Read more: Nearly half of all murdered women are killed by romantic partners
The messages are insidious and they are consistent. Those messages reverberate when politicians wrangle over reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, and then fund it so sparingly it’s practically a hiccup in the federal budget. The Office of Violence Against Women has an entire budget of just under $489 million at present. To give a frame of reference, the entire annual budget for the Department of Justice, which oversees the Office of Violence Against Women, is currently $28 billion.
But victims receive the message to stay in other ways, too. It’s visible when the court system puts them on the defensive, asks them to face a person who might have tried to kill them, a person they know only too well might kill them for real next time. It’s visible in court rulings that give violent perpetrators a mere slap on the wrist, a fine, maybe. A few days in jail after a brutal assault. It’s visible when law enforcement treats domestic violence as a nuisance, a “domestic dispute,” rather than the criminal act that it is.
And, after all of this, people have the audacity to ask why victims stay.
The reality is that many victims are actively and stealthily trying to leave, working within the system that exists and step-by-step, with extreme vigilance, doing everything they can to escape. In so many cases, onlookers mistake what they see from the outside as the victim choosing to stay with an abuser. They fail to recognize a victim who is slowly and carefully leaving, and what leaving actually looks like.
None of this is surprising, given that many societies didn’t recognize domestic violence as wrong for most of human history. Some interpretations of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian religions have given the husband purview to discipline his wife in more or less the same manner as he might discipline and control any of his other properties, including servants, slaves, and animals. Some of these faiths’ holy texts even gave instructions on the manner of wife beating, such as avoiding direct blows to the face or making sure not to cause lasting injury. In the United States, the Puritans had laws against wife beating, though they were largely symbolic and rarely, if ever, enforced. (I also recognize that men can be victims and women can be perpetrators, and that there are grim statistics of domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships and communities. In general, men remain the overwhelming majority of perpetrators, and women the overwhelming majority of victims by nearly every measure.)
Often, abused wives were believed to have provoked the violence of their husbands—and this belief threads through hundreds of years of literature on domestic violence, infecting nearly everything written about spousal abuse prior to the 1960s and ’70s. On those very rare occasions when a case of private violence did make it to a courtroom, the rulings tended to side in favor of the man so long as the wife’s injuries were not permanent.