Articles for professionals // Dominant discourses and social myths about woman abuse

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 often reflect opinions, stereotypes and myths that are not reflective of the realities of male violence. There are some common social beliefs, widely held, that are particularly harmful to women. We call these myths the “dominant discourse” –because it is the conversation in society that wins out over women’s voices and experiences. These dominant discourses do not describe the realities of abuse, but they are often wrongly used to interpret women’s experiences. These myths and stereotypes silence and disempower women. 

Dominant discourses also inform service delivery models and economic, social and public policy. Policies can lead to decisions about the types of services that governments offer and what interventions and services will be funded. In our experience, many agencies that offer services do not address women’s realities and needs, and can actually be detrimental. The practices of these agencies often do not reflect women’s complex realities.

Social stereotypes often depict women impacted by abuse as weak, codependent, submissive, poor, deserving of abuse, uneducated, addicted, mentally ill, etc. These discourses are based on inaccurate narratives about choice, responsibility and victim blaming. These discourses tend to  hold women to a higher standards than men for ‘moral’ behaviours. For example, women may be judged as ‘bad’ mothers for not protecting their children from witnessing abuse, yet the abusive man who is exposing the children to his violence is not punished. It is no wonder that women with experiences of abuse are reluctant to identify themselves with this label!

These damaging yet enduring dominant discourses are often inappropriately used to explain why abuse happens to girls and 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 neglect the impacts and risks that abusive men create and the lack of safe or good choices for women. The woman in the quote below illuminates the problems with the ‘choice’ narrative, and also highlights how women themselves come to adopt the dominant discourse to explain what’s 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, responsibility and free will do not similarly frame the dominant discourse about abusive men. We don’t ask why some men abuse girls and women, or why they employ malicious, intentional tactics to maintain power and control over their partner’s. We don’t wonder 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 accusations that they choose abusive men, or get something out of being abused.

Dominant discourses put a lot of pressure on women to “do something” about their partner’s’ abuse: “she should leave”; “she should protect her children”; “she should get a protection order”, “she should get counselling”, etc. These messages emerge from the narrative that women are responsible for stopping their partners’ abuse and that women are responsible for ‘fixing’ relationships. Services and government agencies often perpetuate these discourses by not holding men responsible for the abuse or the impacts while requiring women to take on responsibilities that are not theirs. At the same time, these ideas fail to reflect how much work women are doing to resist the abuse and protect themselves and their children.

How we talk about a problem shapes how we respond. Policies, organizations, services and practices are often formed by dominant discourses and opinions about woman abuse rather than by reliable and valid evidence. For example, in a patriarchal judicial system that believes in a father’s “right” to his children, this opinion often supersedes women’s and children’s right to safety, This can, in turn, support abusive men’s sense of entitlement and send the message to a woman that her safety and the safety of her 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 social and government systems that fail to support and protect women and their children. And they rarely get the message that abusive men are responsible for stopping the abuse. In fact, women and children are often further harmed by institutional responses that punish women for their partner/father’s abuse.

After a year and a half, clean and sober, getting my kid back, going back to school, I lost my daughter again because of the abuse. I had a guy beat me up. Cracked my wrists. Because my daughter was there, she was taken away again.

– 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 When Love Hurts Practice Framework and Curriculum, forthcoming).

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.

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