By now perhaps you’ve heard about the Baltimore Ravens dropping Ray Rice from the team and his subsequent suspension from the NFL because of his physical abuse of now-wife Janay Palmer. Perhaps you’ve also heard that Twitter has a related, trending hashtag, #WhyIStayed and its counterpart #WhyILeft. While it’s enticing to talk about all the stories being shared authentically on Twitter (including my own), it seems like there is still a general lack of understanding on just what is happening. Tweets about how accountability should be put on why he abused instead of why she stayed or proclaiming how women shouldn’t have to talk about their stories is missing the point and it’s important that we don’t continue to miss the distinction.
Why abusers abuse is a singular reason that doesn’t need to be discussed past: because he can. Abusers don’t abuse people because of some mystical reason that needs to be hashtag-trended as it bears repeating again and again: abusers abuse because they can. What does that even mean though? Because abusers can… You may feel compelled to make all sorts of false analogies (I can drive without my door closed but why would I do such a thing?) but that’s missing the point.
Asking why abusers abuse takes the focus off of the simple fact that they are abusing in extremely high numbers: up to 1/3 the female population will be abused by men (higher in some demographics or countries) and there is no formal all-encompassing statistic for abuse regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or race included with the generalized stat for women but it’s reasonable to assume this number could be a lot higher than 1/3 the population. Clearly intimate partner/domestic abuse isn’t an individual problem.
There is no reason for millions of men to decide they’re going to act in a similar manner unless it’s a cultural problem. Asking “why did he abuse” implies that there is an individual reason that each “unique” abuser can give but there are two things fatally wrong with asking abusers to explain themselves. It is not that there’s some messed up dude walking around being a jerk to as many women as possible– there are millions of messed up dudes walking around being a jerk to women. When it’s not a fringe occurrence, you can’t pretend that it’s an individual problem. It is endemic and cultural. And hearing the “reasons” that abusers abuse is just giving them a platform to continue abusing! Abusers are manipulative and take glory in giving the reasons for why they “had” to abuse!
Asking why abusers abuse shows a lack of understanding for how abuse actually works and while it may seem like such inquiries are directed at holding abusers accountable it also serves the purpose of silencing women’s (and domestic violence victims’) voices around the abuse! Survivors/victims (I know the terminology is so problematic) need to express their stories. They have to. If there is anything you will learn listening to survivors speak on their experiences with abusers it is that there is no rhyme or reason to their behavior. It is just abuse intended to control, manipulate and destroy the person inside.
How? Why? What is the culture doing that creates these abusive men? Without blaming society as the sole culprit of abusive people, there are pervasive attitudes reinforced on an individual, communal, and social (national, state, city…) basis that promote, permit, or ignore abusive behavior. Society is of course to blame, but it’s the personal opinion of this author that at some point you need to take ownership of your life and make changes to be a good person. You can only blame your parents, family, friends, society so much before the responsibility is placed upon your shoulders. What you do with that responsibility is up to you but your choices have consequences. But society and individuals absorb these “meta” messages that permit a threshold of violence.
For example, you see shows like Mad Men that glamorize a certain amount of sexism and misogyny. This is a message that doesn’t necessarily say “model yourself after this character” but it does say “this is not shocking enough to hide from most eyes.” That differentiation is crucial. The mixed messages about sexuality in media are damaging as well like rating movies with female orgasms as X or R and male sexuality depictions no matter how grotesque as PG 13 or less. Or considering the implied violence against women like Disney Villains or depicting sexualised female bodies in video games and other media. All these messages contribute to the meta-message that female lives are less valuable. The hate speech about homosexuality or erasure of other non-binary genders and non-binary sexualities contributes as well as the hateful language (like transmisogyny, transphobia, biphobia, et al) allows for even hateful actions. The racism and fetishization that systematically devalues First Nation, black, LatinX, Asian and all immigrants contributes as well to this perception of permission to do damage– a threshold of violence that you can approach, dance upon, gently nudge past but not transgress in public domain.
More to answer “why do abusers abuse” is simply:
- Because society rewards their misogynistic and hateful language.
- Because society continues to give them a platform to act out that abuse.
- Because society makes excuses for their behavior (they were drunk, they were upset, she provoked him, they didn’t know better…).
- Because society blames the victims.
- Because what people see is the good side and believing this “good” person could do something so “bad” is too inconceivable.
- Because abuse is acted out in the culture in so many ways from the language, to the media, to the messages given to both genders (sexualities, races…)…
Abusers see that there is a grey area in which they can operate– they are highly skilled at doing things in a way that no one can see. This is why most abusers hit their victims where no one will see– below the neckline of shirts, on the leg or thigh, on an eye that can be covered with sunglasses… This is why most abusers are upstanding members of the community except for when they come home and terrorize their significant other and/or family. This is why most abusers don’t even use physical violence because it is easier to use psychological and emotional violence since it is difficult to see and discern and there are incredibly deep mental health and disabled stigmas. This is why it doesn’t help to hear why abusers abuse– what will they tell you? Hearing what they did and how that looks and what kinds of people are doing this breaks the stigmas. This takes away the platform and mystery around abuse! Abusers can’t hide in the shadows and lead double lives inflicting untold psychological traumas upon women and others. Abusers must be held accountable and hearing them out just allows them to continue the manipulations.
Because unless there are bruises, broken bones, hospitalizations, and other extreme physical violence visuals (like an elevator beat down…) it doesn’t compute in the minds of most people since there is a lack of understanding and education on what abuse is and how abusers abuse. Because it is “he said; she said” in the eyes of many (including the legal system) as though the content of what is being said is nothing more than a juvenile disagreement. The list could go on and on and on because abuse is a failure of the community not a failure of the abuser. To fail as an abuser is to fail to have the victim continue being complicit in the abuse. An abuser who is allowed to continue abusing their intended victim is actually winning– they have successfully hacked society to get what they want. Because what they want is freedom from consequences and domination of this person and they got it. No, you can’t control another person– you can’t. This is why most women who leave violent abusers die within the first 6 months – 1 year of escape. This is why most abusers hospitalize or murder their victims.
Let it be known that an abusive individual can very rarely be rehabilitated. This isn’t an addiction to a bad behavior. This is a lifestyle. This is a lifestyle that is highly rewarding and almost always free of consequences. There are individuals like Lundy Bancroft who have led abusers through rehabilitation (like Batterers Anon) programs and have never seen an abuser who hasn’t continued to abuse. Why? They see that the behavior is disgusting and will criticise other abusers but there is no incentive for them to stop. Why stop abusing? This is the real question. There is no reason to stop abusing and so abusers rarely ever stop abusing.
This is a cultural and social problem of distorted entitlement. This is not something you can fix without fixing the culture. The culture is the collection of all the abusive memes and people perpetuating them, all the ignorance, all the violence and all the “abuse capitalists” who see an opportunity to act out their violence to another person who is “less than” in the eyes of society. Therefore it’s imperative that the issue of abuse become destigmatized, that abusers no longer have a platform for “equal” story telling, that abuse training becomes part of trainings especially for mandated reporters like nurses, teachers, police officers and others. When this happens, then abuse will decline: two things will happen when the culture becomes repaired: 1. abusers will abuse less violently because the threshold of permissible violence has lowered and 2. less abusers will be raised in this society.
Is it really that simple? In some ways, yes. Yes it really is that simple: abusers are a slightly more extreme variety of the culture at large. They never do what they think they won’t get away with. Is it any surprise that there are abusers walking around abusing people subjected to bigotry, discrimination, and oppression in larger quantities than any other group of people (i.e. cis-hetero-able-bodied-white-male type…)? Does this come as a shock? It really shouldn’t. This culture is largely full of conflicting messages about the way people look or their lifestyle “choices” and how while they’re people, they’re not as good as others.
There is little difference between the mentality that allowed a person like [the scumbag] who shot teenager Michael Brown and an abuser as they both have distorted senses of entitlement and use their position of power to affect the results and command the respect they believe they should get for whatever reason. In essence, racism in these expressions and intimate partner violence aren’t really very different and are all forms of abuse in my opinion. But more to the point is the fact that”why abusers abuse” will either be blaming the victim or excusing the abuser. It’s not insightful other than to take note on the cringe worthy excuses that are offered up as to why an abuser felt entitled to enact psychological and physical warfare against another person. Frankly no one needs that. No one.
We need to empower the voices of the systematically silenced. If we tell them that it’s more important to know why an abuser abused, we’re not hearing that their stories are the reasons. An abuser’s choice to beat the ever-living-fuck out of his partner because she messed up the grilled cheese sandwich is the reason. An abuser’s decision to cut his partner off from all her friends and family and make her dependent upon him alone is the reason he abuses. You want something more like “he was just mistrustful” but there is nothing to be found. You can’t make sense of it. Only in the fantasy world of an abuser can you beat, take a woman to court, and then ask her to be your Valentine all in the same week. Why would he do this? There is no reason other than he can. Considering that an abuser’s abusive behavior is highly rewarding for him, you need to ask “Why stop abusing.”
And just as you ask “why abuse?” the lack of an answer to “why stop abusing” will be just as obvious and sickening. There is no reason.
If you want more information about Abusive relationships, an excellent place to start is Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men
Please education yourself on the issue of domestic violence and if you or someone you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, please seek out resources on how to support them through this time.
((I chose to use “men” to symbolize abusers because even though women can be abusers, the sad truth is, it’s not in equal amounts that women abuse men or other women and vice versa. Women still experience more domestic violence than men even with under-reporting from male survivors and the inclusion of same-sex couples or other marginalized groups that experience high rates of domestic violence (trans* et al). Apologies to anyone who feels othered by my writing.))
This is a cultural issue that puts value on people and lives for superficial reasons regardless of qualification or deserving. This is a cultural issue that still sees conversations about gender and sexuality riddled with misinformation and