Dominant discourses and social myths about woman abuse

In contrast to dominant views of battered women as helpless victims or as provocative women who ask for the abuse, [we must] approach … women as survivors of harrowing, life-threatening experiences, who have many adaptive capacities and strengths.

Michelle Bograd, 2001

The social narratives about woman abuse are common social beliefs that are widely held and perpetuated, and can be extremely damaging to women. These narratives are based on outdated opinions, stereotypes and myths about women. They are treated as ‘the truth’ but these narratives do not reflect the realities of male violence. We call these dominant discourses because they are the conversations and perspectives in society that ‘win out’ over women’s voices and experiences. These dominant discourses are often wrongly used to interpret and judge women’s experiences and silence and disempower women. 

Dominant discourses about woman abuse also shape service delivery models and economic, social and public policy. Policies lead to decisions about the types of services that governments offer (family court services, child protection, income assistance, housing, etc.) and what interventions and services will be funded in the women’s sector. Funding decisions based on inaccurate beliefs about woman abuse has resulted in services that fail to address the complexities and impacts of abuse. Many women-serving agencies are limited in what they can offer because funding structures do not reflect women’s needs for practical and long-term advocacy and support, stable housing and food security.

Common discourses such as victim blaming, choice, autonomy and responsibility are used to hold women to a higher standard than men for their behaviours. For example, it is common for women to be blamed for being abused if they were drinking; conversely, abusive men are deemed not responsible for their actions if they were drinking. Women who are being abused by a partner may be judged as ‘bad’ mothers for not protecting their children from witnessing abuse, yet there are no consequences for abusive men who expose their children to their violence. To amplify the injustice, many abusive men are allowed to control the narrative in family court, child protection, and health and mental health services, where they paint a picture of their partners as ‘the problem’ that needs to be treated, controlled or punished. In this way, abusive men are given institutional power to control their partners, thus re-harming the very women who turn to the systems for support. At the same time, women are expected to meet the excessive demands of legal and other systems to prove the abuse and to prove that they are deserving of support.

Social stereotypes often depict women impacted by abuse as weak, codependent, dishonest, submissive, poor, deserving of abuse, uneducated, untrustworthy, addicted, mentally ill, etc. These false yet enduring dominant discourses about women’s motives, character and circumstances are often inappropriately used to explain why abuse happens to women, why women stay with abusive men, why certain women ‘deserve’ abuse, why men’s rights trump women’s and children’s safety, etc. These discourses ignore the impacts and risks that abusive men create and how they take away all safe or good choices for women. The woman in the quote below illuminates some of the problems with the ‘choice’ narrative, and also highlights how women themselves come to adopt the dominant discourse to explain what has happened to them.

I remember when my hip was broken. My partner had broken my hip and I chose not to go to the hospital. He had refused to take me. He had basically stopped me from going. I hear people say that you make your own choices; you can do whatever you want. And to an extent I agree but when you make that choice, you and your children could be killed if you do it, so you choose not to. To an extent that choice is made for you.
– Nadine

Ironically, these same assumptions of choice, free will and responsibility do not similarly frame the dominant discourse about abusive men. Society does not ask why some men abuse women, or why they employ malicious, intentional tactics to maintain power and control over their partners. We don’t question their motives, or ask how they benefit from subjecting women to an endless onslaught of demeaning and terrifying acts of oppression and humiliation, or why they expose their children to the abuse of their mother. Yet women are often subject to false assumptions such as ‘they choose abusive men’; ‘they derive something out of being abused’; or ‘they are putting their children at risk’.

Dominant discourses put a lot of pressure on women to “do something” about their partners’ abuse: ‘she should leave’; ‘she should protect her children’; ‘she should get a protection order’, ‘she should get counselling’, ‘she should give him another chance’, etc. These messages emerge from the narrative that women are responsible for stopping their partners’ abuse and that more broadly, women are responsible for ‘fixing’ relationships. When services and government agencies do not hold abusive men accountable for the abuse, they inadvertently perpetuate the narrative that women are the problem, which diminishes the incredible work women are doing to resist the abuse while trying to protect themselves and their children.

How we talk about a problem shapes how we respond to it. Policies, organizations, services and interventions are often formed by relying on these inaccurate dominant discourses and opinions about woman abuse rather than using reliable and valid evidence. As we noted earlier for example, the dominant narrative in the patriarchal judicial system rests on the belief that a man has a “right” to his children, which supersedes women’s and children’s right to safety. This legislated belief can embolden abusive men’s sense of entitlement and send the message to women that their safety and the safety of their children is not a priority.

What we have learned from women is that they are doing many things to try to ‘fix the problem’ – to resist or end the abuse and protect their children. But as they try to access help, women are often profoundly disappointed by non-profit, social and government systems because they fail to prioritize their safety and well-being. And women rarely receive the message that abusive men are responsible for stopping the abuse. In fact, women and children are often further harmed by institutional responses that overlook all the safety and practical needs that women require in order for them to safely leave an abusive partner.

After a year and a half, clean and sober, I got my kid back, and went back to school. Then I lost my daughter again because of the abuse. A guy beat me up. Cracked my wrists. Because my daughter was there, she was taken away again. It’s like they were looking for a reason.

– Sadia

We have identified some of the most persistent and damaging myths about woman abuse, and offer women’s voices to reframe these myths to better reflect women’s realities. Below, we illustrate the process of identifying and reframing two dominant discourses. You will notice that some of these myths are in conflict with each other; women often find themselves in these double binds. An example of this is that women are expected to protect their children from an abusive father and also to ensure that their children are not “alienated” from their father, despite his abusive behaviour. (For the full article, see our Best Practice Guide and Curriculum, available on this website).

1. Discourse:  violence against women

Myth #1:  Abuse means physical abuse.

Reality: there are many forms of abuse, including physical and sexual abuse, psychological abuse with verbal intimidation, progressive social isolation and economic control.

“The physical abuse actually was a little better because the bruises go away. But the mental and verbal abuse really sticks with a person for a long time.”

Myth #2:  Physical abuse is the most serious form of abuse.

Reality: all forms of abuse are devastating and need to be treated with the same degree of seriousness.

“My partner never hit me but the verbal attacks were brutal. I couldn’t live like that anymore. I tried to kill myself. I ended up in the Psych Unit. Now he is telling everyone I am “crazy”.”

Myth #3:  Abuse happens to women who have poor self-esteem.

Reality: being abused negatively impacts a woman’s self worth, value and esteem but it is not the cause of men’s violence.

“I was always judged for ‘letting’ the abuse happen to me because of my ‘low self-esteem’ or ‘lack of confidence’. I wasn’t like that before I met my partner.”

Myth #4:  Abuse happens to ‘certain types of women’ – immigrant women, poor women, women with mental health or substance use concerns, less educated women etc.

Reality: Abuse can happen to any woman.

“I was a professional woman so I didn’t want to call it abuse. I thought, ‘someone like me wouldn’t let themselves be abused’.”

2. Discourse: choice

Myth #1:  Women are attracted to abuse or choose abuse.

Reality: Men conceal their abusiveness until they have secured the woman’s commitment.

“My counselor told me I chose an abusive man. That made me feel damaged. Being in the group made me realize that I wasn’t messed up like my counselor said. I learned about the patterns of abusive men – how they honeymoon you in the beginning. Being in this group was the first time that I was told that the abuse was not my fault and I did not choose it.”

Myth #2:  The woman has made bad choices.

Reality: Abusive men take away the ability to make choices without the fear of consequences or increased risks. Women make the best choices they can with the information they have and the options available to them.

“My friend said to me that if I choose to go back to him, she would never speak to me again. But he said he would sue for custody of the kids if I don’t come home.”
“When I said ‘no’ to him, he choked me.”

Myth #3:  Women can do things in the relationship that can stop the abuse.

Reality: Women can and do resist the abuse, but nothing she does will stop the abuse. He is in control and makes choices about his behaviour.

Women are told, in so many ways, that they can stop the abuse, if they just do the “right” thing.Here are some examples of advice women are given:

“My counsellor said to me, ‘You just need to spend more time with him. Maybe you guys need to have more sex.’”
“My friend said, ‘Have you tried dressing up nice and cooking him his favourite meal? Men have to deal with a lot of pressure.’”
“My pastor said, ‘Do you keep the house tidy? Do you keep the kids quiet? Does he have spending money? Have you provided him with a man cave?’”

All of this leaves a woman thinking, “I just need to try harder.” No one has seen how much she has done to keep herself safe, resist his abuse, and plan for her safety.