Domestic Violence is not a Dispute

Written by Dorislee Gilbert, Executive Director, Mary Byron Project

According to, a dispute is “a debate, controversy, or difference of opinion” or “a wrangling argument; quarrel.” A dispute is not a criminal offense. It is not a violent act. It is a common occurrence in a marriage or a board room. Yet, I recently read a news story about a man who was arrested and charged for a “domestic dispute.” Most certainly, he was not arrested and criminally charged for a dispute. Rather, he was arrested and charged for an act of VIOLENCE, most likely the assault, strangulation, or shooting of an intimate partner. And chances are good that this act of violence was part of a larger pattern of abusive behavior.

If someone shot a teller during a bank robbery, would we ever say that the robber was arrested because of a “bank dispute” or a “dispute over a bank withdrawal”? Would we ever say that someone breaking into a home was arrested for a “property dispute”? Of course not. Yet, when violence occurs in a home between people who purportedly love each other, we minimize it by calling it a “dispute.”

Is it because we need to believe that violence doesn’t really occur in homes despite statistics that tell us that 12 million people in the United States are affected by intimate partner violence each year? Is it because we are certain that there must be some backstory, i.e., something she did to outrage him and justify his violence, even though we know that cooling off periods, counseling, separation, and divorce—not violence—are the acceptable answers to marital or relational discord? Is it because we still think that when violence happens inside homes it needs to stay inside homes even though we don’t hesitate to “like” or “follow” every other detail of family life on social media? Is it because we think that we will destroy a family if we allow the violence to be treated as the serious problem that it is even though we know that a family with violence is not a healthy, stable family that should be maintained at status quo? Is it because women are disproportionately affected by domestic violence, and women are seen as less valuable, less believable, and less emotionally stable even though we’ve long trusted them to care for our children, have elected or appointed many of them to preside over our courthouse disputes, and now have more women than men enrolled in medical schools and law schools?

Regardless of the reason, we must stop minimizing domestic and intimate partner violence! Is it really somehow better to violently assault someone you “love” than it is to commit a crime against a stranger? No, it is much worse—more callous and more dangerous. If a person will strangle a person they “love” into unconsciousness, hit them with their fists, or threaten to or actually shoot them in the head, how could anyone be safe from such violent tendencies? When we pretend domestic or intimate partner violence is not serious or we pretend it is less concerning than other types of violence, we give license to violence, and that violence is unlikely to remain restrained within the home. So, do the world a favor, the next time you hear about an act of domestic or intimate partner violence, don’t think of it as a mere “dispute”, even if that’s what the news calls it. Be outraged about the violence! Call for accountability and an end to it!

A Call for Action: Changing the Culture of Teen Dating Violence

Empowering young people with the tools and the language to decipher healthy relationships from abusive ones is imperative in order to quell the epidemic of teen dating violence. We often forget that dating violence, which encompasses physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse between two people in a close relationship, can occur at any age, and can be most detrimental for young people whose ideas about what is normal are still being formed. Among adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.  Absolutely paramount in the attempt to end a widespread issue like this is prevention through early education. We must make communication about this issue accessible to teens and introduce intervention before patterns of abuse are cemented. Studies demonstrate that parents and peers are the most effective avenues to reach adolescents and because parents, unfortunately, continuously prove too squeamish, too detached, or too ignorant, the greatest prospect of social change will be through popular opinion leaders and peers.Continue reading

2013 Celebrating Solutions & Roth Award Winners

Domestic violence remains one of the leading dangers for women in today’s world. An estimated one in five women will be a victim of abuse in her lifetime. With an issue so pervasive, so long standing, and so deeply ingrained in society, solutions are not easy to come by. The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program hones in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful. Through months of reading applications from all over the nation, The Mary Byron Project commemorates initiatives that present innovative solutions to broaden the scope of available services for victims to turn to, and ultimately create a world where there are far fewer occurrences of intimate partner violence altogether. 2013 boasted groundbreaking models for the nation to follow in shelters, housing, law, education, and medicine. Domestic violence transcends all dimensions of life and therefore must be combated with a multi-front approach. It is the honor of the Mary Byron Project to recognize these valiant efforts.Continue reading

Why Is Domestic Violence ‘Invisible’?

So far this summer, I’ve blogged about doctors who don’t want to screen their patients for intimate partner violence, even when it will take a minimum of time out of their exam schedules. I’ve written about employers who would rather fire victims than develop effective domestic violence policies. I’ve quoted numerous journalists making misinformed or outright obnoxious statements about victims. Besides the obvious link in subject matter, there’s another common trend. These are all people who should know better, but they continue to ignore or trivialize a problem which exists right under their noses.

One the biggest challenges for domestic violence advocates is getting the issue to a level of national recognition that will provoke policy change, increased education, and widespread awareness of how to end the problem for good. People care about domestic violence – but it’s just not the kind of issue that consistently riles people up, gets them to donate money and time, and that they regard as a widespread issue. It’s more prevalent among women than diabetes, breast cancer and cervical cancer, but whereas we all hear about the screenings and vaccines we should get if we want to stay healthy, the same level of education and care does not exist for women at risk of domestic violence. There will always be misogynists who think that domestic violence is prima facie acceptable. But there are far too many people who agree that intimate partner violence is never justified, and yet treat it as a less important issue than any number of other social problems.

My question is: why is it so difficult to get people to rally against such a widespread, common, and devastating phenomenon? I have a few ideas, which I’ll voice below, but I’m interested in hearing your answers in the comments section.

Theory #1: People think it will never affect them.

Despite an ever-growing list of counterexamples, from Halle Berry to Madonna, people draw upon their own stereotypes to conclude that such cases are exceptions. Too many assume that domestic violence only occurs in poverty-stricken households with substance problems, where the victims are too economically downtrodden and uneducated to leave. They think that they don’t need to worry about their neighbors, friends, or children being victims – and, they certainly don’t think that they would ever be ‘foolish’ enough to enter into an abusive relationship themselves.

The doctors, lawyers, and politicians who can start to implement real-world policies that effectively combat domestic violence don’t have the same gut-wrenching personal incentive to fight DV that they do to, say, combat drunk driving. Anyone can get hit by a drunk driver on the highway, but if domestic violence is almost exclusively the domain of the uneducated poor, then those in charge of addressing social issues at a policymaking level have no chance of being affected. This, of course, is the result of an enormous cultural misconception about domestic violence; the reality is that domestic violence cross-cuts all socioeconomic backgrounds, and manages to influence those it does not directly affect in the form of rising insurance premiums and taxes.

Of course, I’m being a bit unfair to humanity here. People are certainly able to feel huge amounts of sympathy for the victims of, and even take action in response to, large-scale tragedies that will never affect them. They do it all the time. Plenty of Americans rail against foreign genocides or corruption; many, many people donate to aid organizations like the Red Cross in the wake of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or a spate of earthquakes. The issue is not that people are never capable of focusing on issues that will not directly affect them – it’s that, for some reason, domestic violence is not the sort of issue that raises people’s sympathies to the point that they actually take action.

Theory #2: People think it’s the victim’s fault.

Unfortunately, domestic violence may fall by the wayside simply because society still can’t shake some degree of victim-blaming. We’re thankfully light-years past the time when most people would just assume that a battered woman had done something to antagonize her husband and think nothing more of it. Now, the victim-blaming is more insidious. Some wonder whether there is some commonality among DV victims that makes them seek out abusive partners. Others – many, many others – are confident that any strong woman would be out the door the first time a partner hit her. The “why doesn’t she just leave?” mentality seems, on-face, to be the natural product of a belief in female independence. Women are no longer expected to be tied to a man, so that means victims are liberated in a way they never would have been previously, right?

Unfortunately, the assumption that leaving an abuser is a crystal-clear option fails to account for the myriad of complexities that might stop a victim from leaving. The abuser might have sole access to the bank accounts. He might be able to petition for sole custody of the children or the pets. And, of course, victims are typically placed in increased danger after leaving or making plans to leave. The narrative that all it takes to end domestic violence is for a woman to be ‘strong’ and leave an abusive relationship is oftentimes just as damaging to victims as the narrative that they should stay with an abusive husband  for the good of their family.

This is what sets domestic violence victims apart from the ‘innocent’ victims of natural disasters, random gun violence, or our other societal woes. The attitude is not that victims deserve the violence – it’s that, given that they don’t leave when it’s clearly so simple, they don’t deserve to be helped.

Theory #3: People think it’s a private matter.

These misconceptions could be addressed by increased communication and discussion about domestic violence and its true effects. Yet it still seems that a truly far-reaching and candid discussion about domestic violence is far on the horizon. We are far from the days when domestic violence was considered a perfectly acceptable form of wife-discipline, and we’ve even made great strides from the default legal assumption that most abuse is a private relationship issue, but domestic violence is still treated with a large degree of stigma.

There are, of course, still the backwards sorts out there who honestly do believe that a man has the right to do whatever he wants to his own wife in the name of ‘discipline’ or ‘keeping the house’ or whatever other twisted excuses he can concoct. To add insult to injury, however, there are also those who think that it’s bad for society to discuss violence against women for the victims’ own good. These so-called feminists think that calling the act of domestic violence is wrong because it automatically means that people treat the recipient of that violence like a fragile victim, ignoring her autonomy and personal strength. They reject a discussion of domestic violence because of the preexisting societal stereotypes of victims as weak, ineffectual, and submissive – and while doing so, completely disregard the fact that those stereotypes are the things that need to change. Carol Sarler’s explanation of why calling Nigella Lawson a victim of domestic violence is degrading to Lawson and to feminism is a prime example of the latter stance. It may be true that social attitudes toward victims are misinformed at best and counterproductive at worst. But this doesn’t mean that we should pretend that instances of violence do not occur, simply because labeling them as ‘domestic violence’ allows people to exercise those attitudes. Instead, we should work on changing attitudes about victims at the same time that we address domestic violence in a broader context.

What does this mean for a broader societal discussion of domestic violence? No one wants to talk about it: not the people who think it’s not a big deal or victims are ‘making it up’; not the people who think the home is inherently private; and not even the people who care the most about women’s rights, since they are worried that to harp on the ‘victimhood’ of the women involved erodes their independence. It also means that victims are not likely to step forward and share their stories, because to admit to a history of abuse is to invite criticism on the ground of their seeming ‘weak’ or ‘passive’ (two other accusations leveled at Nigella Lawson).

When people don’t talk about a problem, they can’t understand it. No one can truly appreciate the devastating consequences of domestic violence without hearing about those consequences, either from advocates or from survivors themselves. And in a world where the conversation is muted as it is now, it’s all-too-easy for people to assume that domestic violence is ‘just’ a man hitting his wife around a bit when he’s drunk – not the cycle of violence and manipulation it actually becomes.

Theory #4: People don’t think they can do anything about it.

A final obstacle to getting society to confront domestic violence is the fact that even when people realize that DV is a problem of shocking magnitude, they don’t think that domestic-violence-specific legislation or support is an effective way to address it. As with all of the other roadblocks, this mainly stems from misunderstandings surrounding domestic violence itself.

If you believe that domestic violence is the natural product of poverty, substance abuse, poor anger management skills, and disregard for the law, as many people are wont to do, then it’s natural to also believe that tackling all of these ‘root causes’ will conveniently solve the problem of domestic abuse. If you believe that women would flee their abusers in droves if only they had a little bit of financial support, it’s natural to support better social welfare in general over specific domestic violence programs. These attitudes ignore the fact that domestic violence can rear its ugly head in relationships of all stripes, from high school couples to a wealthy, middle-aged couple – and they seek to apply a generic solution to a highly complex and specialized problem. Of course we need to devote more resources and energy toward helping people to economic independence and better education. But we can’t do this at the expense of addressing the specific causes of violence toward women, and the specific solutions which can help women of all backgrounds leave their abusive relationships.

Looking Forward

The Mary Byron Project looks for solutions to the individual problems surrounding the very complex issue of domestic violence, and often finds them. Changing entrenched attitudes and perceptions, however, can be much more difficult. That’s why I’m interested in hearing what you have to say on the issue. What makes domestic violence such an ‘invisible problem’? And, most importantly, what can we do to change this?

Criminalize Revenge Porn Now

All-too-frequently, lawmakers fail to play catch-up with the technological advances surrounding them in society; by the time they can see the tangible implications of these advances and act on them, countless people have already been harmed. Equally frequently, the legal system (and society at large) disregards or downplays the plights of victims of relationship violence due to a morass of sexist attitudes and discriminatory procedures. ‘Revenge porn,’ or the nonconsensual distribution of nude photos or video, sits at the uncomfortable crossroads of these two gaps in the law.

Beyond Humiliation: Revenge Porn’s Real Impact

No one should ever have to go through the process of having highly personal  images of oneself scattered for the world to see on the Internet – even worse, at the hands of someone the victim trusted enough to share this sort of media with in the first place. This alone constitutes a form of psychological torment that allows the revenge porn publisher a degree of power over his victim, even from hundreds of miles away and months or years after the relationship ends.

But truly malicious aggressors can do much more than that. This article shares the ordeal of Holly Jacobs, who not only had the awful experience of finding explicit photographs of herself online, but also the much worse experience of active harassment at the hands someone she believes to be her ex. He targeted every aspect of her life: hacking her Facebook profile with the photographs; affixing her name and contact information to the images he posted online; emailing them to her boss and co-worker; and tailoring the titles of the videos he posted so as to appear high on a search results page when her students Googled her qualifications as a teaching assistant. Jacobs attempted to move on with her life, changing her name and starting End Revenge Porn, a forum and advocacy hub for victims. But her attacker was still at it, posting photos with information about where she would be presenting her thesis at an American Psychological Association conference and encouraging viewers to attend her presentation and proposition her. Jacobs is now participating in a criminal suit against her ex, Ryan Seay, who is charged with stalking, harassment by use of personal identification information, and unlawful publication.

This may sound like a particularly bad example of cyber-aggression, and it is certainly true that many revenge-porn-posters are content to simply post nude photos of their exes, maybe with a name or contact information attached, and maybe with a little rant discussing how much of a ‘slut’ or a ‘bitch’ their ex is to justify how much she deserves it. As mentioned before, it’s not a stretch to say that this can still psychologically devastate a victim – especially when she has to worry every time she applies for a job that her potential employer will Google her name and reject her as a result of the images. And it’s also the unfortunate case that Jacobs’ experience is replicated, in parts or its entirety, in the stories of women all across the country.

The Road to Criminalization

Equally unfortunate is the fact that there exists limited legal recourse for victims to either salvage their online reputations or bring their aggressors to justice. Some revenge porn sites allow women to remove their photos – if they pay sizable fees – and third-party reputation management sites will charge as much or more simply to push the photos onto a later page of search results. The criminal justice system is woefully inadequate, given that police and prosecutors see the images as having been freely produced in the first place. And a variety of factors – the poor applicability of specific civil laws, the significant time and financial investments required, and the desire not to incur even more undesired attention upon oneself – conspire to make civil suits unlikely as well. Free speech advocates come down on the side of revenge porn distributors and site hosts. What all this means is that – just as victims of physical domestic violence lose faith in the justice system when they turn there first after an episode of violence – victims of revenge porn quickly learn that no one is willing to protect their interests as they see their lives torn apart around them.

I mentioned before that lawmakers are oftentimes slow to wise up to the full implications of the technology developing around them. That’s a charitable explanation for why only one state – New Jersey – has a statute explicitly prohibiting the distribution of nonconsensual pornography. Florida lawmakers introduced a potential statute criminalizing revenge porn, but it stalled in the legislature last May. California legislators are attempting to push through a similar bill right now, which faces criticism on the grounds of vagueness and the potential to undermine other legitimate exercises of free speech. But even if the California state senate and governor approve this legislation, that’s still only one state out of 49 that have yet to criminalize this kind of behavior. It’s worth noting that New Jersey only successfully passed its legislation after the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old college student who killed himself after his roommate covertly filmed and showed others his romantic encounter – and the California bill is up for discussion only after 15-year-old Audrie Potts hanged herself after three boys sexually assaulted her at a party and posted pictures of the incident online. Maybe eventually, it won’t take similarly horrific incidents to propel other states into taking action.

Victim Blaming: It’s Everywhere

There are, of course, solid legal obstacles to passing such legislation that must be considered before (hopefully) state legislatures decide that the rights of victims in this instance are more important. But it’s likely that a good part of the inadequate response to revenge porn is grounded in society’s tendency to trivialize the abuse of women in all its forms.

This problem pervades media coverage of revenge porn issues – this CBS Detroit article on the California bill refers to victims as “sexy exes” and concludes with a pithy “The bottom line: Cameras, bedrooms and exes don’t mix.” But it’s even more evident in the responses that victims receive when they seek support from their peers: things like “You should have known never to give a guy those sorts of pictures” or “I’ve sent guys this sort of photo before, but only ones I knew wouldn’t post them.” To some, victims are making a big deal out of nothing (and for them, The Revenge Porn Challenge offers you a tongue-in-cheek yet compelling response). And others, even if they recognize the significant impact revenge porn can have on someone’s life, congratulate themselves for being smart enough to avoid that kind of scenario while simultaneously deriding the victims for not being as savvy. These are exactly the type of responses one sees to less technologically-oriented intimate partner violence, and they are exactly the type of misinformed responses which make the victim feel even more vulnerable than before. There are differences between ‘conventional’ relationship abuse and ‘newer’ types of cyber harassment, but society’s treatment of victims and their plights is one of the most striking similarities.

There may be those who are still convinced that some of the blame must be incumbent upon the victim; I will admit that for a while, I bought into the ‘if you don’t want explicit pictures of yourself online, then don’t take those pictures’ camp. But we should remember that these kinds of situations aren’t always examples of perfect consent in the first place. The kind of guy who’s willing to violate his ex-partner’s trust by posting revenge porn might also be the kind of guy who has the upper hand in controlling his partner already, and thus may be able to convince her to take or send him explicit images even if she initially protests.

On top of that, though, any relationship must contain some degree of intimacy, and some implicit assumption of confidence. There is any number of aspects of a relationship someone might not want shared upon a breakup – snide remarks about a boss, friend, or family member, intimate sexual details, or even something as simple as the alarm code to a house. It’s not the victim’s fault if she gives a pair of keys to her boyfriend, he refuses to return them after they break up, and then he burgles her house – there was no reason for her to suspect at the time that giving him access to her residence was a risky move. Similarly, women shouldn’t be faulted for presuming that their partners are not the kinds of sleazebags who would upload their nude photos to a website in the event that they ended the relationship.

Let’s make something clear: any kind of move on the part of someone’s partner or ex-partner to humiliate them or make their life miserable, even from afar, is unacceptable. It’s an expression of a need for control over the victim that society ought to condemn. It doesn’t matter if the person initially consented to the taking of the images – publicly violating their trust takes their initial consent and warps it into something completely unrecognizable. Educating women about the need to not trust their partners with explicit images is only a band-aid solution to the problem, and one which completely misaddresses the issue at hand. What we need is actual legal action – always a challenge for advocates against intimate partner violence – that specifically and rigorously sanctions those who distribute explicit images without the consent of the person depicted. New Jersey’s taken a step in the right direction, but it’s time for California and the rest of the country to follow suit.