Soon we’ll gather with friends for the most watched television event of the year (if even just for the commercials), and I ask you to take this opportunity to help change the way we talk about violence within families or between partners.
Last year, the Super Bowl aired a public service announcement about ending domestic violence and sexual assault, following the surfacing of a graphic video showing NFL player Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee and dragging her unconscious body across the floor. But too often in discussion of such domestic violence, I hear blame placed on the victim of the abuse rather than the perpetrator of the crime.
We should talk about domestic violence and sexual assault in a way that places the blame on abusers — who, after all, may have committed a crime — instead of the survivors of abuse. Questions like, “Why did she stay with him? Why did she go back? Why was she wearing that?” are sorely misguided. Why wouldn’t we focus our attention instead on the person who acted violently toward their loved one?
This kind of victim-blaming rhetoric threatens justice for survivors of abuse. As an attorney at Georgia Legal Services, I know this. I represent survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in civil legal cases, focusing on helping them to obtain a protective order, a measure intended to provide safety and security from abusers.
About this time last year, a tragic instance of violence took place. A Georgia man killed his ex-wife, her boyfriend, two children and himself. He also shot two other children. News stories reported the murderous actions of the ex-husband toward his ex-wife, a long-term victim of his abuse. But somehow the blame presented was shared between the two of them, for five murders that he alone committed. The media reported that he might have killed five people because of a child support and tax return argument, but these were clearly domestic violence killings.
The same media reports inaccurately state that the abuser did not have a history of domestic violence. To the contrary, court records outline a history of domestic violence and sexual assault by the ex-husband, including an arrest. The woman sought and obtained a 12-month protective order against her then-husband in October 2013.
News reports failed to address this man’s history of domestic violence and instead engaged in victim-blaming of the survivor of abuse. But this reporting does not stand alone — victim-blaming in incidents of abuse and assault are all too common.
The video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer shows not a fight between two people but a brutal attack on a woman. Palmer most likely saved Rice from jail time by marrying him after the assault and pleading for leniency from the prosecution. Evidence of the incident doesn’t even exist on Rice’s criminal record. Sadly, this absence of accountability for perpetrators of violence, particularly against women, is a common one in our country.
The way we talk about violence is more powerful than perhaps you think. The blame placed on survivors of abuse who have the courage to report an assault discourages others from doing the same, especially when little is done to hold a perpetrator accountable.
Beyond thinking twice about the blaming the victim for violence, there’s more you can do. Support the work of advocates for domestic violence survivors and the networks to help these survivors.
• Believe the victim.
• Call the police when you see or hear a crime being committed.
• Donate your time or money to your local shelter or legal services organizations.
• If you are an attorney, call your local legal aid organization and volunteer your time.
• Refer domestic violence and sexual assault survivors for support and help when it is safe to do so.
• Talk to your church and community about domestic violence and offer to help connect survivors to resources.
• Advocate for removing firearms from domestic violence abusers in criminal proceedings and in civil protective order cases.
• Use your voice. Ask media to look for evidence from protective orders and not just for reports to police.
Currey Hitchens is a supervising attorney in the Piedmont office of Georgia Legal Services Program and provides direct representation to survivors of domestic violence.
(In Georgia, survivors of domestic violence can call this toll-free number for help: (800) 33 HAVEN. If you need free representation in a hearing to receive a protective order, including help with child custody and financial support, please call Georgia Legal Services Program at (800) 498-9469.)