to prevent, and we hope that violence is not occurring in our families and communities. But this psychological strategy of otherizing (believing something only applies to other people and denying that it could be yours to experience/solve/know) the problem of violence does not help stop violence.  In fact, it often contributes to or encourages violence in subtle and overt ways.

Otherizing sounds something like this behind closed doors:

We judge and rationalize… ‘She was with him for ten years. It’s her fault for staying.’ Or perhaps, ‘she was conscious enough to consent. It’s not like she was a virgin.’

We attribute the acts of horror to real or imagined personal traits… ‘He’s weak/gay/trans/different and that’s why it happened.’ Or, ‘that stuff only happens in (insert perceived high crime area).’

We shame the victims… ‘They shouldn’t have been dressed that way/walking down that street/out at that time of night/in that part of town/at a gay bar/drinking/breaking a rule.’

We assure ourselves that this couldn’t happen to our own body, our family, or our loved ones…  ‘This could have been avoided if she had been more aware of her surroundings.  What a shame that she wasn’t more careful.’

This is blaming the victim. These rationalizations and assumptions are defense mechanisms used to combat fear – the fear that this could affect our own lives or happen to our own children/sister/brother/parent, etc. – but these psychological defenses come with a huge price.  When we put any blame on a victim of violence, we fail to fully hold the perpetrator of violence accountable.    If acts of violence are always (in some way) the fault of the victim, then the perpetrator is never fully given the responsibility from committing such acts. In order to fully react to acts of violence we must be unequivocal and united: The person who hurt someone is wrong and must know that society does not approve of hurting people.  That has to be enough, the end of the story, and the stance taken by everyone (men, women, people of color, all religions, ages, races, creeds, and nationalities) in order to make a difference.

Violence against women and other oppressed groups is a deeply rooted, complex, and pervasive problem.  While watching Steiner’s TED Talk I began to think about the implications of her message.  No one is immune from this epidemic of abuse and violence, though we may deny and attempt to use every defense mechanism in our arsenal to make it so. Violence isn’t a gender problem or a problem only affecting specific races, skin colors, religions, or groups.  This is a power, control, dominance, and cultural violence problem.  This silent acquiescence and turning away from this topic is a symptom of our cultural belief that being the strongest, the best, the fastest, the richest, and most powerful (whether that is referring to our military defense, our sports teams, our wealth/acquisitions/ownership, or the  caliber of our children’s preschool.)  These are the standards by which we are judged.

So, why don’t women leave?  Why don’t the oppressed members of society rise up together to reject this ideology once and for all? In addition to the psychological reasons articulated by Leslie Morgan Steiner, because we live in it every day.  We live in a culture where it is acceptable to be criticized and demeaned for the way that we look, dress, or act based on the standards and preferences of other people, usually the people in charge.

Why don’t we leave? We can’t afford it.  People of color and women are paid less, oftentimes expected to commit our bodies and most of our time to children or minimum wage jobs and we don’t have the resources to leave. We are not in power and therefore do not have the privilege of independence.  We are not represented in positions of power in our government, in our schools, in our communities, or in our workplaces.  We are the exception when we are in power. We are told that it isn’t because of our race, our gender, or our difference that we are treated unequally and it is psychologically maddening every day.

We are taught, covertly and overtly, that violence is power. We are told that loving our country means committing to war, which inevitably hurts and kills poor people, people of color, women, and children much more than it changes policies or defends justice. We are given messages about femininity, masculinity, sexuality, and assimilation.  We are told that we are the problem if we don’t get on board and fall in line. Men are taught that to be peaceful or emotional is to be weak and that violence represents strength and power.  Women are told to, ‘act like a lady and avoid topics that upset people’ or we will be perceived as less valuable. We are also taught that poor people are poor because they are “lazy,” not because of centuries of oppression and institutionalized, discriminatory policies. We are told that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other powerless groups are no longer experiencing the consequences of these discriminatory and prejudicial attitudes and institutions. The institutional entrenchment of oppression is rarely discussed by the powerful, so we are not encouraged by our media, our institutions, or our communities to talk about these problems.

Also, “we” are not aligned with one another.  As I write the word “we,” I write as a Hispanic woman with some areas of privilege and some experience of disempowerment/disadvantage, but I refer to everyone who has experienced oppression. If the oppressed divide, who will effectively fight the real perpetrators of violence?  My use of the word “we” is intended to do the opposite of otherizing, not to exclude, and to see this problem as systemic, complex, and to be addressed from a united front of oppressed, albeit diverse, group of people.

Take care of yourself and others.