October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and whether or not you've experienced violence at the hands of a partner or family member, you might be laboring under some misapprehensions about what domestic violence involves, who's affected, and what happens after DV. Myths about domestic violence, which is also known as intimate partner violence, are perpetuated in the media and in water-cooler conversations, from the old chestnut "well, she should have left him" to "it's not his fault because he had a hard childhood" (neither of these, by the way, are things you should ever say about domestic violence or survivors of it, because they aren't true.) Dismantling these myths is crucial to helping survivors, supporting resources that target the problem, and diagnosing the particular issues that create domestic violence in the first place. These are a few of the myths about intimate partner violence that come up all too often, and need to be debunked now.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 10 million people a year across the U.S. are abused by an intimate partner, which works out to nearly 20 people a minute. On just one day in 2015, a study by the Family & Youth Services Bureau found, over 31,500 people including children applied for emergency shelter or some kind of housing, and 7,728 of those requests had to be rejected because of a lack of resources or staffing. Domestic violence happens everywhere, and a major key to stopping it is to understand it by dismantling these common myths.
"It's All About Men Hurting Women"
It's true that much of intimate partner violence does affect women. In the UK, the charity Women's Aid reports that 92.4 percent of the domestic abuse court cases that were prosecuted in 2014 had male defendants, and 84 percent had female survivors. 44 percent of British female murder victims between 2014-2015 were killed by their partners, and nearly half of all American female murder victims in 2015 suffered the same fate, according to the CDC. But it's a myth to confine domestic violence entirely to men hurting women; it can mean men hurting other men, women hurting men, and women hurting other women.
Research by the LGBTQA charity Stonewall has found that 25 percent of lesbian or bisexual women and 49 percent of gay or bisexual men have experienced domestic abuse from a partner or ex-partner. In the transgender community in Scotland, 80 percent have experienced violence from a partner or an ex. In the UK, men made up around 40 percent of domestic violence reports between 2004 and 2009. The CDC notes that around 25 percent of all men will likely be victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives. Male victims, gay or straight, often report worries that their reports will not be believed and that shelters and resources are not designed to help them. While gender roles to have something to do with domestic violence, it's also foolish — and dangerous — to dismiss any other elements.
"It Affects All People Equally"
Domestic violence can pop up anywhere, regardless of socioeconomic status. Rich or poor, nobody is automatically protected. But some people appear to be more vulnerable than others, and two groups appear again and again in statistics as high-risk: women of color and transgender women.
The Department of Justice has noted that almost 50 percent of Native American women have experienced severe domestic violence, and the CDC made some seriously alarming discoveries in 2017 when they revealed that, between 2003 and 2014, Black women, Native American women and Hispanic women experienced the highest rates of homicide of all women in the U.S., and over half of those murders were domestic-violence related. TIME reported in 2014 that the problem is particularly vicious for Black women, who are three times more likely to be murdered by a partner than white women, and are less likely to seek help when an issue occurs. Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of death for Black women in America between the ages of 15 to 35.
The root causes of heightened violence against women of color are complex, but domestic violence experts believe they have to do with marginalization by support services, racist structures that mean men of color experience higher rates of unemployment, as well as distrust of police by both men and women of color, and other cultural and economic factors.
Finding accurate statistics about transgender domestic violence can be tricky, as it's likely to go underreported, but the Williams Institute suggests that 30 to 50 percent of all transgender people experience domestic partner violence at some point in their lives. Compared to an average of 20 percent among cisgender people, that's a serious leap.
"It Takes Two"
This is one of the most horrendously damaging of all domestic violence myths: that the person who experiences the abuse has in some way provoked it or deserved it, because the perpetrator has been "pushed" to a point beyond normal behavior. It's a point brought up in Patrick Stewart's harrowing speech in support of Amnesty International, above, in which he recalls police asking his mother what she'd done to provoke his father into beating her. The truth, as campaigners and survivors always emphasize, is that the choice of an abuser to abuse has nothing to do with the survivor's actions.
"It's Always Physical"
The image of the domestic violence victim as a battered woman leaves out quite a lot of the reality of domestic violence, but another reason that it's misleading is that it doesn't acknowledge that there are many types of intimate partner abuse beyond the physical. The charity Women's Aid defines domestic abuse as:
"an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence, by a partner or ex-partner. These incidents can include coercive control; psychological and/or emotional abuse; physical abuse; sexual abuse; financial abuse; harassment; stalking; and/or online or digital abuse."
Domestic abuse can involve monitoring a partner's phone, isolating them deliberately from friends and family, refusing them control or access to their money, perpetual insults and interrogations, and many other elements without ever involving violence. These components are just as serious, damaging and unhealthy; bruises are not the sole mark of an extremely dangerous relationship.
"Only Abused People Abuse"
There's a common conception that abused behavior is always "learned" from the behavior of one's own parents, family, or guardian figures in childhood. There is indeed a link between coming from a violent home and continuing the cycle of violence into the next generation, but that doesn't hold as a universal rule. Instead, anti-domestic violence campaigners Refuge explain that while encountering violence as a child is a "risk factor", many people who have violent home lives "are repelled by violence because they have seen the damage it causes. They would not dream of hitting their partner ... People who blame violence on their childhood experiences are avoiding taking responsibility for their actions. Violence is a choice an abuser makes." And some perpetrators have no history of abuse in their childhoods whatever.
"Abused Partners Can Always Leave"
Why don't abuse victims just walk out the door? This is one of the most pernicious myths about domestic violence and domestic abuse in general: that people who are in a controlled, dangerous environment can feel fully capable of escaping at any time. The reasons for not leaving a household with domestic violence are multiple, and often feed into other aspects of abuse: victims may have no control over their own finances, may be isolated from support networks, may have no time or ability to plan to escape without attracting suspicion and more violence, and may fear for the safety of other family members, children, and pets (who are often not allowed to come to domestic violence shelters, and who are also frequently used as a tool to control abuse victims, according to the RSPCA). Also, many abusers use other myths to convince victims to stay, saying that they were influenced by drugs or alcohol, that they were "provoked," and that it was a one-time thing they will never repeat.
"Many Domestic Violence Claims Are False"
The existence of false claims of domestic violence are often used to bolster arguments that the phenomenon is overblown, or that victims shouldn't be believed. However, the reality is that false claims are incredibly rare. A 2013 study of domestic violence allegations in the UK found that, compared to 111,891 prosecutions for domestic violence in 2011-2013, there were nine for making false domestic violence allegations. That is a minuscule number by comparison. In reality, the myth that allegations won't be believed because they might be "made up" actually discourages people from reporting domestic violence. 80 percent of women who experience domestic violence don't report it to the police immediately, partially because of fears that they won't be able to prove it or will be dismissed.
In addition to debunking these myths as you hear them in your day to day life, you can also support domestic violence survivors in other ways. To donate items, including your phone or unneeded clothing, volunteer your time or make a cash donation, find your local domestic violence shelter or organization using a search like DomesticShelters.org.