This week, After Trauma will feature a 3 part series on intimate partner violence. Each post will cover one of the three actors in domestic violence: the abuser, the victim/survivor and society. Today’s column focuses on us, the observer, because the way society perceives and responds to interpersonal violence is important.
A reflexive response
Why doesn’t she just leave? I cannot count the number of times I have been asked this question. More striking than the words is the tone: disgust, impatience, derision all balled up into five common words. It’s hard to hear, and yet when working with clients in a relationship where there has been an escalating pattern of violence and listening to them rationalize and deny what’s happening, I have found myself confronting this very impulse and having to step back and observe this before I can move forward.
Why do we as a society blame the victim?
In Western culture, we tend to make dispositional attributions to events; that is we attribute actions and outcomes to individuals’ characters as opposed to situational or societal factors.
- Why won’t she just leave?
- Why was she walking on that street at night?
- Why was her skirt so short?
- Why didn’t he go to college?
- Why didn’t he have insurance?
Even when we know an event wasn’t the victim’s fault, we can find ourselves reflexively blaming them for what happened due to how we’re conditioned. It’s also a neat way to feel less helpless—after all, if a traumatic event was because of their bad decisions, then I can avoid the event by making good ones! It’s far more comfortable for me to blame it on their character or decisions than situational or fluke circumstances.
Further, in virtually every culture, humans have developed a way to explain things are going to happen: whether it’s responding to a disaster, or passing a test. What is not universal are the cultural explanations for these occurrences. People who live in individualist cultures, like that of most Western countries like the United States, tend to perceive an internal locus of control. That is, they tend to understand outcomes happening due to our choices. What’s the connection? Shiraev and Levy argue that: “In the case of Western cultures in particular, we are told from early childhood to believe that people can control their destiny and are masters of their fate [internal locus of control]. As such, society generally condones dispositional attributions while it discourages situational attributions [attribution error].” (4th ed. p 73)
So what’s the alternative?
As always, when it comes to our reflexive responses, the best thing to do is to observe yourself doing it, take a step back and think critically about your assumption.
With respect to victim-blaming assumptions, it can be helpful to consider how collectivist cultures explain events. They have less of a dispositional bias and tend to attribute events to situational factors—accident, extenuating circumstances or societal conditions. Incidentally (or not) collectivist cultures also tend to have an external locus of control, that is, they anticipate that future events are outside their control. Though I have not found research that investigates this, it’s intuitive that people who are taught an external locus of control instinctively look for outside forces at work and are better able to understand the influence that this has on people’s behavior.