The Trump White House knew about Rob Porter. Why was he allowed to assume and maintain his powerful position in the West Wing, when administration officials had long been aware of allegations that he abused at least three women? Why did it take public pressure, energized by the release of photos of a woman’s battered face, for the White House to let Porter resign? The answer is simple: White House officials don’t take domestic violence seriously, and they don’t think the American people do, either. And they’re right.
Domestic violence is yet to have its #MeToo moment ― even though intimate partner violence, like sexual harassment, is a crime that tends to be perpetrated by men against women, and even though domestic violence often involves sexualized violence. We may be on the verge of a similar cultural tipping point on domestic violence, but for now, at least, people seem to find it easier to voice their support for survivors of rape and sexual assault than for survivors of intimate partner violence.
Tolerance of partner abuse remains a widespread problem, despite advances with respect to other forms of violence against women. It can be difficult, in survey research, to demonstrate the extent to which the American public accepts domestic violence, since people are reluctant to endorse overtly negative statements about domestic violence survivors in surveys.
But these biases still show up, particularly among men, who are more likely than women to believe both what researchers call domestic violence myths ― such as the idea that a woman who stays with an abusive partner is responsible for what happens to her ― and rape myths, like the idea that women often have sex with men, regret it, and then “cry rape.” Yet far more academic attention has been paid to rape myth acceptance than to domestic violence myth acceptance. In academic databases, articles on the former outnumber articles on the latter by a factor of 43 to 1.
The result of widespread acceptance of domestic violence myths is that victims of this interpersonal trauma are denied sympathy. That’s in part because of the power of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming happens when we encounter human beings who are suffering and their suffering challenges cherished illusions about our world. One such illusion is the belief in a just world, a comforting fiction that reassures us that if we do the right things, we will be safe from misfortune and victimization. In other words, good things happen to good people. The natural corollary, of course, is that bad things happen only to people who deserve them. In response, many people make a kind of unconscious bargain: They deny reality for the sake of their own comfort, blaming survivors of trauma for their experiences and, thereby, avoiding the discomfort associated with acknowledging their pain.
Through this bargain, two other important psychological benefits accrue to the person who blames the victim. If they fear they might suffer the same fate as the survivor, victim-blaming can make them feel safe by creating a narrative in which the survivor was victimized due to their personality flaws or mistakes ― flaws they themselves don’t share and mistakes they can avoid. This, they imagine, ensures their safety. And if the person feels implicated in some way by the survivor’s suffering ― if they fear they may have victimized others in a similar way ― victim-blaming gets them off the hook.
These dynamics can apply to any form of human misfortune. But the tendency to blame the victim becomes even more marked when a person’s victimization calls other important beliefs into question. Intimate partner abuse ― where people intentionally, systematically and maliciously torture the partners they purport to love ― undermines some of our culture’s most cherished beliefs about romantic relationships and even love itself. Romantic partnership is supposed to provide us with the ultimate safe space ― a close relationship in which we can be fully ourselves without fear of judgment or exploitation. Partner abuse turns this expectation inside out; the person who should be the survivor’s staunchest ally is in fact their worst enemy. To acknowledge the reality that partner abusers exist, and that their victims suffer genuine physical and emotional harm at their hands, threatens our belief in this idea of romantic love.
There’s also the fact that, in domestic violence cases, there’s no “perfect victim.” Activists often note that the bar for blamelessness for sexual assault victims is impossible to clear: Why did she consent to kiss him, why did she drink, why didn’t she clearly say no, why didn’t she run, why didn’t she fight back, why didn’t she just stay home? Some sexual assault survivors receive more blame than others according to these maddening standards, but none measure up to the mythical “perfect victim.” Many of the women who say disgraced media mogul Harvey Weinstein assaulted them come close to being “perfect” in this way. Many describe being tricked into entering hotel rooms with the promise of a business meeting, for example. Less “perfect” victims, on the other hand, who consented to going on a date with their perpetrator, entered his home, or willingly engaged in some sort of physical contact, are seen as less credible and less sympathetic.
What do these actions have in common? They amount to the same thing: She willingly participated in at least some part of her interaction with the perpetrator. By this standard, it makes perfect sense that partner abuse survivors carry greater stigma. If going on a date with someone makes you a target for blame, what does it mean when you pursued a long-term relationship? If entering someone’s home raises suspicions, how much worse is it to move in with the perpetrator? If kissing someone makes it harder for people to believe he later raped you, what will they think when someone claims she was raped by a husband she had consensual sex with countless times?
According to these unfair standards, anyone who is abused by a partner has, by definition, committed the cardinal sin of willingly entering into a relationship with the abuser and, even worse in the public’s eyes, may have stayed with the abuser after at least one abusive incident has occurred. Of course, these choices do not actually make victims culpable for their mistreatment. But given the profound incentives that victim-blaming provides, it’s easy to see why people who are unwilling to acknowledge the reality of abuse would seize on even the most flimsy pretense for blaming survivors for their own suffering.
Finally, the prevalence of victim-blaming attitudes helps to shield alleged perpetrators like Porter. After all, if a victim deserves her abuse, then did a perpetrator really do anything wrong? The result is that Trump White House officials did not see Porter’s alleged behavior as disqualifying him for his role, and, until photos offered as evidence from his ex-wife made the papers, they did not believe a domestic violence record would matter enough to the public to create any real scandal. Had the disturbing photos of Porter’s ex-wife’s bruised face not been published, it seems they would have been correct.
The work of movements like #MeToo is crucial, and it must continue. Ending rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, and combating the stigma and victim-blaming that survivors of these crimes face, are vital tasks that are far from complete. But intimate partner violence needs to be an equal part of the conversation about the gendered violence problem in this country. Our outrage about partner abuse and our determination to counteract myths and stigma about domestic violence survivors must be equally fierce.
Susan Broyles is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology and an assistant instructor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.