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Abused women have choices

By Wendy McElroy
web posted September 2, 2002

I take domestic violence seriously. Years ago, a boyfriend battered me so badly that I am legally blind in my right eye due to a hemorrhage in my central vision. Domestic violence literally changed the way I view the world every morning I wake.

It also changed how I view the gender politics through which domestic violence is usually analyzed. Part of the standard view is: Women who "stay" have been brainwashed, and so are not responsible for that decision; and, leaving the relationship is always the right choice. I dispute both claims.

Many intelligent, adult women consciously choose to stay in an abusive relationship and they are responsible for doing so. In saying this, I do not strip battered women of their valid claim to being wronged. Acknowledging the free will of abused women doesn't insult them: it respects them.

No one deserves a fist in the face for speaking out of line, which was my story. My choice to stay doesn't exonerate the man who blinded me: He is as fully responsible for his choices as I am. But you can be a victim without subscribing to the victimhood philosophy of gender feminism. I share responsibility.

My decision to stay ultimately proved mistaken but my reasons were not pathological. I stayed because I truly loved the man; I am not a quitter; the abuse was connected to drug use ... and isn't that an illness?; he treated me well in some important areas; I assumed too much responsibility -- blaming myself for the abuse. I think many women use similar reasoning. And, in order to understand domestic violence, their choices must be accorded enough respect to be treated seriously.

There are many possible reasons for staying in an abusive relationship, including: The abuse is temporary and sparked by specific events that can be remedied; the love of family; the man may have an "illness," like drug abuse; a compelling love. Every woman who stays has a somewhat different reason for doing so.

One of the main motivations of women who stay is a desire to keep the family together. A man who is occasionally abusive -- under the pressures of drugs, drink, adultery, financial distress -- may be a good father and breadwinner: It is far from clear that divorcing such a troubled man is preferable to trying to work the problem through. 

A distinction should be made between victims of domestic violence and self-perpetuating victims. Anyone can be a victim. Anyone can be trapped by love or loyalty into staying inside a situation that damages them. That doesn't mean the woman caused the abuse, sought it out, or -- on some level -- enjoys her victimhood.

Studies into domestic violence and domestic violence politics assume perpetual victimhood. They do not dwell upon women who decide to stay for "good" reasons and work through their relationships. They also do not acknowledge the women who eventually end an abusive relationship and move on to love non-abusive men. This is a vast and almost unaddressed area of domestic violence research.

Yet, from anecdotal experience many women remain in a relationship not because of the abuse but in spite of it. And they successfully move on.

In doing so, they do not seem to repeat "cycles of abuse" as accepted wisdom declares. After leaving my relationship, I married a gentle, kind man whose abuse is limited to reading novels in bed while I'm trying to sleep.

Not all women's experiences of abuse are the same as my own. (Stephanie Rodriguez's online book Time to Stop Pretending provides a balancing view.) My point is merely this: Battered women are almost never portrayed as responsible adults with free will who grapple with complex circumstances and make a choice; they are never seen as women who strike a bad bargain or misjudge a situation. But those scenarios are probably as common to domestic violence as any others.

Women are beginning to question the philosophy of domestic violence offered by gender feminists. For example, a growing trend among Latino women, for whom family and children are often paramount, is for couples to work out their relationships, often with the aid of a priest or counselor.

The choice to stay is not clear or easy. Leaving may well be the best option for most women. But women who decide to work out an abusive relationship should not be reviled or pathologized any more than women who leave should be automatically celebrated. Human relationships are far more complicated than that.

Unfortunately, the "battered woman" is no longer a subject of honest inquiry. She has become a political rallying point, the centerpiece of fund-raising, the symbol of politically correct victimhood.

None of the politicization helps those trapped in crisis. Women do not deserve to be hit: I didn't deserve my blindness. But sometimes intelligent, adult women choose to stay in abusive relationships -- at least temporarily -- over the alternatives. Their choices should not be dismissed out-of-hand. DV cannot be understood without listening to their voices as well.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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