"She Must Have Deserved It": An Uncomfortable Reality About Abuse, And Reporting It

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

In discussing the resistance most victims of domestic violence face when trying to explain things to their friends, someone raised an uncomfortable question about dissecting the abuser’s motivations:
“Is it that hard to believe he hit her for no reason at all?”
Yes, it is.
It’s hard to understand because most people, I’d argue, don’t emotionally understand that other people are different than they are.  Oh, they get that there are differences – Coke vs. Pepsi, Stones vs. Beatles, Romney vs. Obama – but 90% of the people I met view their neighbor as basically a reflection of their own morality, and get confused whenever they witness significant distinctions.  Naturally, they’re frequently confronted with evidence that people aren’t pretty much all “just folks” under the hood – but when they see this, the dissonance is confusing and painful, so they either withdraw, simplify, or forget.
(This is why people tend to withdraw into echo chambers on the Internet, where everyone thinks like they do.  It’s easier than reformatting your entire universe.)
And the good news that emerges from this particular bad response is that most people would never hit their partner.  When told, “He hit her,” most people run this information through a I-am-the-world filter that goes something like this:
“Gosh, hitting the person I love? I can’t imagine myself doing that.  But that did happen, apparently, so how would that have come to be if I was in the driver’s seat?  Well, I suppose if she constantly did something designed to hurt me, all the time, on purpose, maybe – eventually – I might snap and feel horribly guilty afterwards.  But what the hell kind of actions would someone take to drive me to that monstrous behavior?  Because I/other people wouldn’t just beat someone for no good reason.  So what did she do?  She must have done something.”
In other words, their failure here is their inability to put themselves in the shoes of a sociopath. And so they focus on the reasons as opposed to the action.  Which creates a toxic resistance to the idea that the abused partner wasn’t at fault.
Their central fault is that they assume, erroneously, that there must be some large driving force behind this disproportionate response.  But there isn’t.  The truth is that a lot of domestic violence comes from men – and women – who are eager to display power by punching powerless folks in the face.  Where most people would only resort to brutality when backed into a corner, knowing the emotional damage a beating does, the abuser views physical pain as just another tool to be used in a relationship, mundane as arguing and chore-swapping.*
As such, I think the best way to fight this insidious idea that the abused brought this abuse upon themselves** is to change the narrative.
What we need to get across in the case of domestic abuse is that this is a different breed of person.  This is not you and me, this is a man or woman who views the world in a way that thinks of hurting someone as just another method of control.  He may be friendly, he may have made you laugh over a beer – but underneath, if he thought pain would be a better way of getting you to do what he wanted than humor, he’d drop the beer and tear your fucking hair out.
They’re not you.  And you gotta fight to get that one across, but when you do you’ve opened up a tool that gets a lot more societal justices created.  Because once you get – really, fundamentally accept – that the world is not full of Mini-Mes and in fact some people’s experiences has led them to something catastrophically different from you, whole worlds open up that you can begin to shape to better ends.
Because the women who got hit? They didn’t do anything that warranted an ass-kicking. They just are with someone who thinks ass-kickings are a-okay, and the problem lies with him, not her.***
* – And when you’re unfortunate enough to run into another sociopath with an easy out to violence, that sociopath genuinely sees the situation as “She deserved it,” giving a similar end. It could be argued that most people are then sociopaths. But given the comparative – comparative – rarity of domestic violence in the Western cultures I’m familiar with, I don’t think that’s the case.
** – The kernel of truth within this otherwise-scurrilous claim, I think, is that if you’re a victim of abuse, you need to be very careful as to who you date.  Children of abusing parents are fifteen times – fifteen times! – as likely to wind up married to an abuser as so-called “normal” people, which means that your abuser broke some vital instincts within you.  If you’ve got that kind of background, date slowly, trust carefully, because your parents have wired you to be drawn to other abusers.  This is no different than anyone else’s bad instincts in relationships, of course – except that if I go on autopilot, I wind up with a psychodramatic relationship, and if you do it you wind up broke and desperate with a woman kicking you in the ribs.  So if you’ve been abused? Be vigilant. Be careful in who you choose to love.  Because goddammit, you deserve better than that.
*** – Or with her, not him. Domestic violence isn’t man vs. woman, it’s abuser vs. abusee. Please remember that.


  1. Tapati
    Jun 17, 2013

    I’ve been studying domestic violence for many years now and I thank you for this excellent post that explains how people arrive at the assumption that a battered woman must have “done something” to incite the abuse.
    My only criticism is that not all abusers are sociopaths and control isn’t the only reason they batter. It’s a piece of it, sure, but there are other factors and more than one type of batterer. Some batterers are, indeed, sociopaths. Researchers disagree on the percentage of these. One thing they do agree on is that these batterers cannot be helped by programs because they feel no remorse and thus have no motivation.
    My experience has been that the beatings I received were not efforts to control me most of the time. What I gradually realized is that my first husband was not an assertive person, cared a great deal about how he appeared to others, and had poor stress management skills and impulse control. So he would be a “nice guy” in public and hold anger in rather than assert himself, store it up until he was ready to boil over, walk in the door ready to explode at the slightest provocation. It is a typical pattern in non-sociopath or typical batterers. The person he is trying to regain control over is himself, really. It had nothing to do with trying to make me do or not do anything. It was about releasing the tension inside. Afterwords there was first remorse and then, to save face, a shift of blame to me: “Why do you make me do this?”
    I’ve met people who treat batterers and this is how they described the cycle as well. Sometimes there are undiagnosed and untreated disorders such as depression, ADHD, and so on, but this feature of anger building up and releasing tension seems to hold true for most batterers. Feeling powerful over someone less so is certainly a factor but not the only one.
    This talks about some of the studies and classifications of batterers: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64431/

  2. Marc
    Jun 19, 2013

    Completely agree with your essay.
    I don’t know how it fits but this “it must be her fault” stigma is not limited to abusive relationship.
    I heard countless times this very same line used in case of rape, although mostly by very old people or on the net, “It must be her fault, she was dressed in a provocative manner”.
    Also in case of successful cons an incredibly common answer that grates me to no end is “It’s really their fault, that scam was obvious and so they deserve to lose their money”.
    This misplaced empathy with abusers, scammers, rapists is maddening.

  3. J
    Jun 19, 2013

    I was abused in my 1st marriage. We dated for 5 years before we married & not ONCE during that time did he raise a hand or threaten to. It wasn’t until we were married that he (later) told me that I had then become his problem & therefore correctable by him. And he didn’t HIT a lot either. He was much too bright for that. It was control & intimidation. Had I understood him back when we were dating, I would have seen his need for control back then, though it wasn’t violent. The day his boss asked me what *I* did to provoke him to violence was the day I moved out. It was ALWAYS his mentality that all his acting out was my fault. Delegated by him to me. Pretty much anything that went wrong in the world was my fault. It took some years after him to really get over the mind-f*ck he did on me.
    Good read, sir.

    • TheFerrett
      Jun 25, 2013

      I’m really sorry you went through that. I’m glad it’s now your first marriage.


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