This is what a victim looks like

// 18 July 2012

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Working as a domestic abuse advisor, I see on a daily basis the issues people face when experiencing or dealing with domestic abuse. Obviously these are vast and diverse but a reoccurring issue when talking to people who are experiencing domestic abuse is actually recognising they are experiencing domestic abuse. Making the brave, initial decision to access some kind of support or advice suggests of course that the person feels that something is wrong;

“But he doesn’t hit me, he never has”

“She puts me down a lot, nothing else”

“My experiences aren’t as bad as other people you hear about”

are all common phrases heard on the helpline. Callers are taking the step to make that initial call because they feel something somewhere isn’t ‘right’, often the caller doesn’t know that their experiences count, as abuse.

“You are experiencing domestic abuse” and “This is typical perpetrator behaviour” therefore are also common phrases heard on the helpline. What I have never, ever said however is “What you are experiencing is not domestic abuse”.

Perhaps the caller has an image of a victim – maybe through media coverage, TV programmes, and societal stereotypes – and feels that they just don’t fit this profile.Perhaps the caller doesn’t know what the umbrella term ‘domestic abuse’ covers and therefore, doesn’t feel their experiences fit the ‘definition’.

Many callers feel that because their experiences “aren’t as bad” as others’, they don’t need or aren’t worthy of any support, advice or time from professionals. There is no common way of dealing with domestic abuse – just because one person is crying in the support group and you’re not, doesn’t mean to say their experiences are worse or worthy of more support.

There is no typical profile of a victim, or survivor. The only thing that every victim has in common is that they are experiencing or have experienced some form of domestic abuse from a perpetrator.

Women’s Aid describes Domestic Abuse (they use the term domestic violence but I favour the term abuse as it covers more, is more of an umbrella term and hopefully contributes to dispelling the myth that abuse is only abuse if it’s physically violent):

“Physical, sexual, psychological or financial abuse taking place within an intimate or family-type relationship that forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour.”

We as a society need to work on dispelling the myths of domestic abuse and what a victim looks like, to begin to make it easier for people experiencing domestic abuse to come forward and talk about their experiences, and to access support. Obviously there are many, many reasons for why domestic abuse is so difficult to talk about and this needs to be addressed as a whole as well as individually. But dispelling the myths of the ‘typical victim’ would certainly be a start.

What does a victim look like?

This is what a victim looks like.

You; Me; And Them.

A note on author’s use of the word ‘victim’:

When I began working with vulnerable women, around 11 years ago, I used to get very prickly and defensive about the use of the word victim. I thought it conjured images of the passive, vulnerable subject at the mercy of the powerful, in control abuser. When talking about people I worked with, I would favour client, or service-user and use ‘survivor’ if I was talking specifically about somebody who had experienced abuse. It wasn’t until a colleague; very recently spoke of her experiences of being a victim of abuse, and that she felt a very noticeable transition from being a victim to being a survivor. She said she as a person knew exactly when that transition happened for her. This conversation made me feel quite differently about using the word victim. I also think that if people are having difficulty in recognising their experiences as domestic abuse, for me as worker to say, ‘you are a victim of domestic abuse’ may help in their coming to terms with their experiences, and aid me in reassuring them that I believe them, and I can validate their experiences. I still however, if I’m completely honest, prefer to say, “Somebody who has experienced domestic abuse”. But it’s a personal thing, and each person who has experienced abuse will have their own preferences too.

Help and Support:

If you liked Emma’s post, you can find her on twitter and on her blog Pen and Inked.

The image above is a hand written note from a domestic violence survivor. The note shows a framework of victim–>survivor–>thriver–>me. The image can be found from the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library and was used under the creative commons license.

Thanks to the comment from spicy below about the image of the cycle of violence. The image is an outdated theory and no longer corresponds to theories of VAW. We have since pulled the image. The diagram was taken from moggs oceanlane and used under the creative commons license.

Comments From You

Louise McCudden // Posted 18 July 2012 at 1:46 pm

This is absolutely fantastic. Thank you for writing it.

spicy // Posted 19 July 2012 at 7:07 am

The image you have used is taken from work done by Leonore Walker and is a discredited theory. This is because:

the original research was done with 98 white women

just over half of the research participants (58%) experienced the apologies / excuse phase calling into question the validity of the model

only 65% of participants reported experiencing a tension-bulding phase

Promoting this theory is dangerous as it can lead women experincing domestic violence to conclude that their experience isn’t ‘real domestic violence’ as it doesn’t fit this model and thus to make unsafe decisions about their future.

There’s a longer critique here:

And whilst not wholly relevant, Leonore Walker also appeared as a character witness for OJ Simpson which has also dented her credibility.

The Goldfish // Posted 19 July 2012 at 11:56 am

I can understand your colleague’s point of view – I sometimes see “survivor” being used about people who are still experiencing abuse, probably out of the fear that victim is too stigmatising, but that’s all kinds of wrong. Apart from anything else, some victims aren’t fortunate enough to survive!

I think perhaps victim is loaded a little like the words rape or abuse. Our culture sees rape as a knife-wielding stranger down a dark alley affair, our culture sees domestic abuse as being kept in a basement, fed on bread and water and beaten up every day. So many of the reasons that I didn’t see myself as a victim were the same as the reasons I didn’t see the violence as *real* domestic violence, let alone comprehend the verbal and psychological side as a form of abuse.

Even so, I think the phrase that helped me most was, “You have been a victim of domestic abuse.” This could be personal, but I think the very moment I actually began to talk to other people about what was going on, my victim status began to fall away. Not all at once and it was a good while after that before I think the “survivor” thing kicked in, but I think the past tense (a) took the edge of the weight of the victim statues and (b) placed my experiences, then very recent, firmly in the past. This wasn’t going to happen any more. I was on my way out.

MsEmmaB // Posted 21 July 2012 at 7:31 pm

Thanks for the great comments everyone. It means a lot to hear that not only are people reading this, but I have written something people can relate to. Thanks also for sharing your experiences.

I love this image too, by the way – f WORD! :-)

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