Illustrated by: Melody Wong

Why We Have to Stop Asking Survivors ‘Why Didn’t You Leave?’

Content Warning: sexual assault, intimate partner violence, gaslighting

As singer-songwriter FKA twigs sat down for her first television interview ever to discuss her experiences of intimate partner violence at the hands of former boyfriend Shia LaBeouf, I knew the question was coming. I think anyone who has ever been affected by intimate partner violence — or just more broadly has experienced trauma — knew it was coming. And while Gayle King prefaced it with the disclaimer that she regretted asking it, still, there it stood in big bold letters: Why didn’t you leave?

Under the spotlights of CBS This Morning, twigs explained why she wouldn’t answer the question, stating that it put the burden of responsibility on herself, the survivor, rather than LaBeouf who perpetrated the abuse. The interview ended soon after, but what has remained in the minds of us watching is a more important question: Why are we continuing to blame survivors of intimate partner violence for their own abuse?

Growing up, I knew relationships could be hurtful, violent and bad but in a distanced, detached way of believing, it wasn’t something that could happen within my own world. I didn’t know just how complicated abuse could be, and that the effects of emotional and mental abuse could be just as corrosive on a person as physical and sexual abuse. 

It wasn’t a part of my world until my uncle, someone I loved deeply, was killed by an abusive ex-partner of the woman he was dating at the time. In hindsight, I know now that intimate partner violence is a part of all of our worlds; it’s just holding people silent, and it’s this silence, this fear of being blamed or no one believing you, that keeps the cycle of abuse going for so long. 

At its core, victim blaming is when a person blames a victim for the harm that befalls them, reasoning that it happened because of something the victim said, wore, drank, did or didn’t do. It’s a fear response, a way for that person to distance themselves from the victim and the situation in the hopes of preventing this trauma from befalling themselves. 

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

It’s often automatic and subtle, pervading across society at the cost of empathy for others. Even from the most well-intentioned, victim blaming can often be a default mindset humans use for their own self-preservation because it seems easier to believe in the false notion that everything happens for a reason rather than accepting the truth that bad things can happen to good people. The culture of victim blaming emanates from our brains’ attempt to turn the randomness of abuse into a logical equation that, if solved correctly, will stop us from being in the same situation. 

But while the culture of victim blaming would like us to falsely believe that if we do certain actions, we’ll be guaranteed a certain trauma-free outcome, what victim blaming does instead is stop survivors of intimate partner violence from seeking help for fear of being blamed by others. While victim blaming isn’t the root of intimate partner violence, it’s the force that sustains it and keeps people from getting help until it’s too late. 

The culture of victim blaming is both explicit and overt, from comments made while a survivor is telling their story, to headlines that focus on the survivor’s actions or faults instead of highlighting that of the abuser. Victim blaming duets hand-in-hand with our own implicit biases, and while possible to unlearn, it takes active work of learning about intimate partner violence in order to understand how to actually support survivors disclosing their abuse. 

In the U.S., over 12 million people are affected by intimate partner violence each year, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The reality is, intimate partner violence can and does happen to anyone. It’s happened to people you love, people you’ve worked with and gone to school with and it might have even happened to you. And at the end of the day, intimate partner violence doesn’t just affect the two people in that relationship but also everyone around them. The grief, the violence, the PTSD — these shock waves spill far beyond just the survivor and go on to affect everyone who’s a part of their world. Yet we still continue to focus our energy on dissecting the believability of the survivor over all else, and in doing so, are not only letting intimate partner violence continue but we’re also making it worse for survivors in the process. 

In order to understand the detrimental effects of victim blaming, it’s important that we first understand what intimate partner violence looks like. Intimate partner violence is when an individual uses mental, physical, sexual, emotional and other forms of abuse to gain power and control over their partner. The goal of the abuser is to make the survivor entirely dependent on them by taking away their free will and belief in themselves. While every abusive relationship will look different, common types of abuse include financial, digital, physical, sexual, emotional and psychological. 

At the demands of their partner, a survivor will often become isolated from their friends and family, dismissed by their partner as causing their own abuse due to something they did — an internalized victim blaming forming — or gaslit into believing that no one would believe their experience should they try to reach out for help. 

The nature of intimate partner violence works to tear down a survivor’s sense of worth and work in a cycle, with the survivor made to believe that they’re in control of their own safety if they’re able to navigate the ever-changing minefield that is their partner. Some survivors know their relationship is abusive but are unable to leave while others don’t see it, often believing it will get better or that it isn’t as toxic as it is. 

When we ask survivors such questions like “Why didn’t you leave?”, we’re falsely placing the responsibility of the situation on their shoulders, adding another layer over the victim blaming they’re already battling from themselves and their abusers. It’s this fear of being blamed for their own abuse, or worse, not believed at all, that is stopping survivors from being able to do the exact thing that question is asking them. 

When it comes to victim blaming, the greatest weapon in combating it is education. Asking why a survivor didn’t leave might seem like a simple question when in reality, it’s a complex, and often triggering, inquiry. There are thousands of reasons survivors of intimate partner violence feel like they cannot leave their relationship, and even long after they’ve left, the effects of the abuse can continue to control and affect their actions, sense of self and ability to engage with others. 

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

As the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence writes, it’s often both societal and individual barriers preventing a survivor from escaping their abusive relationship.  For some, it’s the mental manipulation of their abuser that makes them believe no one will believe them, that they are broken, that they’re worthless. For others, it’s the threat of losing custody over their children or their financial means. 

Some survivors still see the good in their abusers and want to help, or are fearful that their departure will cause their abuser to inflict violence on themselves, the survivor or others should the survivor leave. Some survivors might have a chronic illness or disability that prevents their physical mobility and makes them dependent on the care of their perpetrator, while others might be threatened with blackmail should they attempt to break off their relationship. Some survivors may have left their abusive relationship, but upon reporting to the police or telling someone, no one believed them or they found that leaving only escalated the abuse when they returned home. 

A survivor feels like they can’t leave an abusive relationship for reasons unique to them, and instead of society trying to crack the cryptex of their experience, what is needed is their support and belief. We are failing survivors because we’re talking and questioning them when we need to be listening. At its core, victim blaming is decreasing our empathy for others and, at its worst, putting survivors and their loved ones at a higher risk for anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse and death. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to realize that we’re failing survivors. As long as victim blaming is our first response to hearing their stories, we have made them believe that they were the reason this bad thing happened. Our own self-preservation, our own charade of safety, tops giving them the support they deserve. The question now isn’t “Why did you stay?”; it’s a question directed back to us: How do we change the tide? 

In the wake of my uncle’s death and the years following in which my family waited for his murderer to be held responsible in court, I threw myself into learning and educating others about intimate partner violence and sexual assault at my college. At the time, I didn’t connect my newfound passion for violence prevention with my PTSD, but in hindsight, I know now my continued work over the last decade with survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence was my way of turning my grief and trauma into something that helped someone else. And the more I’ve talked about it, the more I’ve learned its effects on so many around me, people who have experienced it themselves or had family members or friends who are survivors. Together we’ve sat and embraced each other’s stories, and in the end, walked away feeling a little less alone, and a little more understood. 

Every survivor’s reaction to their abusive relationship will look different, as will their triggers. But what’s important to know is that the initial reaction that a survivor receives after disclosing their abuse for the first time will dictate how and if they will seek help again.

As individuals, we show up for survivors by listening. We prioritize their needs over our natural reactions to “understand” or “fix the situation.” We don’t try to rationalize or place our own expectations on the story being shared. We believe in survivors and empower them by letting them make their own choices, never making decisions for them. We ask them how we can support them. We show up by challenging victim blaming comments, news stories and jokes. We hold perpetrators and their enablers accountable and educate ourselves with resources such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline, The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Transcending Sexual Trauma Through Yoga and the YWCA

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

I don’t know if my uncle’s life would have been spared if someone had stepped in and helped the woman he was seeing early on in her life, but I do know that it’s now my responsibility to help other survivors of intimate partner violence achieve a safe and empowered future. To combat this epidemic, we can no longer turn away and distance ourselves. Too many lives are at stake for us to stay silent. Instead, we show up with intention, and in turn, make the spaces we create and enter safer for the survivors who are quietly navigating them. 

We can all do better. I hope we will.

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