Who should really be ashamed?

All too often victims of domestic violence are asked, "Why didn't you just leave?" while rape victims are told, "Maybe you shouldn't have worn such a short skirt." This is victim blaming and it has to stop

About half a year ago, I made the most heart-breaking realisation of my life: I was a victim of domestic violence. The person I loved and had married had just attacked me with a pot of boiling tea. The undeniable truth was written on my arms and chest in second-degree burns.

It was time for me to get out of the relationship and break the spiral of violence that I was caught up in. It was an invitation to let go of everything I had fought for up to that point, as well as my dreams for the future. I was in shock and exhausted, but I also felt alive in a way that I had forgotten was possible. That is the gift of a crisis – it forces us to live in the present. I was free, and I recognized freedom because I came from captivity.

As I came to terms with my situation, I broke my silence to my friends and network. It was a relief. Most people overwhelmed me with the love, care and support that I needed. However, I was also met with comments and questions insinuating that I bore some of the blame for the assaults I had suffered.

The questions are harmful
“Why didn’t you just leave?” is the question I heard the most, and one I still get asked. It is important to understand that the question is useless. It is a rationalisation after the fact of an immutable past in which I thought I was doing the right thing. The first step in showing respect to a victim is to acknowledge this – so do not tell me that I could have seen it coming.

Because no, you don’t actually see anything before it’s too late. The relationship can also hold a lot of good and beauty that is worth fighting for, and that makes you stay. It’s never only bad things that you turn your back on. It is about love, and in the name of love, you see what you want to see. I never asked to end up in the situation I ended up in. I fell in love with a person who turned out to be abusive, yes. But I never said, “Hello, violent psychopath – will you marry me?”

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As a victim of violence, it frustrates me when victims are not acknowledged as powerless and blameless. Just the fact that I am asked ‘why’ it happened, when that’s a question that can be answered by no one but the abuser. And I can guarantee that that is one of the first questions that pops into a victim’s head. It is the question that leads many victims to believe that they deserve the pain being inflicted upon them. So ask yourself first: what answer are you expecting to get?

“Women who love too much”
When I started looking for self-help groups for victims of domestic violence, I found only one, entitled “Women who love too much”. If this title does not raise a red flag, I will tell you why it should.

First of all, what does it mean to ‘love too much’? When has love in its essence ever been harmful? If what we thought was love turns out to be harmful and even violent, it is not love. This was, ultimately, the toughest thing for me to accept: that while I sincerely loved my partner, what he called love was in fact a mix of power hunger, low self-esteem and lack of empathy.

Second of all, the title implies that if only the woman had not loved ‘too much’ (which is impossible), she would not have been subject to the violence she was victim to. It implies that she bears part of the blame.

It is important to recognize that victims of domestic violence are not people who make the mistake of fighting for their love for another human being. It is not their giving the abuser ‘too much love’ that causes the abuse to occur. On the contrary, it is the abuser who takes advantage of the committed, wholehearted and trusting person who is their partner.

A victim is a victim. Period.
By presenting these examples, I want to shed light on a trend I hope to do away with. What they have in common is a complete lack of reflection, empathy and humility for the people they are dealing with. They come from a place where the perpetrator is taken out of the equation, and contain an implicit misunderstanding that says violence can be justified, and victimhood mitigated.

It cannot be said often enough: no one is in control of what others subject them to. There is no valid excuse or rationalization for violence. The shame that often accompanies physical and mental scars belongs to the abuser – never the victim.

So, if we really want to help the victims and take their fight for a dignified existence seriously, we must first recognize that there are never degrees of assault. It is violence, and violence is criminal.

Calculating the consequences
On the day that my divorce was finally official, I was congratulated by a family member with the remark, “Well, I guess you won’t be doing that again.”

Do what? I thought. Love wholeheartedly again? You can bet I will. Because as I continue onward with an unhappy experience that has undoubtedly changed my life, I refuse to compromise the values that I want to affect and shape my life and the world I live in. I am no longer a victim. I am a survivor.

My greatest sorrow is when I meet former victims of domestic violence who still bear a sense of guilt for the things they were subjected to in their past. They are troubled by thought patterns of self-reproach, or they keep on asking whether they could have done anything to avoid the violence.

All these destructive patterns are linked to a culturally-determined perception that domestic violence is taboo, and that those who suffer abuse have somehow asked for it. I find it deeply unfair that victims are punished again as being culturally stigmatized as weak and stupid because another person has harmed them.

We must not live less wholeheartedly simply because there are risks to loving. If we start to analyse the consequences, we might convince ourselves that we are more likely to be subjected to domestic violence than not. We might end up compromising on the values most of us want to be the building blocks of the society we live in, and want to see our children grow up in.

I now know that anyone can end up where I did. So let’s try and change the cultural attitude that misplaces responsibility for the guilt and shame that I – and many other women like me – have been subjected to. M

Christian Balvig has pointed out that he can be confused as her assailant. We stress that it is not Christian Balvig that has committed the above mentioned spousal abuse.


By Hanne Marie le Fevre

Hanne Marie le Fevre A classical trained singer and performance artist based in Copenhagen, Hanne is part of the organisation Hjælp Voldsofre, which facilitates support groups for victims of violence.

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