After a video surfaced of football player Ray Rice punching out his then-fiancée Janay in an elevator, domestic violence has been at the forefront of the national conversation. When the couple married, many asked, “Why would she stay with him?” Twitter answered back with #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft, in which survivors shared their stories of why they remained in abusive relationships and why they eventually got out. Yet misconceptions persist — that abuse is a private matter, that women who stay with abusive partners are simply weak-willed, that women are just as abusive as men. Cosmopolitan.com talked to the experts to clear up some of the most stubborn, and most dangerous, myths about intimate partner violence.
1. Domestic violence is unusual.
“Many people think domestic violence is uncommon and it hardly ever exists anymore,” Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) and the National Dating Abuse Helpline (NDAH), told Cosmopolitan.com. And even the stats we have are just for physical violence, and don’t take verbal and emotional abuse into account. “One woman told me, ‘I can still hear his voice in my head. Even though I’ve been out of the relationship for three years, I feel like I’m still sitting there,'” Ray-Jones says. “It really has long-term impacts on a woman, and it takes a really long time to heal from.”
While still common, incidences of domestic violence, along with other crimes, have decreased significantlysince the mid-’90s. There’s less social acceptance of it; women are more economically independent and mobile and therefore better able to leave; and there are more services for survivors, including Ray-Jones’s hotline, which you can call at 1-800-799-7233 or find online (they also do live chats). That’s been good for both women and men: Fewer women are victims than in previous decades, and fewer abusive men are killed by their wives — now, the wives can leave, instead of thinking murder is the only way out.
2. It’s impossible to love someone who abuses you.
“I’ve worked with so many women who have been victims, and women feel so much shame and embarrassment over the fact that they love someone who is abusive to them,” Ray-Jones says. “They still see a glimpse of the person they fell in love with. It’s very complex and it’s very hard.”
3. Domestic violence happens when someone flies out of control.
The TV movie picture of domestic violence is an out-of-control man flying into a fit of rage. But that’s not always how it goes.
“Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior in which one exerts power and control over another individual,” Ray-Jones says. “To use the phrase “He’s out of control” isn’t accurate. Everything about this person is about control, actually. There are a lot of strategies that an abusive partner uses in order to control their partners aside from physical violence — verbal abuse, isolation, controlling the finances, reproductive coercion, sabotaging birth control so a partner gets pregnant and he’s saying she has to stay home with the baby. It’s not usually a one-time incident. In the 18 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never worked with a victim who said it was only one time. Maybe there was one physical abuse incident, but she usually speaks to the isolation, the verbal abuse, the fear, the threats.”
4. Domestic violence is always physical.
Intimate partner violence exists on a continuum of behaviors — it’s not just punching and slapping, and it’s rare that the first act of abuse is a violent one. Abuse can be emotional, psychological, verbal, and sexual, and often escalates. An abuser may initially be charismatic and caring before slowly starting to wear away at your self-esteem by criticizing you, implying you simply aren’t good enough, and isolating you from family and friends. Then, it’s less shocking and harder to leave when verbal abuse begins, or when it segues into physical abuse. Abusers may also push your sexual boundaries by coercing, pressuring, threatening, or intimidating you into unwanted sexual activity, or even sexually assaulting you. And reproductive coercion — tampering with your birth control or pressuring you to get pregnant — is another common abuse tactic, with 1 in 3 women in relationships with abusers also experiencing reproductive abuse, and 1 in 8 women who aren’t in relationships with abusive partners reporting such coercion.
5. If someone abuses you, it’s an obvious decision to leave the relationship.
“Conversations about domestic violence always come back to, ‘Why does the woman stay?'” says Michelle Kaminsky, the lawyer that Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson appointed as the chief of the DA’s office’s Domestic Violence Bureau. “We talk about it as if it’s a very simple solution: If someone is very abusive to you, you just walk away. But it’s a very complex situation. If you are economically dependent on someone and you depend on them to pay the bills, if they’re paying the mortgage or the rent or putting food on the table, or if you’re the one working and you can’t afford child care, that makes it harder to leave.”
Kaminsky says we shouldn’t be so quick to judge from outside a relationship. And all of us can have blinders on when it comes to love. “[An abusive partner] is probably not abusive at every moment of the day,” Kaminsky says. “There’s a tendency in domestic violence to look at the victims as an ‘other.’ We’ve all been in relationships that are good, and we’ve all been in relationships that are bad, and you might have a friend who says, ‘He’s a jerk,’ but he’s not a jerk to you all the time. It’s easier to judge why other people stay in a relationship than to understand that human relationships are complex, and for the people in abusive ones, the abuse is not necessarily what defines the relationship.”
There’s also legitimate fear that separating from their partner will lead to more violence, given that women in relationships with abusers are most at risk when they try to leave.
“What people don’t realize is that when there’s domestic violence, the fear is real,” Ray-Jones says. “We live in an age where there’s so much technology and so much access to media that we’re able to hear those stories of the husband who killed his wife and kids. We know in domestic violence relationships there are a lot of threats made — ‘I’m gonna take the kids, I’m gonna hurt you.’ Women know that isn’t an empty threat.”
Instead of asking why women don’t leave, we should make it easier for them to do so.
“We need to have the resources out there to make it easier for women to leave,” Kaminsky says. “Imagine if the discussion were framed around that, instead of, ‘Well, she’s a free agent, she can do what she wants.’ We have over 10,000 cases a year coming into the Brooklyn DA’s office. You can question why she’s staying, but let’s talk about the difficulty of leaving. If you can’t afford child care, who’s going to take care of your children? These become real economic issues. Let’s talk about universal, affordable, safe child care. Let’s talk about affordable, safe housing. In New York, it’s so expensive to live — where are you telling people to go if they’re in a relationship and they live together? I wish people could put themselves in that situation: If I had to all of a sudden leave my husband, where am I going to go? Would you want to go in a shelter? Or be relocated but all your family and everything you know and your kids’ school is in your old neighborhood? People say she could go here and she could do that, but I wish they would think, Would it be so easy for me to do that?”
6. There’s no good reason for a victim not to call the police.
Calling the police is a lifesaver for many women. But many hesitate because they don’t want their partner to go to jail, or because they fear calling may escalate the violence, or because they don’t trust that the police won’t themselves act violently — a legitimate fear, especially in communities of color and for LGBT victims of violence. Police can sometimes be insensitive or even hostile to abuse victims, and making a police report can set into motion a series of events that a victim finds confusing and disempowering, or that lead to more violence.
“A lot of domestic violence victims think, I know him and I’m the only one who can really navigate this, and if I involve law enforcement they could never keep me safe,” Kaminsky says. “That sense of fear that no one could ever keep them safe, it’s real. As a society, we tend to undermine or minimize what those concerns are — why not go to the police; they’re in the best position to help you? Well, the police aren’t living with you 24/7.”
Other advocates point out that intimate partner violence is part of larger patterns of violence against marginalized groups — violence against women, people of color, LGBT people, and others — and that the police can perpetuate that violence. Take the case of Tiawanda Moore, for example. Moore, a young black woman, was living with her boyfriend in an abusive and tumultuous relationship in which the police were often called. On one of those occasions, he called the police trying to get her thrown out of the house. When the police came and one officer interviewed Moore alone, she says he fondled her and gave her his personal phone number; when she later went to the station to try to file a complaint with Internal Affairs, she was rebuffed and given the run-around. She decided to record the officers with her Blackberry to show they weren’t doing their jobs. For that, she now faces felony eavesdropping charges that could send her to prison for 15 years.
“This is a prime example of how domestic violence is part of a broader systematic culture of violence,” Claudia Garcia-Rojas, co-director of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, which has been bringing Moore’s case to the public attention, wrote in an email. “We tend to believe that encouraging domestic violence victims to use the system will relieve them of the abuse, but in fact, the system adds to the dynamic of violence that survivors experience. It is for this reason that we need to understand that domestic abuse is not a private but a social issue.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean calling the police is a bad idea. Police are first responders and can save your life. They can also be a connection to necessary resources.
“More often than not, the police are the first responders,” Kaminsky says. “If a woman calls the police [here in Brooklyn], that call puts her in touch with other services at our Family Justice Center — we have immigration attorneys if there are immigration issues, and staff that can help with visitation or child support or divorce. We have counselors, and economic self-sufficiency staff who connect victims with all kinds of resources, including GED programs, job training programs, résumé building, and affordable housing resources. If they don’t make the call though, they live in isolation.”
Unfortunately, the resources offered by the Brooklyn DA are not universally available, and so a police call yields very different results from city to city, and even community to community. But the one consistent fact is that while calling the police can be extraordinarily helpful for some victims, “just call the police” isn’t a solution to domestic violence.
7. Both parties usually hold some responsibility in domestic violence situations.
Some violent situations are cases of two equally violent parties getting into a physical fight. But that’s rare.
“It’s never OK for anyone to hit anyone,” Ray-Jones says. “But there’s been a lot of research done on female violence, and what’s been found is that while women may engage in slapping or hitting or spitting on someone, the injury issues that come out of domestic violence are much higher when you have a male perpetrator. You see much more severe physical violence in those relationships than when a female is a perpetrator. We get calls from male victims, but it’s a much smaller percentage — less than 5 percent of our callers are male victims.”
Anti-feminist groups also suggest that domestic violence is a mutual fight and also that women routinely lie about being abused to get something — immigration status, child custody, revenge. Yet there’s no evidence that’s true.
“If that’s the first reaction, that women lie, it goes back to these historical notions that women provoke male violence, they make things up to get their way, they can’t be trusted, they’re shrews,” Kaminsky says. “With domestic violence, it’s an easy way to put the blame back on the victim, to minimize her claims and say she’s not trustworthy, this is how women are, they make up claims like this to get an advantage, they’re liars.”
And there’s nothing a victim does that can instigate violence. Abusers routinely tell their victims that something in the victim’s behavior made the violence happen — she was nagging, she was rude, she just made him so angry. Those are excuses, not explanations.
8. Women abuse men just as often as men abuse women.
Some commentators, especially men’s rights activists, argue that research shows women and men engage in abusive behavior at roughly the same rates, and looking at domestic violence as a gender issue is a way to demonize men. And some research, much of it disputed, does indicate that women and men behave violently in their relationships at about equal rates. But that research often doesn’t differentiate between types of violence or address patterns of violence or injuries sustained by violence. It will equate a push with pushing someone down the stairs, or one act of violence with years of abuse.
“Some of the research that shows women are equally violent didn’t ask questions like, ‘Who was the primary aggressor?’ or, ‘Was there a history of violence before you engaged in this act of violence?’ How much of this is them reacting after a period of suffering from violence?” Ray-Jones says. “We do know that male violence has a higher incidence of lethality associated with it, and it’s more likely to cause injury.”
Relationship violence does happen to men. But for every man hospitalized by domestic violence, there are 46 women who go to the hospital.
9. Men are never victims of abuse, and women never perpetrators.
“People sometimes assume that it’s just women who are battered,” Mark Schickman, a partner at Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP, says. “The numbers are higher among women, but men experience it too.”
While men are less likely to be harmed by domestic violence, that doesn’t mean they’re never victims. Men do experience abuse from female and from male partners. And women do commit acts of violence against male and female partners. And men and LGBT people may be even less likely to report violence than women.
10. Domestic violence only happens to women who are poor or dependent or uneducated.
“Domestic violence does not discriminate,” Ray-Jones says. “At the National Domestic Violence Hotline, we receive over 22,000 calls a month. We hear from every socioeconomic class, every race, every education level, every geographic region. We’ve had doctors who have called us, women who call us and say they live in mansions and their husbands work on Wall Street and they don’t know how to get out because they don’t have the financial means to leave and they can’t talk about it to anyone because it’s the big secret in their social arena. One day we were having high call volume and I hopped on the line and there was a doctoral student calling me, and all she kept saying was, ‘How could I be so dumb? I’m working on a Ph.D.’ Domestic violence doesn’t say, ‘OK, you have a Ph.D, I’m not going to touch you.'”
But economics do matter. Women from all financial backgrounds are victimized, but poor women tend to be both more vulnerable to abuse and less likely to have the means to leave. Women who are more financially dependent on their partners tend to experience more abuse. And abusers routinely sabotage their partners’ economic mobility to keep them dependent. Solving the problem of domestic violence requires targeted efforts to make sure women are financially independent and that women who are not still have the ability to leave abusive relationships.
11. Drugs and alcohol cause domestic violence.
Drug and alcohol use can be exacerbating factors for violent individuals, but they don’t cause violence — rather, they can lower the inhibitions of already violent people. There are plenty of people who use drugs and alcohol, and don’t act violently; too often, we blame violence on the substance itself, and not on the abuser. And abusers themselves use drugs or alcohol as excuses for their violence, blaming beer instead of their own behavior.
“In partner abuse situations, drugs and/or alcohol certainly play a role but they are not the root cause of the violence,” Garcia-Rojas says. “Assuming so perpetuates the idea that partner abuse is caused by a single issue, when in fact, there are multiple factors that contribute to the dynamics of why a partner chooses to be either emotionally, physically, financially, and/or psychologically abusive, though it is very common that an abuser will use alcohol/drugs as an excuse for why they are abusive. While these problems overlap, they are independent of one another.”
But while there’s no causal relationship between alcohol and domestic violence, people who abuse their partners are more likely to abuse substances too, and instances of abuse involving alcohol may be more severe. And domestic violence victims are more likely than the general population to turn to drugs and alcohol as well, often as coping mechanisms.
12. People who commit intimate partner violence are violent in most of their relationships.
“While it is not unheard of that abusers can often demonstrate abusive behavior outside of their intimate relationships, they also often come off as the kindest, most generous people to others,” Garcia-Rojas says. “It is for this reason that we should caution the use of the word “monster” when referring to abusers. When we use the word “monster” to describe an abuser, we not only pathologize the abusers, we also assume that domestic violence is a rare occurrence.”
13. You can rescue a friend from domestic violence.
“It’s easy to want to be a savior, but you can’t save another person,” Ray-Jones says. “But you can support them. You can be a resource for them. What we tell friends and family is don’t give up on them. Her going back is pretty typical, so we want friends and family to continue to offer support and to be nonjudgmental — that’s where she will cut people off, when the judgment is coming her way. You want to create a place where she can be honest. We tell family and friends, call the hotline — it’s our second-highest caller type — and we walk people through what they can say and what you can tell her about how to stay safe. A lot of friends and family think, If I just talk to him, it’ll stop . That’s a very dangerous situation and can have repercussions for her. You have to be smart about how you support the friends until she’s ready to leave the relationship.”
14. Tough love is the best way to help a victim of violence.
“Pushing them to leave is the worst thing to do,” Kaminsky says. “If someone feels like they aren’t heard and they’re being told how to handle it, chances are they aren’t going to confide in you when things get worse. The best thing is to listen, to understand, to say that it’s very complicated but that you’re worried about their safety and are they willing to sit and speak with someone.”
Then offer resources, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Safe Horizon also has a 24-hour hotline and resources in both English and Spanish. And there are several targeted organizations that work with specific communities, including the Women of Color Network and Mending the Sacred Hoop for Native American women.
It’s not easy to watch a friend get hurt. But part of how abusers work is by destroying a victim’s self-esteem and isolating her from the people who care about her — so she thinks she’s worthless and then feels judged and marginalized by the people who actually care, driving her closer to her abuser and making it even harder to leave. The best thing you can do is to give her the tools to help herself and be there for her and love her even when it’s hard, showing her that real, unconditional love without violence is possible.
Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is author of The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness and senior contributor writer for cosmopolitan.com. A frequent speaker and on-air commentator on gender, political and legal issues, Jill is a non-practicing attorney and former weekly columnist for The Guardian and editor of the website Feministe. This article originally appeared on cosmopolitan.com. It is reprinted with permission.