Enablers: How Misperception Contributes to Abuse

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Abuse is a tricky matter to assess, legally, medically, and socially. When it occurs between intimate partners, it’s suggested in the popular discourse that it’s usually the man who’s the aggressor, and that it involves hitting, shoving, etc. Moreover, if it ends in violence, it was a crime of passion, nothing malicious or intentional. Otherwise, it’s a woman who’s stalking and emotionally harassing the man. And of course, it only occurs in long-term, static relationships.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Women and men are equally likely to harass each other, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and there is no reason to believe that both physical and emotional abuse aren’t done by both sexes, although men might be less likely to report. A UF study found that more women reported such behaviors, but even self-reports can be dubious sources of data, especially decontextualized yes-no reports such as in this study (the discrepancies of which were excused away by suggesting that college women did not date college men..hmm). And a key component of the definition of abuse is repetitive, intentionally harmful behaviors. Unfortunately, even a very short relationship is enough time to have repeated behaviors. In fact, many abusers push their victims into a fast relationship, to avoid any cooling-off period in which the victim could clearly assess the problems and pull away.

“Stalking” has become a catchall term for “unwanted sexual attention” in any dating scenario. This clear misunderstanding of the severity of the crime may be related to gender inequity and socialization in the United States: it does seem that females are accused of stalking more than males, or, more mildly, that females who seek uninterested males are deviant, while males who seek uninterested females are following their normal instincts. It’s sexist on both sides, but that’s another matter. What’s intriguing is that while men are only slightly less likely to report stalking (37% of male victims versus 41% for women), women are more likely to report being stalked by a current or former intimate partner (66% versus 41% for men). But estimates of stalking incident rates throw the gender disparity into high relief: 75.7% of stalking victims are female, leaving 24.3% male victims. It’s also notable that while most female victims are stalked by men (83%), men are stalked almost equally by men and women (44 and 47 %, respectively), perhaps due to a cultural basis for competition among males. All statistics from the DoJ’s Stalking Resource Center and the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Barbara Coloroso’s work on bullying claims that the bystander is often as culpable as the bully. Legally, a similar approach is taken to those who do nothing to prevent fatal harm (involuntary manslaughter), fail to report abuse of minors, or who aid theft in any way. While I won’t hold my friends responsible for not helping, I do wonder how it is that intimate partner violence continues to be such a silent crime. Moreover, the explosion of activity upon #YesAllWomen’s launch suggests that it was a suppressed crime, from which people were anxious to finally have a voice. It may be because so many are afraid to report, for the same reasons I was. The abusers are careful to shut off any avenues of escape. Moreover — and this is the most critical and most tragic element of it — a victim of abuse may not feel the need to report, because they don’t perceive there to be a problem. A couple who fights a lot, or loudly, or physically, draws attention, and if violence is perpetuated from both sides, the “incident rates” shown above might be more a measure of who reports first. A study from Western Washington University that compared PTSD symptoms with experience of psychological control versus physical violence in intimate relationships points to a clear distinction between the tormented couples immortalized in songs like “Love the Way you Lie,” and couples in which the violence is carefully concealed, or just so subtle that it’s invisible to an outside eye. While both types of situations are psychologically damaging, high levels of psychological control numbs the effect of more overt violence, while predicting higher levels of depression, impaired stress response, and erratic behaviors…which of course can make the victim look more like the perpetrator.

Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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