There’s been plenty in the news lately about women and violence: the Ray Rice scandal, the twitter #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft hashtags, and the Oscar Pistorius trial. Many media outlets have been analyzing the cases, and the large proportion have been trying to figure out why on earth smart, strong, intelligent women would ever stay with men who treated them so badly. Domestic violence is one of the very few crimes where the responsibility is often placed on the victim. Rape is the only other one I can think of. Although no one on the outside can ever truly say what happens in a relationship, I’m going to speak from my own experience. This isn’t something I’ve come to lightly. I’ve deleted this post a number of times. But, as Viva Bianca wrote earlier this week, the shame is not mine to hold onto. It belongs to my ex-partner. I have spent years in fear and piecing my life back together in the wake of the trauma he left. I’ve tried to figure out what exactly it was that made me lose all sense of rational thought and stay with a man who was emotionally abusive. It may sound trite, but I’m not easily manipulated or an easy target in any sense of the word. And that’s part of the issue. We look at the women who have been, or still are, in abusive relationships as victims. We see them as weak willed. Many of the stories about Rice have focused on why his wife would marry a man who abused her. I can’t speak for other women. But in my case, language played a major part in why I missed a lot of early red flags.
Think about the words you use for derogatory things. “That’s such a bitch.” “She’s a dumb slut.” “Stupid whore.” “Don’t get a bitchface on.” “Stop being such a girl about it.” “Don’t be a pussy.” And then there’s the dreaded “C-word,” which is obviously a part of the female anatomy. All of these refer to women. I saw Sir Ian McKellen speaking at the Cambridge University Union about the issues facing the LGBT community. But what stuck with me the most was the vehemence with which he attacked the use of the word “gay” as a slang term for something that’s broken or doesn’t work quite right. In the part of the UK I’m from, it’s totally unremarkable to use it like that. I had been using it for years without really thinking about how that connotation would make a homosexual person feel. I never use the word in the context of broken things now.
While words like “bitch” and “slut” are more deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness than using “gay” as a negative slang word, we have to work towards ensuring that language reflects our culture. Currently, it perpetuates women being in a weaker and more negatively perceived position in society. In my own case, it was easy to accept my ex’s excuse that he’d called me a bitch as a joke. I laughed it off when he referred to me wearing mascara when leaving the house as “making you look like bit of a fucking whore to be honest.” It’s a slippery slope. Hindsight is 20/20 vision, but I can honestly say that the emotional abuse I went through was easier to accept as it started slowly. I was numb in the early stages to being called derogatory names because we see women commented on in a negative manner everywhere in society. The names he called me felt familiar and expected. The Daily Mail Online’s Sidebar of Shame is just one example of this, and it’s one of the most visited websites in the world.
Considering the importance of language and emotional abuse, you also have to address the fact that a third of the domestic violence victims are men. I agree that the lack of coverage given to Kelly Brook’s admission that she punched several boyfriends is shocking. This could be because the men she punched are physically strong. However, physical strength isn’t everything and emotional abuse is just as scarring and difficult to deal with. The interplay between abuse and language is just as strong for men and women alike.
And yes, I feel stupid. Yes, I have a hard time explaining I stayed with my ex for as long as I did given how he treated me. Yes, my parents raised me to “have more self-respect than to stay with a man who treats you like that.” But actually, the onus is not on me. It was not my behavior that caused our relationship to become abusive. And I am sick and tired of the dialogue in society that puts the blame on the women (and men) who have faced abuse, rather than trying to understand how skilled manipulators like my ex can be. I loved, respected, and trusted a man who did not deserve it, who did not return that respect, and who betrayed my trust. That does not put me in the wrong, and I have more than paid for my mistakes with years of therapy and panic attacks. No matter how rational you are when you enter into a relationship, love really is like an addictive drug. Abuse is all encompassing. It becomes your world and it is incredibly hard to hear any other voices. At an extreme level, we don’t even begin to state that kidnap victims played a part in the abuse they suffer. The control exerted by an abusive partner is the same as a kidnapper. The chains might not be physically present, but believe me, they are just as binding and remain long after you’re freed. So if you’ve felt at all affected or outraged at the stories about violence against women, especially at the hands of their partners, then take some action and think before you speak. It’s a hard change to make, but we need to stop degrading women in our everyday speech.