Thursday, April 11, 2019

Not Your Mama's Response to Domestic Violence

The Domestic Violence movement was born out of the larger women's movement in the 1970's. The work that these women did to bring attention to the unequal treatment of women and specifically the differential impact that domestic violence had on women, was crucial for setting the stage for much-needed interventions.

However, more than 40 years later, we have a responsibility to move beyond being grateful to the founders of the movement and be critical of the models which left so many victims of domestic violence behind in order to inform our current practice. Like the vast majority of the greater feminist movement of the 1970's, the "battered women's movement" was a middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, white woman's effort. The result was that the image of an "ideal" DV victim, looked like them; and a perpetrator looked like their partners- a middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual white man. The power and control wheel developed to form as a visual representation of abuse, and used for decades to explain domestic violence to victims, law enforcement, advocates, and court personnel, and serve as the foundation for batterer intervention program models, also clearly uses this gendered one-directional framework: men batter women. Simply put, the movement was even called the "battered women's movement."

Do men batter women- yes. Absolutely. However this is not nearly the whole story. By approaching domestic violence from this model we create numerous harms. We invisibilize both victims of domestic violence and perpetrators of other identities. With a crime that is already so much in the shadows, failing to acknowledge that people who are male-identified, gender non-conforming, queer, trans, immigrant and wealthy (to name a few) are also victims and that they are victimized by their same-sex partners, female-identified partners, other trans people, and wealthy people, creates a vacuum wherein the system adds barriers to leaving an abusive partner rather than provides supportive services.

These harmful messages about "who" is a victim and "who" is a perpetrator are seen throughout North Carolina's response to domestic violence. For many victims who are wanting to seek services, they encounter a barrier before they even walk in the door of the DV agency. There are still several agencies across North Carolina whose name includes gender-specific language such as "Women's Center" or "Sister's House" which conveys the message from the outset that their services are not for certain victims. Far more agencies use gender-specific language on their agency websites to describe domestic violence or the services they offer. Although every DV center is required by law to offer services to victims irrespective of gender identity, it is obvious that a victim who is not female-identified or who is in a same-sex relationship will point blank not feel comfortable accessing services at these centers. If we want to truly reach all survivors, we have to do more than say we offer services to all victims and instead do the hard work to change the way we do outreach, train staff, and deliver services.

North Carolina's domestic violence statutes, most notably N.C.G.S. 50B, explicitly discriminates against victims who do not fit neatly into a victim-abuser dynamic in a heterosexual mold. North Carolina remains the last state in the country in which a victim in a same-sex relationship who has never lived with their partner cannot seek a domestic violence protective order against them. These victims are given the message that their victimization is "less than" those of their heterosexual counterparts and that they are not worthy of the State and Court protecting them against violence and harassment. As long as this law stays on the books, we should stop being surprised when LGBTQ folks are reluctant to turn to formal systems like law enforcement and the courts for safety and support.

In my 20 years working in this field, I have attended countless trainings on domestic violence. When I first started in this field, I don't remember folks even talking about men, queer, trans, gender non-conforming, and immigrant victims. Or just barely. Now there is an increased awareness of the need for intersectional frameworks. However, just as often, if not more often, I still attend presentations and trainings where the person at the front of the room uses gendered language. Sometimes there is no awareness on their part, and other times the trainer gives an opening "disclaimer" that goes something like this: "I use 'he' for abuser and 'she' for victim out of ease but recognize that men can be victims and women can be abusers." We need to stop this. The folks doing this are almost always cisgender white heterosexual folks who are used to doing what is "easy." I know they are well-intentioned because I used to be one of them. But we should not be measuring intentions but impact. This disclaimer does not recognize the varied forms of domestic violence and still perpetuates the 1970's model of men as abusers and women as victims relegating all other forms of domestic violence as, well, "other." It is a rare day when training that there are not survivors in the room, LGBTQ folks in the rooms, immigrants in the room, people who love these people in the room, and absolutely folks who serve or should be serving these victims in the room. We need to do the "hard" (and it's not that hard) work to change our language to recognize and validate ALL of the victims and ALL of the perpetrators of domestic violence.

Domestic violence thrives on silence. We have a responsibility to stop invisibilizing victims and perpetrators who don't fit our mama's theories of domestic violence and make them present and their experiences validated in our services, legislation, and trainings. Let's do the work.



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