For many who experience domestic violence, a culture of victim-blaming has caused an understandable wariness of seeking medical help, and as a result, first responders can sometimes be the only medical professionals they encounter. Unfortunately, though, recent research has shown that first responders victim-blame just as much everyone else, even after domestic violence training. Published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, the study used a survey attached to a domestic violence education course to analyze the attitudes of emergency medical services (EMS) personnel toward victims of domestic violence. The results are a disturbing glimpse into how deeply ingrained myths about domestic violence can be, even in those who are supposedly impartial.
According to the survey, 45 percent of respondents reported that there was little they could do to help unless victims disclosed the abuse themselves — a belief that's blatantly untrue. Furthermore, Fusion reports that more than a third of those surveyed agreed with or were neutral about the statement that domestic violence was a "normal" response to daily frustrations, and 35 percent responded that abuse is a victim's fault if they stay with their abuser. Most disturbingly, 21 percent were neutral or agreed that female victims of domestic violence "secretly want to be abused."
Needless to say, such beliefs contribute to the cyclical nature of victim-blaming: When victims are confronted with shame and outright skepticism as soon as they reach out for help, it's no surprise that they're unlikely to seek further medical attention or go to the police, especially considering the stranglehold many abusers have on their victims' day-to-day activities. If they don't seek help, however, they're blamed for staying in the abusive relationship, and the cycle continues.
Study author Elizabeth Donnelly told Fusion that these harmful beliefs are "not unique to EMS personnel," and she's absolutely correct. Victim-blaming can be found everywhere, from pointed discussions of why women stay in abusive relationships (neglecting the fact that men can be abused as well) to implications that victims "provoke" their abusers into violence — and all the while, nobody is questioning what makes abusers abuse. It's not that medical professionals are more prejudiced than the general population; it's that they're subject to the same victim-blaming indoctrination as the rest of us.
That being said, EMS personnel are in a unique place to help thanks to their status as first responders. Although many victims of abuse refuse ambulance rides, thereby avoiding the attention of emergency room doctors, EMS personnel are the only medical professionals to actually see the abusive environment. As a result, they can provide support victims may not receive elsewhere — unless they believe damaging, stereotypical myths about domestic abuse.
There's no easy solution to improving harmful attitudes toward domestic violence, which are widespread and entrenched for many people. However, it's clear that something must be done to reduce the stigma, whether that's increased training in the subject for medical professionals, speaking out about victim-blaming, or openly acknowledging abuse. In all likelihood, true change will be brought about by all these things and more — hopefully sooner rather than later, because domestic violence isn't going anywhere on its own.