By Ramani Durvasula, PhD (Member, APA Committee on Socioeconomic Status)
Our memories are short, and the Ray Rice domestic violence situation has been eclipsed by the news du jour as well as other revelations of domestic violence from other NFL players.
The Ray Rice story was unfortunate, because we witnessed a woman be abused by her partner, we saw a lukewarm response by a multibillion dollar sports industry, and a more sweeping response only after the NFL was forced to face a smoking gun via a videotape.
But that is just one couple’s story.
What is also unfortunate is that while it may have put domestic violence (or as it is now termed – intimate partner violence or IPV) back on everyone’s radar, it also brought other, more disturbing sentiments to the surface.
She’s a gold digger.
She could leave.
If she stays then she is saying it is ok.
Or it was turned into a farce (with the circumspect pundits at Fox News joking that perhaps they should have “taken the stairs” (in reference to the fact that the videotaped abuse took place in an elevator). Violence against women is too often a part of our “entertainment” landscape.
First to be clear, IPV occurs across age, ethnic, gender, and economic lines, among persons with disabilities, and among heterosexual and same-sex couples. The statistics on IPV are well-known, and all of us know someone who has been affected. We also know that the danger to a victim increases by 70% when she attempts to leave. In addition, trauma can deleteriously impact decision making. What may seem so logical to us armchair observers is an excruciating decision for the victim, tinged with fear, confusion, trauma, survival and love for her abuser.
When we make it about the woman leaving, and questioning why she is staying, we make her complicit in her own abuse. We move the lens away from the real issue – violence in her relationship. Asking a woman why she doesn’t leave is like calling out a victim of a drunk driver for being on the road in the first place.
And it is also a decision that is impacted by economics. While the apocryphal image may be of a woman with no resources having to enter a shelter, violence knows no boundaries, and shame cuts across social classes. The wealthy may often be more likely and more adept at hiding it, but the injuries are every bit as real.
This is where the Ray Rice story does more harm than good as an awareness platform. Many people look at his wife’s decision to stay as one of convenience rather than one of trauma or fear. They see his large paycheck and the presumed lavish lifestyle and figure she was in it for the money and stays for the money. Many people then view IPV as the price of privilege and wealth or simply economic comfort.
What we fail to realize is that money and isolation can become weapons in abusive relationships regardless of income. Women in abusive relationships are often not permitted to work, may have no access to money or bank accounts, and may have their spending monitored. They are also frequently isolated from family and friends, leaving them with few supports. If a woman has dependent children, no resources, no support, no money, and is frightened for her safety – and upon leaving may face homelessness, shame, or greater violence – this doesn’t feel like a “decision”. It feels like a trap, a Gordian knot, an impossibility.
We need interventions that target people at all developmental stages – from young children to older adults, for men and for women. To take a long hard look at:
how we socialize boys and men,
affordable and accessible mental health services,
ending the pervasive cultural permission of violence against women, and
achieving buy-in from law enforcement, employers and policy makers on penalties for IPV and protection for victims.
But when I am asked about interventions for preventing and intervening in the area of IPV, I often think about this issue fiscally. I think about:
Teaching girls and young women to strive for financial autonomy, to keep them on track in school, to encourage postponement of pregnancy until they achieve educational benchmarks and job skills, to avoid other economic and social factors that could make them more vulnerable to economic dependency on a partner.
Mentoring girls at an early age about careers and financial management and self-advocacy and possibility.
Creating programs for financial support and safety nets for women who leave abusive situations.
Does this get to the core of violence? No. Does this get to the core of trauma? No. But it may provide tools for escape, safety, and self-concept, and ideally tools to avoid getting into such partnerships in the first place.
Whether you are a millionaire or not.
Love Doesn’t Have to Hurt – dating violence resource directed at teens
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.
Ramani Durvasula, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles. She is presently Principal Investigator of the NIMH funded Health Adherence Research Project. She is also a widely featured television commentator on mental health issues on all major national television networks. Learn more at: www.doctor-ramani.com.
Image source: iStockPhoto