Although I have never been the victim of physical/sexual/verbal abuse, I see the consequences of these actions in many of my patients. I try to listen, not judge and provide resources for women who are either in an abusive relationship or suffering mental/physical repercussions of a previous relationship. But more than a few times I have thought, “Why doesn’t this woman just leave?”.
Over the past few weeks, two seemingly disparate articles have made me rethink this statement. The Star Tribune newspaper published an investigative article on sex trafficking, highlighting the customers of prostitution rather than the female victims. Efforts have succeeded in many states to prosecute the pimps and sex customers and not the female victims, as the majority of these young women are the victims of violence and feel enslaved and unable to leave. They often start as teenage runaways trying to escape an abusive home life, only to find themselves picked up by an older male who seems to provide safety and love. It doesn’t take long until these young women are enslaved in a different way – to drugs, sex work and physical violence from their pimps. Leaving is not an option as they have no family to go home to, no friends who can help and they carry the societal shame of what they have done. With this in mind, new initiatives have begun to educate and prosecute the male customers of the sex trade. If demand can be decreased, there will not be a need for supply.
The second article appeared on the blog of a former neighbor and friend. This independent, opinionated, musically and athletically talented young woman had been the victim of domestic violence dealt by her boyfriend. Her story was horrifying as she came close to death a few times while also being psychologically abused and estranged from her close and loving family. Why didn’t she leave? Why did she continue to make excuses for someone who left bruises on her body? But what if we changed the “blame” game? What if we asked, similar to the prostitution story above, why is the abuser abusive? What led him to believe that he has the right to choke and punch someone that he loves? Where has he learned the words that can systematically wear down a person’s self-esteem? Why isn’t his family recognizing the bruises, put down words and unhealthy control he exerts?
The majority of our current resources around domestic violence are geared to protecting women once they leave an abusive relationship; providing a safe place to stay, legal services and job training. This is important but will never effectively change the behavior that led to the situation. We need research to find out what exists in our society that allows men to believe that this is acceptable behavior. Only when we understand that this is a “guy” issue and not a female victim issue, will we be able to effect change.