Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Abusive relationships not a simple issue for victims

As his fingers closed around my throat, my brain flipped a switch that went primal. My only instincts were to keep breathing and to kick. Turns out, heels come in handy.
Four years ago, I experienced an all too familiar scenario in an intimate relationship. My partner exerted his physical strength in an altercation witnessed by five of our friends. A gaping hole was left in my apartment wall and barely-visible bruises remained on my neck. The sharpest memories I have of that night were of unadulterated heartbreak, confusion and fear.
Scenes like the one I lived through play out all too frequently for women everywhere, including this campus. While dating violence, sexual assault and rape are severely underreported crimes, at least 32 percent of college women have experienced dating violence at the hands of a former boyfriend. Violence against women is often socially sanctioned behavior reinforced by a "rape culture"-a term that refers to social norms that encourage rape behavior. But this rape culture is not limited to rape. Rather, it is part of a larger cultural discourse that envelops many other forms of violence against women, including dating violence.

There were five other people in my apartment that night. Only one of them actively intervened on my behalf. I am forever grateful and indebted to her for the choice she made.
Bystander intervention, which is what my friend engaged in when she inserted herself in the drama unfolding before her, does not occur often enough. In taking action, she contradicted what usually happens in situations like these, labeled the "bystander effect." The bystander effect was in full force in 1964, when Kitty Genovese was publicly assaulted within earshot and view of allegedly 38 people. While each of those 38 bystanders assumed that someone was calling the police, her attacker had time to flee the scene, returning later to rape and murder her. This is the downfall of collective behavior. People are significantly more hesitant to act during a nearby assault when the former are not alone, while a lone bystander is more likely to come to a victim's aid.

Many of us have misconceptions about what it means to successfully intervene in a dangerous situation. Contrary to popular belief, which assumes that intervention guarantees danger to the good samaritan, there are other means by which we can combat rape culture. These include giving a silent stare when someone voices sexist or violent rhetoric, using an appropriate amount of humor to lighten tension and distracting a perpetrator by asking a mundane question like "Do you know what time it is?" to divert attention. By adding these methods to our arsenal, each of us can be prepared to actively intervene in a moment of gross injustice.

"How could you ever stay with him?" "When will you stand up for yourself and stop letting him run the show?" "How could you let him do that to you?"
I can't count how many times my family and friends asked these questions. The relationship that I had with my ex-boyfriend lasted nearly six years. Four years after the brief but remarkable display of physical abuse occurred, our involvement finally came to a dramatic yet violence-free ending. Nearly a full year later, I am still amazed not only at how long our attachment lagged on, but also at how slowly I came to realize the pattern of power so outwardly apparent to others observing our relationship. Ultimately, power and control are the necessary components to violence. There is little room for respect and trust; traits that characterize healthy relationships. Although my boyfriend never violated my body again and apologized deeply for his actions, there was little respect and virtually no trust left between us.

It can be easier to pass judgment by grandly proclaiming that you would never allow someone to get away with treating you "like that" than it is to patiently listen, sans judgment, to a survivor's story. Relationships are always complicated, but the key to most abusive relationships is that these bonds begin much the same as non-violent ones.

There is love and potent physical chemistry first, but then the ingredients for a darker, violent dynamic slowly come together. This often emerges as a subtle pattern of behaviors that may or may not crescendo to violent outbursts. This contradicts a popular myth that women enter into relationships that are immediately dangerous, or that a woman knew he was a "bad" guy before she committed to him. This misconception leads many to a victim blaming mentality, wherein responsibility is shifted from the abuser to his victim. There is never an excuse for abuse. One never "loses control", rather an individual chooses to assert power over another human being.

-Kristina Nailen