Sadly, not all victims are packed and ready to leave when they reach out for help.
The big idea now in sexual assault prevention is the concept of bystander intervention—educating people on how rapists select and isolate victims so that, if you see it happening, you can intervene—so it seems natural to want to expand the concept to domestic violence. With that in mind, the Avon Foundation for Women conducted a study looking at the disconnect between people’s disapproval of domestic violence and their willingness to do anything about it when confronted with the evidence of it. Katie Baker at Salon explains the disappointing findings:
More than 70 percent of women domestic violence survivors report telling someone what happened to them, but 58 percent of those women said no one helped them. And the problem isn’t just limited to women; 1 in 7 men report being a victim of domestic violence. Of the 47 percent of men who report telling someone about the abuse, close to 90 percent said that no one intervened or helped them.
I wish I could find this surprising, but I don’t. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to educate people swiftly on an intervention strategy to prevent rape than it is to prevent domestic violence: If you see a man trying to get a woman alone who appears too drunk to meaningfully consent, go separate them and get her home safely. Domestic violence, however, is a lot more complex. There’s three major problems that someone who intervenes might face:
1) It’s often hard to know what to do. If the victim doesn’t know how to fix her problem, an outsider is probably not going to have a lot more luck in many cases. If a victim does have a list of things she needs, like shelter or moral support, that’s one thing, but often victims are still stuck in a place of just wanting things to get better and to be normal. Unfortunately, the only person who can stop the abuse is the abuser. A third party can no more get him to do that than the victim can. You could call the police, but often victims reach out for help after the abuse is over, making evidence-gathering hard. You can encourage her to leave, but that option also has drawbacks, which leads me to #2.
2) The victim is often not ready to leave yet, and pushing her to do so might backfire. It’s a difficult thing to talk about in our blame-women-first culture, because a victim’s perceived weakness in the face of abuse often becomes the focal point, instead of the abuser’s choice to abuse. But this is probably the biggest problem that someone intervening in domestic violence will face: The victim may not be ready to hear that the relationship needs to end. Many victims are still in the mindset of hoping things will get better and return to normal. We live in a culture where people are constantly being chastened to “work” on our relationships and to see ourselves and our relationships as works in progress. The advice to leave a violent relationship ASAP instead of hanging in and “working” on it is incongruous with the rest of our culture that frames any end to a relationship other than death as a “failure”. If you push her to leave when she’s still trying to convince herself she can fix this relationship, she may turn on you. Worse, her abuser may start telling her you’re a toxic person who is just trying to tear them apart. I think most people are aware that this is a serious obstacle and kind of limply don’t know what to do if a victim tells them what’s going on.
3) The third party may have divided loyalties. This is even harder to talk about, but it’s still true. Let’s be honest here. Most couples don’t have strictly separate groups of friends, so if a victim has a friend to confide in, that friend is probably also a friend to the abuser. In fact, that may be even more so, since abusers often isolate victims from family and friends, meaning that often the only people the victim comes in contact with socially are probably more loyal to the abuser than to her. Victims are often less popular than their abusers, too, because the abuse causes them to be jumpy, insecure, and anti-social, whereas the abuser often feels more confident and self-assured because he’s quietly dominating and hurting someone at home. Unfortunately, this means that victims will reach out for help and find that their friends will wonder if they’re exaggerating, defend the abuser, or tell the victim he probably didn’t mean it and they should, sigh, work on the relationship.
Because of all this, bystander intervention is a much more complex issue. Absolutely, people should be educated to call the cops—no excuses!—when you know that there’s an incident going on or that just happened. But for cases where victims confide about ongoing abuse, it seems that it’s probably more valuable to advise people to bear witness. Believe her, ask questions, get information, and let her use you as a sounding board to figure out her own shit. Never, ever hint that she had it coming or has any responsibility for what happened—don’t trash the abuser to her face, but remember that he’s the one solely responsible. Offer to help but let her tell you what she needs.