What factors prevent victims from sharing their experience, asking for support, or leaving the threatening situation they are in?

This question is asked over and over. A large degree of blame goes onto the victims of ongoing domestic and sexual violence. If only you had acted differently you could have prevented being targeted. Yet, we know, for most victims of abuse there are very material reasons why they don’t and, at times, simply cannot leave. There is a fear of not being believed or taken seriously, even by close friends. The worry of having their experiences misrepresented by others; feeling a loss of control over those experiences, which can exacerbate those feelings of loss of control and autonomy due to rape and/or sexual violence and prevent victims from ‘rocking the boat’.

Why don’t victims leave, then?

Part of the reason why victims may not leave an abusive relationship is often because they don’t even recognise it. What society has historically projected as acceptable  from the Victorian era when women were the property of their husbands through to Trump’s unsavory but permissible ‘pussy grabbing’, have generated a veneer around the issue of abuse, which can shape a victim’s experiences and perceptions. 

Abuse can often be cloaked as love and internalised by the victim as care and protection. This inability to recognise what’s going on presents a real problem for survivors speaking out about their experiences: how are victims supposed to be able to define their experiences when fed myths which are unquestioned by larger society? The experience of the archetypal housewife and of marital rape is a key example that illustrates this point. A powerful man or breadwinner shapes the life choices of a woman and instances of normalised aggression and abuse persist where a survivor may suspect that something is wrong, something that makes her miserable, but due to her inability to define it, alongside a gradual erosion of self-confidence, the situation remains unchanged.

We identified through discussion that a key factor in our case was isolation. As we have established in the previous section the group itself did not take on care, social reproductive and emotional labour tasks equitably nor did it prioritise them or take a formal approach to them. Feeling socially isolated, then, and unable to rely on care from other sources meant that it was difficult for the victim to leave the situation they found themselves in. Social isolation does not always look like not any having friends or comrades. Sometimes it is being unable to have the confidence to approach them, particularly if your perpetrator is also their friend. In political groups where a perpetrator is in a position of leadership, an affected comrade may keep silent about their experiences of rape/abuse for fear of causing friction and consequent fractures in the organisation. In such instances, ‘Politics’ with a capital P, so to speak, takes precedence over inter-personal politics or a politics of care. In some groups there can be a perception created that raising issues of sexual violence is an inconvenience to the goals of the organisation and therefore victims could feel less confident raising cases of abuse where the effect might be a derailment of a group’s activity, or they might be encouraged by the atmosphere to view the abuse they have faced as a private problem between individuals.This is heightened when the perpetrator is seen as central to the ‘movement’ because the fear that many would abandon the political movement, or try to silence the victim in hopes to “keep the political group together” are factors which complicate this decision.   Furthermore, victims of abuse can suffer a sense of having their perceived social status debunked if they project themselves as strong.

As discussed in the previous section, the group dynamics can have a significant effect on the victim’s capacity to escape a situation. When someone’s friendship group and political group overlap substantially there is a high risk of social ostracisation or, at the very least, upheaval. This can be particularly acute when one relies upon friendship bonds rather than traditional familial bonds for immediate support. The threat of abandonment by one’s social group becomes far stronger when other options for support are not available. The sense of isolation can be exacerbated when previously held bonds of trust are compromised.

Emotional bonds to the perpetrator are not often discussed in these situations yet they can also be a significant factor. Being in a relationship or even a close friendship with someone over a period of time causes the pair to bond, even if those bonds are ultimately unhealthy and one-sided. Victims often profess to love their perpetrator, to feel strong affection towards them despite the hurt they are causing. This affection can make it difficult for the victim to recognise the abuse in the first place and often causes them to minimise or excuse it in order to maintain the illusion that their love is reciprocated (I call it an illusion because an abusive person cannot be loving to their partner whilst behaving in an abusive way). This is, of course, a deeply personal barrier which can only be overcome by the victim themselves ultimately. However, the importance of outside input in their relationship in this case becomes vital if they are ever to be able to recognise the reality of the abuse.

Why don’t victims ask for support? 

Under the Tory government, 34 women’s refuges were shut down due to austerity and cuts to support services. This resulted in 2 out of 3 women being turned away from refuges. (Source: Sisters Uncut) The impression of an uncaring society without adequate resources to help vulnerable people can increase the chances of women not asking for support. The professionalisation and consequential bureaucratisation of these services designed to support victims of domestic violence often exacerbates the problem. As such, a victim may not ask for support on the assumption that they will receive inadequate care from untrained employees in the sector. Equally, employees who see a problem may not offer support because they have not been trained and as a result doubt their ability to offer it.

Another real fear of disclosure to social services can be attributed to how they operate in discord with a victim’s desires or expectations. For example, women who are the guardians and carers of children and find themselves trapped in an abusive relationship risk having their children taken away. It could lead mothers or carers to worry that they will take the brunt of the blame and punishment of accusations of child abuse and neglect.

Beyond the context of just the relationship, there is the matter of resources. Many victims live with their perpetrator(s) and cannot risk homelessness, particularly where children are involved. The UK’s social housing system has been all but decimated and becoming a part of the homeless system is deeply bureaucratic and alienating. Many face months, even years in temporary accommodation; Travelodge after Travelodge whilst the council makes up reasons not to house them. Leaving children behind is seen to signal lack of care and can hurt child custody cases. The children themselves, too, may be used as a weapon to control the actions of the victim. Another matter is financial – this can work both ways. Either, a victim is reliant upon a perpetrator for money, or else, the perpetrator is a sponge upon their financial means and uses this as a form of control. For some, immigration status is a factor as the state organises and prioritises those in relationships or married to British citizens for legal status and leave to remain. Additionally, those with no recourse to public funds are often entirely at their perpetrators’ mercy for survival. For disabled people these problems are tenfold, and then there comes the question of care and the propensity to see partners as de facto carers, preventing autonomy systematically.

These are some of the more structural and material reasons for someone to be unable or unwilling to leave an abusive situation but there are many more complex, psychological ways in which people are manipulated into staying in abusive situations. These may be more difficult to understand, yet, they are undeniably powerful. Abusers tend to undermine their victim’s sense of self, their confidence and thus their ability to assert themselves over time. They tend to create a co-dependence however they can, whether that is through resources, emotional support, care (which can be withdrawn without notice) or isolation.