#WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft are great steps toward an improved public response to domestic violence. There are many, many risks and obstacles that make “Why didn’t she just leave?” at best an ignorant question and at worst the beginning of a victim-blaming spiral that can be as traumatizing as the violence.
Sympathy is a good start and it is truly amazing to see the media and the general public open their eyes to some of the challenges women face when their relationships turn violent. However, there are still many other stereotypes and old ways of thinking that are getting repeated even today. Here are a few items on my wishlist for beyond #WhyIStayed:
(1) Starting asking what is going on with the perpetrators. Batterers create domestic violence and yet we still turn to the victims of domestic violence and ask what they can or should do. Where are the batterers? Where are the men? When a burglar breaks into a house, we do not spend all of our time trying to understand the homeowner. We do not expect an explanation about why they decided to stay in their home or need an analysis of why they purchased that flat-screen TV. We try to catch the burglar and understand that the victims are just going about their lives, trying to get their needs met like the rest of us.
(2) Do not stereotype anyone or any institution. In the last several days there have particularly been numerous negative comments about churches and other religious organizations. Yes, some religious leaders send bad, blaming messages about domestic violence and encourage victims to stay for the sake of the marriage. However, many religious leaders and religious institutions are important parts of the solution to domestic violence in many communities. Many religious leaders stand by victims with years of support, both tangible and intangible, often long after social service benefits are tapped out. We know that many family members sometimes pressure victims to stay too, but we do not start describing families in a negative light. Do not assume that every religious organization is part of the problem.
(3) Awareness is not enough. We need to follow up with better services. The first and most obvious step is to do a better job with safety planning and risk assessment. Risk assessment needs to include all of the reasons people have shared with #WhyIStayed. The Victim Inventory of Goals, Options, and Risks, called The VIGOR, offers a big-picture, holistic approach for risk assessment. The VIGOR allows victims to report all of the risks and obstacles they might be facing, including not only the violence to them, but also threats to loved ones, housing needs, financial needs, legal needs, and issues related to the rejection by family or community members. The VIGOR is also unique in that it asks victims to describe their strengths and resources and helps them brainstorm about their options.
Research with the VIGOR backs up this newly empowered view of victims of domestic violence. The women who participated came up with over 150 different coping strategies for domestic violence. This is far more than any existing safety plan. This can also be the legacy of #WhyIStayed—more comprehensive safety planning that recognizes the complexities and also the many strengths of battered women.
Headline image credit: Blue door by Ana_J. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.