When we close our eyes and envision a victim of domestic abuse, what oftentimes comes to mind is a white, lower- or- middle-class female, whose abuser is her white male spouse. However, domestic abuse can impact anyone regardless of sex, age, race, sexuality, gender presentation, level of physical/mental ability, socioeconomic background, or educational or cultural background. People who fall into diverse areas of these categories tend to go under served, likely because there is a lack of information or understanding about the abuse they experience.
What are some of the myths and challenges for diverse victims of domestic abuse?
- Male Survivors
- Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual Survivors
- Transgender Survivors
- Underprivileged or Affluent Survivors
- Military or Police Partners
- Elderly Survivors
- Immigrant Survivors
- Substance Abusing Survivors
- Religious Survivors
- Survivors of Color
The social assumption about abuse is that women are the victims, and men are the abusers. As a result, we may be disbelieving or minimize what is happening when a man claims that his female partner has abused him. If we do believe him, we may make judgments about his masculinity. Men who have been abused consequently find themselves without a strong support network. Some myths and barriers related to being a male survivor of domestic abuse:
- Men can’t be abused by women. Abuse is about power and control, not about gender roles, and it does not have to be physical to be abuse. Abusive relationships begin much like any other relationship, with both partners seemingly loving and supportive. Abusers manipulate their partners’ feelings of emotional attachment to gain a sense of power over them. When we fall in love with someone, we feel vulnerable because our partner has the ability to hurt us emotionally. In a healthy relationship, our partners respect us and don’t use our vulnerability against us. In abusive relationships, however, the abuser uses her/his partner’s vulnerability to gain power and control over her/him. This can be done regardless of the gender of the abuser or the partner.
- Men who are abused aren’t “real” men.In North America, we are socialized to believe that men should always be emotionally strong and in control of any situation. Men who aren’t are taunted with slang such as “weak,” “pussy,” or “gay.” Since being abused means that someone else has been controlling your life, a man who has been abused faces discrimination from the people he tells, i.e. family, friends, and community resources such as the police, hospital staff, or abuse agencies. Men may be reluctant to come forward about abuse because they are more afraid of those insults than the abuse of their partners. As fewer and fewer men talk about their experiences, more and more abused men may think that they are the only ones. Such isolation and fear of social ostracism present an enormous barrier for men to overcome in escaping abusive partners.
- Domestic abuse shelters and agencies are for women only.A man who is abused by his partner may be afraid to leave the relationship because he thinks there is nowhere for him to go. He may think that there are no shelters or agencies that offer support to abused men, or that the only services for men are for men who identify as gay. While most services are predominantly geared towards abused women, there are agencies and shelters available for men. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1.800.799.7233) can provide service information for anyone who is in an abusive relationship, or who wants to know information about abuse.
North American society seems particularly fascinated with the notion of homosexuality, and because the lesbian and gay community is marginalized by people and society, its members are particularly aware of how their actions affect social perceptions of what it means to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Furthermore, because some people are not accepting of homosexuality, coming out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) can be a difficult or dangerous thing to do. Our society also tends to judge the LGB community as a whole on the basis of what happens between the LGB couples we know; if abuse occurs in a lesbian relationship, it serves as a reflection on all lesbian relationships. Some barriers and myths related to being a lesbian, gay, or bisexual survivor of abuse:
- What happens to one lesbian or gay man is what happens to all lesbians and gay men. Since, as a society, we tend to believe that one LGB couple represents all LGB couples, lesbians and gay men find that they need to be careful about how their behavior reflects on their community. This includes hiding potentially negative aspects of their relationships to avoid further stigmatizing homosexuality. This can present a considerable barrier to a lesbian or gay man who is trying to leave her/his abusive partner, because the act of leaving means that s/he risks making the abuse public and therefore something by which other couples might be judged.
- Abuse doesn’t happen in homosexual relationships. There are numerous reasons people, including lesbians and gay men, may believe this. Stepping forward as a victim of abuse is difficult for anyone, regardless of their situation, because of the threats their abusers may have made or because of the social stigma surrounding abuse victims. In particular, desires to avoid discrediting their community or to avoid coming out can also contribute to the silence of many gay or lesbian abuse victims. However, studies have indicated that abuse occurs at approximately the same rate in all types of relationships, both hetero- and- homosexual; this is approximately one in four relationships.
- Whatever happens in an LGB relationship is mutual and equal. Whether intended or not, heterosexual relationships tend to follow a general set of gender roles, as far as which partner does what. In lesbian and gay relationships, however, these roles are not so clearly defined, leading outsiders to believe that whatever happens in the relationship happens equally, on both sides. This is not necessarily the case, especially where abuse is concerned. An outsider might misunderstand an abusive LGB relationship to be sadomasochistic, in which both partners consent to a specific arrangement of dominance and control. In an abusive relationship, however, the balance of power and control is determined by force and manipulation, and is not derived from mutual consent. Our internalized homophobia might make it easier for us to believe that LGB partners engage in traditionally “dirty” sexual practices such as sadomasochism, leading us to potentially ignore the possibility of abuse. If it appears that the abusive behaviors are mutual, careful screening will help determine the nature of the relationship.
- It isn’t any different to leave an abusive homosexual relationship than an abusive heterosexual relationship. In most abusive relationships, the abuser will make threats to prevent her/his partner from leaving. Some threats, e.g. the threat to hurt or kill the victim or to commit suicide, can be made in any abusive relationship. In lesbian and gay relationships, however, the issue of sexuality can provide additional leverage for the abuser. An abuser might threaten to “out” her or his partner to their parents, friends, or work; someone who isn’t officially out might find the prospect too terrifying to risk. Furthermore, law enforcement and health professionals may not take a victim’s claims of abuse seriously, because it’s not a heterosexual relationship. Victims might be discouraged from taking action because they fear they won’t be protected.
- Shelters and agencies are for heterosexuals only. While it’s true that there are shelters who only serve women abused by men, there are also plenty of services available for people of all sexual orientations, including agencies and services specifically for gay men and lesbians.
Even more than gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, transgendered, transsexual, and intersex people are marginalized, stigmatized, and discriminated against in North American society. It is difficult to say why this is, but a strong possibility is that the binary gender system (male/female, man/woman) is at the center of our social organization, and being trans or intersex is a direct opposition to that order. For many of us, sex and gender are parts of our identities that we don’t have to think about a lot. For someone who is trans or intersex, however, coming to terms with what they feel is their true gender or sex may have been a years-long process; their sex or gender is something they very consciously live and embody every day. Here are some definitions relating to gender and sex:
- Sex: refers to someone’s biological makeup and genitalia.
- Gender: refers to how we embody ourselves according to our sex, and is not an inherent quality of that sex. For example, in North American culture, skirts are a gender characteristic of women, but they do not wear skirts because they are female. They wear skirts because our culture encourages females to wear skirts as a sign of femininity. Gender includes clothing, behavior, personal pronoun use, ways of speaking, etc.
- Transgender: means that someone feels uncomfortable with the gender presentation they were assigned at birth (i.e. a biological male does not feel comfortable with a masculine self-presentation), and has changed her or his gender presentation accordingly.
- Transsexual: means that someone feels uncomfortable with their biological sex, and is interested in (or in the process of) receiving hormone therapy or surgery to change their sex (called sex reassignment surgery). NOTE: Not all transgendered people are transsexual or wish to have sex reassignment surgery.
- Intersex: refers to someone whose physical sexual characteristics combine traits of both males and females. Intersex babies are often surgically altered before the age of three to fit into a male or female category, and may not have been told by their parents what happened to them. Intersex people may find themselves uncomfortable with the sex and gender assigned to them by their doctors, and may be transgendered or seek sex reassignment surgery as a result.
- Transvestism: also called cross-dressing. It is not the same thing as being transgender. Cross-dressing is a political act, designed to exaggerate, play with, or mock traditional gender presentations. Being transgender means that someone consistently gives a gender presentation that differs from the norm for their sex, as an embodiment of what they feel their true gender to be.
- Sexuality: refers to sexual orientation, and is independent of both sex and gender. Being trans is not associated with being homosexual. We tend to assume that someone seeking sex reassignment surgery is looking to make their homosexual attraction appear heterosexual and therefore “appropriate.” Often, trans people identify as heterosexual according to their birth sex and gender.
Some things to keep in mind when working with someone who is trans or intersex:
When you meet someone who is trans, it is extremely rude to ask what her or his “real” sex or gender is. Likewise, it is rude to ask what her or his “real” name is, what her or his genitalia look like, or how she or he has sex. Someone who is trans has likely spent a very long time figuring out how they identify, and their self-presentation istheir real sex and gender. The sex and gender they were assigned at birth, as well as their birth name, their decision regarding sex reassignment, etc. are all things that they will choose to tell you if and when they are ready. It isn’t polite to seek this information.
If you are unsure how to use personal pronouns to refer to someone who is trans or intersex, it is acceptable to ask. Most trans or intersex people would prefer that you ask, rather than make an incorrect assumption. It’s important, however, to respect the answer you receive. Someone may have a very feminine gender presentation, but prefer masculine pronouns. Calling this person “she” is disrespectful of his rights to self-determination. Keep in mind, too, that some transgender and intersex people have decided that they are gender neutral; that is, that they embody both masculine and feminine qualities (or neither!). The gender-neutral pronouns are “zie” and “hir” (possessive).
The lack of readily-available information about being trans or intersex means that these misunderstandings often go uncorrected in mainstream society. This can have broader implications for such individuals, particularly if they are being abused:
- Lack of sympathetic legal and medical professionals.People tend to assume that there is something “wrong” with trans or intersex people, or that they are somehow less human because they do not conform to normalized gender standards. Unfortunately, these attitudes are not limited to everyday life. Trans and intersex people can face serious discrimination from the legal and health care systems because of their gender or sex. This can range from lack of emotional support to an outright refusal of aid to denial of child custody when divorcing an abusive partner. A trans or intersex person who is being abused may therefore be afraid to seek medical or legal help because she or he believes it’s a wasted effort.
- Difficulties with self-sufficiency. While the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws protect individuals from employment discrimination based on sex, there are no provisions in place to protect someone from being discriminated against based on a non-normative gender or sex status. A trans or intersex person may have no economic support beyond her or his abuser, and may be afraid of being unable to find a viable job due to negative attitudes about being trans. She or he may also be afraid of being discriminated against when finding housing, a financial institution, or regular medical care; it might be too frightening to consider living without these things.
- Lack of support services. We have trouble placing trans and intersex survivors into neat categories; when a shelter is women-only, who is allowed to stay there? Is someone who identifies as a woman welcome, if she has male genitalia? What about a male-to-female transsexual? Questions like these often have us stumped, and as a result, trans and intersex survivors often feel as though they have nowhere to go to escape the abuse. They might also find that the support staff they work with, no matter how well-meaning, are not very understanding of trans and intersex issues and might unintentionally work to undermine the service user’s sense of self.
- Fear of being “outed” as trans or intersex. Someone who is trans or intersex may not appear to be so; that is, she or he may “pass” as the gender or sex she or he has chosen. She or he therefore might not tell many people about being trans or intersex. An abusive intimate partner might know, however, and threaten the person with being outed. The survivor might be afraid of being discriminated against if others knew that she or he was trans or intersex, and might be effectively silenced by this threat.
- General feelings of shame, low self-esteem, or insufficiency.The fairly constant social discrimination against trans and intersex people can cause them to question themselves, their identities, and their position in our culture. Our implicit, and often explicit, rejection of anyone who isn’t normatively gendered or sexed can mean that these people reject themselves, or don’t consider themselves to be adequate and deserving human beings. For someone who may have spent a large part of their life believing that they deserved to be abused because of their gender or sex status, the idea that they deserve and can have a healthy relationship might be completely foreign. It might not cross a trans or intersex person’s mind that they merit assistance, and so they might not ask for it.
Military or Police Partners
Economic bias can lead to problems when working with survivors of abuse. While a victim in an affluent setting might be able to use her or his abuser’s money to afford a means of escaping the abuse, an underprivileged survivor is likely to be unable to do the same. She or he will probably rely on a public agency to escape; this can lead to the assumptions that only underprivileged people are abusive or abused. Furthermore, the staff and volunteers at domestic abuse agencies tend to come from a middle-class background, which can foster resentment or jealousy in the service users who have very little economic support. While the barriers and challenges faced by underprivileged survivors are different from those faced by affluent survivors, any change or potential change in economic class can lead to common problems for all such survivors. These might include:
- Negative assumptions about being an underprivileged victim of abuse. There are a lot of assumptions that are made about people in lower economic classes; one of them is that they are inferior in some regards. Stereotypically, the lower economic classes are portrayed as having a greater propensity to violence, and so when someone who is in poverty is abused, we perceive it (however subconsciously) as a natural result of their economic standing. For a survivor who does come from a low economic class, coming forward about abuse may feel like confirming negative stereotypes about a community she or he identifies strongly with. A more affluent survivor, on the other hand, may be resentful of the assumption that she or he is in poverty and therefore part of a naturally violent social grouping. In either situation, the survivor may resist contacting an agency in order to avoid facing assumptions that she or he may find degrading.
- Social pressure to “keep up appearances.” In wealthy communities, people are traditionally brought up expecting that certain facets of life are private and should remain so. Sometimes this is exacerbated by the fact that one or more members of affluent families may be known public figures, and there is especially strong pressure to maintain that person’s reputation at all costs. If someone is being abused while in such a setting, she or he may be reluctant to come forward about the abuse out of fear of ruining their social standing. This ties in to an affluent survivor’s potential reluctance to be labeled as lower-class; the difference is that the pressure to maintain a certain façade can mean that the victim’s actions will be a reflection on her or his social group, rather than simply her or himself.
- Fear of losing economic security. While economic dependence is a problem common to many abuse victims, it might be especially troublesome for an underprivileged or affluent survivor of abuse. An underprivileged survivor might be afraid to leave the abuser because she or he believes that any economic support is better than none. She or he may have also had limited access to education or job training, and therefore lack the skills necessary to find sustainable employment; she or he might remain with the abuser simply to avoid homelessness or starvation. Similarly, for the affluent survivor, leaving the abuser may necessitate giving up a comfortable lifestyle to which she or he has become accustomed, or which she or he has always lived. The possibility of losing a house, stable income, and all the privileges that come with economic security might make a victim worry about how she or he would survive without the abuser’s salary.
- Differences with service providers. Service providers and volunteers, as stated, tend to fall into a middle or upper socioeconomic class, which can cause discomfort amongst service users. Being raised in a different socioeconomic class can mean being raised with different values; this includes differing values between more affluent survivors and middle class providers. Different values systems can mean that an advocate’s support conflicts with the service user’s expectations of an acceptable way to handle her or his situation. Additionally, the provider’s comfortable lifestyle relative to the survivor might reemphasize that which the survivor once had, or which the survivor has never had; such jealousy and/or resentment can make it difficult for progress to occur. Both these factors can make a survivor wary of the usefulness of contacting an agency for support.
People Whose Partners Are Military Or Police
The most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship is when she or he tries to leave the abuser. For someone whose abuser is in the military or police force, this danger is greatly exacerbated. The risks that the abuser will find her or him are increased by the ease of access this person has to various services and medical records, as well as to weapons. Someone whose abuser is in this heightened position of power is therefore subject to numerous obstacles in seeking to escape the abuse, including:
- The abuser’s access to and knowledge of various systems. If someone’s abuser is a police officer, she or he is likely familiar with the types of legal proceedings that are often involved with domestic abuse cases (divorce, protective orders, etc.). She or he therefore has an advantage over the victim, because she or he will have a better understanding of what judges are listening for in testimony, and can use that knowledge to successfully evade justice. A police officer also has certain rights and privileges that other members of society do not; among these are things such as an ability to access medical records and/or confidential locations such as shelters. Someone who is being abused by an officer may be legitimately concerned that physically distancing her or himself from the abuser is only a temporary solution, because the abuser will be able to track her or him down.
- The abuser’s experience with weaponry. An abuser who is military or police has had extensive training in the use of weapons, especially with guns and with her or his own body. The abuser is therefore extra-dangerous, since not only does she or he know how to use these weapons in an effective manner, but is also allowed and often required to own them. While leaving any abusive partner is a frightening experience, it becomes more so when the abuser is trained to pursue and subdue others.
- The abuser’s connections within the system. Police officers are often familiar with those working in the legal system, including judges, lawyers, and other officers. Someone who is being abused by a police officer may not feel comfortable calling for help or intervention during a violent episode because she or he will be answered by friends of her or his partner. Taking the abuser to court might be intimidating because the judge may be familiar with the abuser, and trust the abuser’s word more than that of the victim, despite requirements that judges be non-biased.
- Isolation of the victim in a military setting.Being in a relationship with someone in the military doesn’t necessitate isolation, but depending on the rank of the person and where she or he is stationed, a non-military partner may find her or himself separated from her or his home social group. The military has created programs for partners of military personnel to encourage them to connect and form a supportive network, but these relationships might be cut short when a partner is transferred. Furthermore, if the abuser is stationed overseas, the victim might feel that there is nowhere to escape to, since she or he is not a citizen of that country. This can make it difficult to find someone in which to confide about the abuse, and therefore make it difficult to come forward about the abuse at all.
When discussing abuse survivors, elders aren’t usually the first ones to come to mind. However, they are a population at risk because of their increased dependency on others to meet basic needs. Their mobility may be reduced, which can make escaping abuse difficult. Also, because of the lack of information available about elder abuse, many elders who are abused have difficulty in finding support groups and other services that address their particular needs. Some of the problems that elder survivors of abuse may find:
- Relationship to caregiver. In two-thirds of elder abuse cases, the abuser is the elder’s spouse or adult child. This relationship may make it difficult for the elder to acknowledge that the abuse is taking place. The elder may also be concerned that the abuser will be prosecuted and/or given prison time, since elder abuse is considered a serious crime; she or he might not be ready to emotionally let go of the abuser. Furthermore, people tend to form close bonds with caregivers because of the level of intimacy that is shared. It might be frightening for an elder to consider finding and bonding with a new caregiver at this stage in her or his life.
- Level of ability. Elders under the supervision of a caregiver are in a relatively vulnerable position, as they may need help moving around, feeding themselves, taking medication, or performing other basic functions. An abusive caregiver might be refusing to help the elder into a wheelchair, hiding medications, not helping the elder to the bathroom, etc. Such treatment means that the elder might be physically incapable of reaching out for help, either because she or he can’t reach the telephone, can’t escape the house, or can’t think clearly due to a lack of medication.
- Inability to afford medical care. Elderly people, in general, require higher levels of medical care and treatment than younger people. Questions of Medicare eligibility and coverage have recently shed light on the fact that many elderly people cannot afford their regular medications on their own. An elderly victim of abuse might be dependent on her or his caretaker for purchasing prescriptions. Leaving the abuser might render the elder unable to pay for these medicines, and the elder might therefore find that suffering under abuse is preferable to suffering without medical treatment.
- Lack of services for elders. Shelters often require that residents be able to care for themselves on a basic level. If an elder is reliant on a caregiver for survival, she or he may believe that there is nowhere to go for safety, or be afraid that she or he will be referred to nursing homes rather than domestic abuse agencies. For an elder who wishes to avoid assisted living of that nature, such practices might be discouraging and prevent her or him from seeking help in escaping the abuse.
- Lack of a supportive community. Making the decision to leave an abuser is tough for anyone; many survivors find it vital that they have a support group in which to process their experiences. Unfortunately, there are few such groups for elder survivors of abuse. Such a lack might mean that an elder doesn’t know that other elders are experiencing similar mistreatment, or that it isn’t acceptable for someone to be abusive. An elder might hesitate to speak out because she or he doesn’t want to be alone in doing so.
Immigrants, as a group, face a large amount of prejudice from mainstream society because they are perceived as “threatening” North American jobs and culture. An immigrant who is being abused has to face several different discriminatory misconceptions. She or he also has to negotiate a foreign legal and medical system, which is potentially in a language she or he doesn’t speak, and also has to consider the implications of her or his actions as they might affect immigration status. Specifically, some obstacles to an immigrant survivor of abuse include:
- Assuming that abuse is acceptable in her or his native country. We tend to assume, and rightly so, that people from other countries and cultures understand and handle situations differently than North Americans do. An immigrant might have different feelings than us regarding how she or he should respond to an abusive partner, and this should be respected. However, there is no culture that finds domestic abuse acceptable. This misconception means that police or medical services might not respond to an immigrant victim’s crisis with the same urgency as to a victim from North America. An immigrant victim of abuse might therefore be discouraged from using such services and getting the assistance she or he needs.
- Language barrier. While some immigrants might be from English-speaking countries, or might have a basic knowledge of the English language, some immigrants have none. Their abusers may have prevented them from taking English either in their home country or in the United States, in order to have more control over the information accessed by the victim. The immigrant might also be living in an area that is isolated from other speakers of her or his native language. Both these tactics prevent an immigrant survivor of abuse from accessing information about immigration, legal, and medical services.
- An unfamiliar legal, social, and medical system. Regardless of the primary language of the immigrant, the medical, legal, and social services systems are foreign to her or him. She or he may not have been allowed by the abuser to learn about such structures in the U.S., or might have been prevented from doing so by not speaking English. She or he might not know what her or his rights are as a patient or other user of the system, and might be afraid of how her or his immigration status might affect proceedings. She or he might also be from a country where such systems are used as a form of oppression, and might not trust them to be helpful in North America. These factors can make an immigrant victim of abuse wary of seeking help from legal, medical, and social services.
- An insecure immigration status.An immigrant survivor of abuse might also not attempt to leave the abuser out of fear of losing her or his immigration status. She or he might be unauthorized to be living in the U.S., or might have a green card because she or he married a U.S. citizen. An abuser might have said that the victim is dependent on her or him for immigration, and will be deported if they try to escape the abuse. There are immigration lawyers available to help immigrants secure their immigration status if they are being abused. However, an immigrant who doesn’t know this might be too afraid of deportation to flee the abuse.
- Discriminatory attitudes towards immigrants. An immigrant might be emotionally prepared to leave an abuser, but might be held back from doing so by fears of what happens next. Does her or his immigration status allow for work? Does she or he speak English well enough to work in the States? Does she or he have an ethnic origin that might be discriminated against by potential employers? Although it is illegal to discriminate in hiring based on national origin, there are very negative attitudes about immigrants prevalent in North American society today. An immigrant from Mexico might be afraid that she or he cannot support her or himself without the abuser because employers don’t want to give jobs to Mexicans. Such attitudes make it difficult for victims to envision a secure future without the abuser.
Substance Abusing Survivors
Substance abuse is particularly difficult for us to understand; we are often quick to condemn a substance abuser without considering how or why she or he is in that situation. Substance abuse can have a major impact on a victim of domestic abuse, and can severely limit her or his options when escaping the abuser. Some of the factors making it difficult for a substance abuser to seek help when being abused include:
- Negative attitudes towards substance abusers. North American society is very scornful of substance abusers, out of a belief that being addicted means that someone is weak, stupid, lazy, and/or criminal. What we might fail to consider is that a substance abuser who is being abused might have been forced to abuse drugs or alcohol by the abuser, or might use them as a way of “escaping” the pain of abuse. Coming forward about being abused is difficult enough for anyone, but when one must also reveal that substance abuse is involved, it becomes far more challenging. Society might tell the victim that she or he deserves the abuse because she or he got involved with substance abuse, when in fact the victim might have had very little say in the matter in the first place.
- Lack of services for abused substance abusers. Many domestic abuse agencies, including A Safe Place, have policies against substance use while residing in the shelter. While these policies are in place for the protection of the volunteers, staff, and other residents, they can make it difficult for substance-abusing victims to find safety away from their abuser. And while there are substance abuse programs available, a victim might feel that such a program doesn’t adequately address her or his problems as both a substance abuser and as a victim of domestic abuse. She or he might not feel comfortable leaving the abuser because she or he doesn’t feel as though there is an appropriate place to go.
- Dependency on abuser for drug supply. The substance abuser might rely on her or his abuser for alcohol or drugs, and not be ready or willing to quit. The abuser might also supply the victim with drugs or alcohol for free, and she or he might not be able to afford these things otherwise. She or he might be worried that other dealers will return her or him to the abuser, or that the other dealers might simply be unwilling or unavailable to deal to her or him.
It is believed in North American society that most religions are patriarchal in nature and support the idea that a wife should submit to her husband’s will, including his beatings. We also tend to believe that such religions do not condone divorce, preferring instead that their members “suffer and be still” regardless of the consequences. Survivors of abuse who are devoutly religious, therefore, often find a conflict between their personal interpretation of their religion, their religious community, and the social interpretation of their religion. These barriers may manifest themselves in many ways, including:
- “It’s condoned in her/his religion, so it’s okay.” While traditional interpretations of religious texts might have allowed for spousal abuse, contemporary theological thought very rarely draws this conclusion. In the three major monotheistic religions seen in North American society- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam- religious texts most often advocate for equality and respect between marital partners. Unfortunately, our society hasn’t readjusted its interpretations of religion accordingly, and we still believe that domestic abuse is considered acceptable in religious settings. This is incorrect; while some religious leaders advocate a man’s right to beat his wife, the general consensus amongst religious leaders in the U.S. is that spousal abuse is not acceptable.
- Reluctance to divorce. Traditionally, spousal unity is considered sacred and is to be protected at all costs. This reluctance to condone divorce or separation, while somewhat less today than it has been in the past, still exists in some religious communities. It might be manifested in the victim, who might be reluctant to leave her or his abuser because of religious values regarding partnership, or it might be manifested in the religious leader, who counsels the partners to seek therapy rather than separate. For a religious person, these can be significant concerns when dealing with abuse, and could prevent her or him from seeking help if she or he believes that help is only offered in conjunction with divorce.
- Level of community support.Religious communities tend to be close-knit and very supportive, which can be very helpful for a member who has been abused. However, if both partners are members of the community, coming forward about the abuse can create enormous strife if some members believe and support one partner and others believe and support the other partner. If the stress is great enough, the victim may end up leaving the community. For someone who is being abused, losing a support network is very difficult to deal with; a religious community often forms a vital support network for its members. A victim of domestic abuse might be too afraid of losing that community if the abuse is revealed and the community doesn’t believe or support her or him.
- Personal interpretations of religion. Someone who is religious and being abused might believe that the abuse is a test from her or his God. She or he might feel that rather than leaving the situation, she or he is supposed to stay and survive through it in the hopes of an eventual reward. She or he therefore might not reach out for help because that would be giving in to adversity, or because she or he is afraid that contacting an abuse agency would mean being forced to separate and start over, and that this goes against her or his God’s plan.
Survivors of Color
Many believe that racism no longer exists, or that it only exists in individual acts, not in institutionalized form. We might not think it has a major impact on the lives of people who are of color; that is, people who are not Caucasian. However, race is still a volatile issue, and still affects everyone, particularly non-Caucasian individuals and social groupings. It has an influence on abusive relationships, as well; racism can be used by an abusive partner to prevent the victim from leaving, and can be present in the institutions to which the victim might turn for help. Here are some examples:
- Using racism to prevent escape. Insults and verbal abuse are common to many abusive relationships, but some racially charged terms might be used specifically against a racialized victim. Calling someone names such as “nigger” or “spic” is a way to keep someone feeling ashamed of her or himself based on race. Furthermore, an abuser might say that no one else could love the victim, specifically because she or he is racialized. Attacks like these against a person’s racial background can make a victim feel like she or he doesn’t deserve to seek or receive help for the abuse.
- Institutionalized racism. While individual acts of racism within the system might occur, to the detriment of a victim of color of abuse, institutional racism also negatively affects victims of color of domestic abuse. Statistically speaking, communities of color tend to be economically disadvantaged, which limits the options open to a survivor of domestic abuse. Racial discrimination by police officers and medical and legal personnel also exists; it can be as minor as assuming certain things about the individual, such as income, sexual history, or education, or it can be as serious as a refusal to give adequate assistance. Someone who is of color has likely dealt with institutional racism throughout her or his life, and has a certain amount of mistrust for the legal and medical professions. She or he might be reluctant to use these services to escape the abuse, believing that the aid she or he receives will not be enough or will compromise her or himself as a person of value.
- Fear of stigmatizing a racial community.While as a society we give lip service to the fact that racial stereotypes are untrue, we secretly believe them to some extent. When a story comes out that appears to legitimize these myths, we remember it, whether we intend to or not. We then judge all members of that community by the few stories we’ve heard. A victim of color of domestic abuse whose abuser comes from the same of color social group might be reluctant to come forward about domestic abuse, because she or he doesn’t want to confirm negative stereotypes about her or his community.