What Counts as Violence Against Women?

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CW: domestic violence, PTSD

Half a year ago, a psychologist explained to me that the troubles I’d described having with my ex boyfriend constituted as a domestic violence relationship. I tried to swallow this as he told me about methods of therapy available to PTSD sufferers.

Months after the break up, I was fatigued, underweight, suffering anxiety attacks at work, and experiencing episodes of anger so intense they scared me. My body froze up the moment any man got too close, or raised his voice. Eventually this pushed me to quit my job and take program leave from ANU, because the thought of leaving my house and setting eyes on my ex or anyone who knew him made me hyperventilate. This was what had led me to finally visit the psychologist, as well as a GP. They both told me I was experiencing trauma, and that it often followed abusive relationships. Even then, I struggled to digest that I could really be a victim of domestic violence. So I looked around – in my life, on TV, in everything I read – for a woman who reflected my experience. But I couldn’t find one.

Of course, I knew about the issue of violence against women, as did my friends and family. But I couldn’t connect the discussions and images that I saw of the issue, with my own personal experience. All I’d seen in the media were men who were obviously monsters, and women cowering underneath them. This was what the people around me said counted as abuse.

My past relationship, however, wasn’t as black and white. I didn’t feel sure I counted as a victim, nor he as an abuser.

Yes, he’d gotten in my face during arguments. Yes, he’d put his hands around my neck. Yes, he’d treated ‘no’ as a contest. Yes, he’d told me that his being obviously superior, as well as a man, made it only natural for him to claim control of the relationship. It’s crazy to me now, but at the time I, and everyone in our social circle, remained unconvinced this was sufficient to be abuse. Why? Because I’d often argued back, sometimes publicly. He’d never actually hit me. I hadn’t run away, moved out of the home we shared, or even complained much. In fact, he left me. I simply didn’t ‘look’ like a woman who’d experienced abuse, and my ex didn’t look like a man who’d perpetrated it. I was ashamed my body was reacting as if I’d experienced a severe trauma, when nobody around me believed I had.

I wanted to know that there were other women in my shoes too, but I was unsure – a trial of ‘What counts?’ ensued in my head. Does it count if when he screams, you yell back? Does it count if other people saw, but didn’t feel the need to step in? Does it count if the trauma takes months to surface? Does it count if you’re typically confident, outspoken, a feminist, or if your friends and family keep saying they can’t believe it because you’re supposed to be ‘smart’ or ‘strong’? Does it count if your entire social network picks his side over yours, drops contact with you, and suddenly you’re the one with a terrible reputation? Does it count if he’s well liked, has female friends, if he walks by you on campus like he never hurt you? Does he have to leave marks? Whose stamp of approval do women need to get before what we experienced is ‘real’?

I’d seen many people talk about violence against women, but the narrow-minded images depicting such violence left me alienated and confused. I didn’t want to pick between being the naïve, frail victim, or the drama queen fabricating abuse. Other women don’t need the insulting burden of this choice either. Pigeonholing what violence against women looks like reveals a troubling societal belief that abuse can only occur between certain ‘types’ of men and women, or that the abuse needs to be extreme. Women who have experienced violence may find they don’t qualify as what a victim ‘looks like’, and feel required to justify how what they suffered is legitimate. The Stanford rape victim was repeatedly shamed for being intoxicated at the time of her assault. Plenty of media coverage regarding Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s divorce focused on her bisexuality and the couple’s age gap, labelling him a heartthrob and her a promiscuous gold digger. Time and time again we see heavily traumatized women forced to build a case to present to a society that’s eager to pounce on anything she may have done wrong – be it not being broken enough, or having a lesser reputation than her abuser.

The truth is this: with the frequency that violence against women occurs, we can’t afford to pretend it is limited to ‘certain types’ of men and women. Considering that macho talk and rape jokes are still widely deemed banter, and being groped while at a club is just considered ‘what happens’, it’s time we recognise that this issue is about men and women – period. But in reality, we’re afraid to consider that violence could be committed by guys we’re friends with, guys we go to class with, guys who may have shouted us a drink when we’re out. We’re also afraid to admit that victims of violence may not be restricted to naïve, one-dimensional women who don’t exist, but instead can be true for real women: women with pasts, personalities and experiences of their own; women who seem and indeed are smart and strong; women who we work with, sit next to, or see at parties. Maybe even women whose stories we’ve automatically doubted, that go deeper than the arguments with her partner over which we’ve cast a tactful eye – the women whose struggles we’ve undermined.

We all want to cling to the idea that the type of men who perpetrate violence are men we’d never associate with, and that therefore, the women we know could not possibly be victims. But the reality is, abusive relationships are comprised of many complex dynamics. Assault can occur in a variety of circumstances. Victims of emotional and physical violence don’t, and will never, all look the same. Some women may ‘fit’ the image of a victim more than others and some abusers may look a lot ‘nicer’ than others – so what are we as a society saying when we callously play a game of pick and choose regarding the women whose pain we deem real?

We’re struggling to recognise violence against women when it happens around us. But with the statistics we’re dealing with, we can be sure that if it hasn’t already, then at some point, it will. When it does, we all need to have the courage to identify it, and the integrity to insist that it is always unacceptable. If we don’t, then we as a society have deeply wronged the women who will be left wondering when they’ve suffered enough for it to really ‘count’.