Monday, October 12, 2009

From Erica: Unseen Victims of Domestic Abuse

Last week, while our posts focused on basic information about domestic abuse, we kept mentioning one thing in passing: victims of domestic abuse come from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all identities, all persuasion, and all ages. Today, I'd like to give more consideration to what that means, both for the sake of changing our stereotypes about abuse and also for the sake of increasing access to services that can help.

First, we'll go back to the stereotypical abusive relationship. Mainstream culture and media, more so than we may think, promote an image of abuse that involves a man and woman in their early-to-mid 30s, married more often than not, who are White, marginally affluent, and have a couple of children. The woman is meek, the man is domineering, and there's a lot of physical violence, especially if the husband's been drinking. The only physical or mental dis/Abilities portrayed are her injuries and his out-of-control rage.

There are so many possibilities and identities missing from this picture, it's hard to swallow. Do some people and situations mirror this image? Of course. Do all? Certainly not, and the problem is that our society, including many of the legal and social initiatives that exist to eradicate domestic abuse, often only accommodates this one.

Let's just take a brief look at who gets left out by this picture:
  • People of Colour
  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks
  • Trans and intersex folks
  • The elderly
  • Men who are abused by women
  • Adolescents
  • People with dis/Abilities
  • Folks who aren't married
  • Folks living at one socioeconomic extreme or another
  • Immigrants, particularly those who don't speak English fluently
  • Folks being abused by relatives other than their spouse or partner
  • Folks from particularly strong religious families or communities
  • Victims with active addictions to alcohol or illicit substances
  • People living with HIV/AIDS
For folks in these and other groups, the barriers to leaving an abusive relationship are compounded by the additional barriers their abusers may throw at them, along with stigmas from others and themselves.

As an example, let's look at People of Colour, particularly those who may be living in a predominately White area. One barrier to leaving an abusive relationship might be fear of "confirming" a negative stereotype about a particular racial or ethnic background. Consider stereotypes about African-American men- that they're highly aggressive, sexualized, and dangerous- and consider how a predominately White community might react to the news that their neighbour is being abused by her African-American husband. Or consider how that community might react if it becomes apparent that abuse is happening in a couple of Middle Eastern origin, given that White society assumes that partner abuse is acceptable in Middle Eastern cultures. Rather than supporting the victim in escaping the abusive situation, the community might defect to the stereotypes and assume that "it's okay for you, this is supposed to happen." It might also happen that the community be supportive, but act in a way that suggests that they're "rescuing" the victim from a bad situation caused by the race or ethno-cultural background of their abuser. Either way, dealing with the racism of the community or society at large- and potentially confirming it by revealing the abuse- can be a significant barrier to leaving.

In a similar vein, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex folk all face barriers associated with community-based and society-based stigma. In an effort to gain acceptance of their relationships, LGBTI folks and their allies have often painted extra-rosy pictures of their day-to-day lives. Coming out about abuse can disrupt this positive stereotype and exchange it for the negative one: that LGBTI folk are incapable of having responsible, healthy relationships. And on the subject of "coming out:" for the LGBTI person who isn't out, the threat of being involuntarily "outed" by their abuser can be enough to keep them from trying to leave their situation, particularly if their families or friends are homo- or trans-phobic or if their employers are likely to fire them shortly thereafter. The latter is especially a concern for trans folks, since gender presentation is not protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the US.

Stereotypes and stigmas are massive barriers for all of the folks on the list above- people with dis/Abilities (they have relationships?), the elderly (they have relationships?), adolescents (it can't be serious, it's puppy love), religious folks (their religions must say it's okay), immigrants (they don't know any better), men being abused by women (he's a sissy or he's lying), people at socioeconomic extremes (they don't know any better or they're rich so who cares?), folks who aren't married (they get what's coming to them), folks with active addictions or HIV/AIDS (they deserve what they get), and folks who are being abused by non-partners (that doesn't count as abuse). And one of the big problems that these stereotypes cause is that shelters, hotlines, counseling services, and legal protections often buy into them as well.

This buying-in doesn't necessarily mean that shelters openly espouse the sorts of views I've described here. Rather, it tends to mean that organizations often forget that there are special barriers for these victims and that they may come with particular needs as a result. For example, neither of the shelters I've worked at was readily accessible for anyone in a wheelchair, and for safety reasons, neither of them permitted victims to bring any caregivers to the shelter. Suddenly, a victim who requires assistance to eat, use the bathroom, bathe, or do any number of mundane activities is unable to go to a shelter because of the fear- on the part of the shelters- that a caregiver is the primary abuser or will be unable to maintain the confidentiality of the shelter location. Many shelters, including those funded by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, don't have space for male survivors of any sexuality, gender-queer survivors never cross their radars, and even trans women will often be asked to leave if they're "outed" to shelter staff- something I've seen happen. Adolescents, unless they're over the age of 18, are rarely accepted to shelters in their own right, because legally they're supposed to be residing with their parents. Folks with active addictions are often turned away for liability reasons. And it can be costly and impractical for shelters to provide resources, referrals, and staff that are competent in many languages and cultures and familiar with immigration laws.

Of course, the barriers presented by "buying in" are legal as well; many of the legal protections we'll discuss next week, such as restraining orders and custody papers, are more difficult to obtain when there are stereotypes operating against one's credibility and capabilities. A pernicious stereotype that affects the ability of LGBTI people to get restraining orders, for example, is that abuse between LGBTI partners is just "fighting between friends," and therefore no restraining order is needed. One's ability to express oneself verbally or in writing- in English or in any language- can impact that as well, and having a mental health diagnosis (especially bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) also reduces the likelihood that one's story will be believed.

Later in the week we'll come back to this topic and take a closer look at the social power dynamics that impact marginalized peoples' decisions to leave abusive situations. For now, however, I invite you to check out some of the Domestic Violence Awareness Month activities that are going on around the country, and participate if you are able!

As always, if you are experiencing intimate partner abuse or know someone who is, please contact your state's Coalition Against Domestic Violence or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) for information, referrals, and safety-planning. To keep yourself safe, always remember to clear your browser history and, if using a cell phone, your call history.

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