Years ago, we did not speak about domestic violence. It was only when survivors started sharing their stories, and our communities began talking about it that we began to change the cultural norms that let abusers act with impunity.
Recently, we have heard many stories involving celebrities accused of perpetrating domestic and sexual violence. Such high-profile cases nearly always touch off a great deal of public discussion — in the news, on social media and around our dinner tables.
These conversations are as important today as they were 40 years ago. As we have them, we should be sure to remember the many lessons we have learned along the way as we have grown our community response to domestic violence.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Abusers are very good at manipulating people and systems. It is well documented that abusive people treat their partners differently than they do the rest of the world. Many abusers never appear abusive when they are outside of their homes. That ability to fly under the radar is a key part of what makes it possible for them to maintain control in the relationship.
Anytime we hear reports of abuse, it is important that we hear them through this filter and not fall into the trap of disbelieving simply because we want to. We must be able to acknowledge that our ideas about people do not preclude them from acting in ways that are fundamentally bad.
Reaching out for help isn’t easy — especially if you are in the spotlight. For most people who experience violence at the hands of a partner, speaking out about what has happened to them is incredibly difficult. It can be particularly challenging if that partner is a prominent person who is likely to garner lots of public sympathy.
In cases like these, survivors know they are not only going to have to deal with the difficult journey ahead — perhaps the dissolution of a long relationship, or a criminal justice case that feels out of their control, or trying to reconcile as a family after violence — but they know that they are going to have to do all of that under a microscope, as well as face the gauntlet of public opinion.
It’s enough to keep many people silent or make them regret reaching out for help in the first place. As we discuss these high-profile cases, we should recognize these dynamics and conduct our conversations with compassion.
Survivors should have a right to privacy and dignity. Maine is like a big small town. When a crime is reported within the context of an intimate partner relationship, and the accused perpetrator’s name becomes public, some people will usually be able to guess the victim’s identity. Nevertheless, there are factors in place to help maintain survivors’ privacy as much as possible — because as a culture we recognize that domestic violence is both a very personal crime and an extremely dangerous one, and we all have a stake in ensuring people feel they can come forward to seek help.
To that end, video cameras are barred from court cases involving domestic violence, and some news organizations have policies prohibiting the naming of victims.
When the alleged perpetrator is famous, it may seem unnecessary (or, dare I say, inconvenient) to adhere to such rules. However, the fact of the alleged abuser’s fame does not in any way diminish the reasons we have recognized for why survivors deserve privacy.
Even in high-profile cases, we should follow the guidelines we have set for ourselves and leave it up to survivors to come forward publicly if they wish. To do otherwise is to let the alleged abuser’s fame be used against the person who has been harmed.
The way we treat survivors in the public eye sends a message to others. Not so long ago, people experiencing abuse were expected to silently put up with the violence their loved ones perpetrated against them. We have come a long way since those days, but the complexity of the dynamics and the stigma associated with abuse continues to make it difficult for people to come forward and seek help.
Whether or not cases are highly publicized, the way we all respond to and talk about this issue matters. Our conversations send a message about how survivors can expect to be treated, and whether or not abusers will be held to account. As we talk about domestic violence, we must remember the power that our words have to shape the culture around us. If we wish to end abuse, we can’t do it by ignoring it when it is convenient for us to do so.
While many of us recognize the complexity of domestic violence and consider the above factors when discussing it, we often lose sight of them when the case in question involves a celebrity. But in these high-profile cases, it is perhaps more important than ever to think critically about our response.
Our role here is not to rush to judgment, but rather to check our assumptions and our beliefs about how we want the world to be, and to allow space for the possibility that even our heroes can do wrong.
Regina Rooney is the public awareness coordinator for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.