By Marjorie Ní Chobhthaigh
Victims, Abusers, & Survivors
- A Disclaimer
- Who gets abused?
- The Unspoken Public Health Crisis
- Who gets abusive?
- Warning Signs Someone May Be Abusive
- Can a person who causes harm ever change?
- Summary of Key Points
Disclaimer: In this section, I’ll be discussing concepts around gender and abuse dynamics in a very generalized kind of way that is heavily informed by my being American and having worked predominantly with Americans, albeit across a variety of demographics. Please note that this session is part of a basic “101” and isn’t meant to account for all possible scenarios. Although the dynamics of power and control remain the same, cultural and individual differences always apply in terms of how survivors process their experience, the ways an abusive person might justify their behavior, and the social factors that support or prevent its occurrence.
I ended up having to leave out a lot of information to stay focused as a 101, but Macha’s Justice will continue publishing for as long as it can serve its community with free or low-cost resources.
Who gets abused?
If you can, I encourage you to close your eyes and imagine a survivor of domestic violence. What do they look like? What’s their gender? Their race? Their income level? Are they employed? What’s their education level? What language do they speak? Fix this image in your mind; we’re going to come back to it.
When I do this exercise in person with groups, I’ll ask people who they imagined. Most say they imagined a cis woman. (“Cis,” or cisgendered, means someone whose gender lines up with the gender that doctors assigned to them at birth.) The room’s usually split in half on whether she’s white or a woman of color, but the majority say they imagined her as having a lower income, is probably on welfare, and with a lower level of formal education than most.
The reason I ask people to do this exercise is because it’s such a good way for us to confront our own internalized biases around domestic violence. The thing is, this archetype of a cis woman near poverty isn’t wrong – but neither is the woman of color with a doctorate, or the white woman who lives organic, or the Black man with a steady job as a paralegal, or the white trans man who works two part-time jobs, or the nonbinary Muslim person fresh out of high school with no idea what they want to do. Domestic violence occurs in all demographics across race, gender, sexuality, economic status, political affiliation, religion, culture, nationality, citizenship status, and every other possible sociopolitical identifier. There is no such thing as the “typical victim.”
That said, we do see a statistical increase in intimate partner violence when we see overlaps in minority identities. This means that a woman is statistically more likely to experience DV than a man, but a Black woman is at greater statistical risk than a white woman. This is because, in addition to inequalities around gender, we start introducing issues of how racism can limit a person’s ability to access resources and support. It doesn’t mean that people from a sociopolitical minority are inherently more violent: it means they’re also living in a system of other oppressions in addition to the trauma and stigma of domestic violence.
For example, the CDC and the Williams Institute tell us that, in the United States, 1 in 3 heterosexual woman, 1 in 3 lesbian women, and 1 in 2 bisexual women will experience some form of abuse from an intimate partner at least once in her life. For men, it’s 1 in 4 heterosexual men, 1 in 3 gay men, and 1 in 3 bisexual men. With these particular data points, women face greater risk overall, queer folks are at greater risk, and queer women are at even greater risk.
It’s worth noting that these statistics don’t include the demographics of the people who harmed them, by the way. People tend to assume that folks will date people within their own demographics, generally speaking, but that’s not always true.
I want to pause here to visit some basics on statistics as a form of gathering data, which tend to get thrown around a lot without any real explanation. The results of statistical information will depend on a huge variety of factors, especially when it’s on qualitative data around emotions and trauma. Domestic violence research involves finding individuals who feel comfortable admitting to a researcher, a complete stranger, that they’ve experienced abuse from someone they cared about. Do you think every survivor will be willing to do that? Are all researchers even using the same definition for domestic violence? And if the data set includes reports from service providers and medical professionals, I’ll be the first to say that it’s rare for those people to receive training on recognizing and addressing domestic violence unless it’s an explicit part of their job. Unfortunately, it often isn’t, and often the only kinds of violence they’ll notice is the kind that leaves physical or medical signs.
If the data isn’t being collected through face-to-face interaction, then it’s often going to be based on self-reported surveys, which don’t always use clear or accessible language. Or it might be gathered through the data reporting that nonprofits are required to submit to keep their funding grants, which have many of the same problems that the other methods of data collection do.
And what if we start including additional minority identities, not just gender, sexuality, and race? If we include people who are neurodivergent or mentally ill, have a physical disability, or chronic or acute illness, then ableism is added to the mix. If you’re poor, then you’ll have less access to resources like a lawyer or perhaps basic security on food and rent and healthcare. If you’re homeless, you may as well be invisible to society. None of these identities are more inherently violent than others, but they usually have fewer resources and less support, which means they’re more vulnerable to exploitation by people with certain social privileges. Studies tell us that Native women on reservations and trans people of color are at the highest risks of sexual violence and trafficking, and it’s not a coincidence that these demographics tend to face the most social and political oppression in other areas of life. Domestic violence is simply a personalized part of a much larger network of sociopolitical inequity and oppression.
This is why we can’t talk about gendered violence without talking about other forms of violence.
On top of all this nuance around the ways different identities and different privileges and oppressions can intersect in a single individual, a person’s story can include other challenges like childhood abuse or substance use as a coping mechanism. Ten percent of sex trafficking victims are trafficked by an intimate partner or a family member. Forty percent of childhood abuse survivors report that there was also domestic violence against a parent in the same home. Over seventy percent of domestic violence survivors report that their abuser maimed or killed one or more of their pets, and for someone who might be isolated from most human contact, that pet may have also been their primary source of comfort. Or maybe that pet was the expensive, trained service animal that was a key part of their ability to live independently or safely.
So my final point is, formal research shows that an estimated one third of the United States population experiences some form of violence from an intimate or dating partner. This general trend is also reflected in global statistics. Given how data collection around domestic violence works, however, the reality is almost certainly higher.
The Unspoken Public Health Crisis
So if it’s so common, why isn’t every single person scrambling to fix it? Well, lots of reasons.
For survivors, there’s fear of being blamed and even punished by other people for their own abuse, which is terribly common. They may not even recognize their experience as abusive, especially if they feel they deserved it or if it’s similar enough to the family dynamics they grew up with that they think it’s normal. They may also be reluctant to identify themselves as a survivor because of the stereotype I talked about at the beginning of this section: the survivor doesn’t want to be seen as “stupid,” “gullible,” or “just another statistic.” I’ve sat with survivors who experienced some horrific abuse from their partner but who will explain to me that they would know if they were being abused because they’re “not an idiot.” When the stories we tell ourselves about who gets abused and why conflict with the way we see ourselves, we often end up in denial or trying to find ways to explain why our situation is actually different from, you know, those people.
Even people who may be open to labeling abuse for what it is when women are victims may not do the same if the victim is a man. Because domestic violence is so strongly associated with women and “women’s issues,” men and masculine-of-center survivors are often overlooked, ignored, mocked, treated in an emasculating way, or even dehumanized. People believe that, sure, domestic violence is real and it impacts a lot of women, but surely a man can’t be abused by a woman. If a man is abused, it’s because he’s weak. Or maybe it’s because he’s secretly gay, which means he’s more feminine than a ‘real man’ and that’s why he’s so weak.
Again, some of this may sound ridiculous, but these are actual beliefs that I’ve encountered that contribute to the silencing of men survivors or the recognition of abusers who aren’t cis, heterosexual men. As current statistics show us, the lowest estimated number of men (regardless of sexual orientation) experiencing DV is more than a quarter of men in the United States. According to the 2014 US census, that’s almost 116,800,000 men.
It’s also not an accident that although domestic violence can be done by anyone, it statistically becomes likelier when the person causing harm can take advantage of pre-existing power structures to hide, justify, or rationalize the abuse. For example, members of the military are three times likelier to be abusive than the general population, and PTSD is only a small part of that story. Over 40% of law enforcement officers are known perpetrators of domestic violence. Most mass shooters as well as famous white supremacists have a known history of domestic violence or violent misogyny.
It’s possible that someone may not even recognize their behavior as abusive because their cultural context says that it’s natural for someone of their demographic. If a survivor is crying, well, they shouldn’t be so sensitive, should they? If they just accepted the natural order of things, everything would go more smoothly.
Some domestic violence resources say that people who cause harm aren’t the exception to our social rules: rather, they’re the people who learned society’s lessons too well. Why would they want to change a system from which they think they benefit, at least on the surface of things?
I want to look briefly at the pagan and polytheist community here. In addition to all the usual kinds of biases and stereotypes we all carry with us to some degree, we have additional stereotypes based on specific religious and magical traditions and even stereotypes about worshipers of specific deities.
So, personal story time: when I eventually realized that I was feeling called to na Morrigna, a collective of Irish goddesses associated with war and prophecy and sovereignty, I had a lot of personal struggle around it. It had been several years since my own abusive relationship, but I was still experiencing a lot of trauma symptoms. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why any deity – not even, like, just an ancestor, but a deity – as powerful and amazing as any one of the Queens would want to have anything to do with someone who was so weak and pathetic as to have allowed themself to live so long under abuse. Nowadays I can clearly recognize the victim-blaming and some of the classic trauma responses in myself, but at the time, these unhealthy beliefs actively interfered with my religious practice, and several times nearly destroyed it. My perception of who was an appropriate worshiper of the Queens and my perception of who I was were so diametrically opposed that I just couldn’t make myself be open to a different story.
Who gets abusive?
So we’re going to try a similar exercise to the first one. Close your eyes if you’re comfortable doing so and imagine a domestic violence abuser. What do they look like? Gender? Race? Clothes? Economic status? Education level? Fix that image in your mind.
When I do this with groups, there’s usually more general agreement that an archetypal abuser is a cisgendered man, heterosexual, white, between mid-20s to 40s. His economic status is assumed to be middle-class (or at least usually higher than his cis woman partner) and more people agree that he’d have at least some college education compared to our hypothetical woman survivor.
Like our hypothetical survivor, this vision is technically right. However, if your mental image differs in any way, including gender, you’ve probably guessed it: you are also right. While survivors can belong to any demographic, so can abusers. Gender, social and economic status, ethnicity, culture…these identities may shape how an abusive person expresses and justifies their behavior, but they are not themselves the cause of the abuse. People become abusers because of unmet needs, entitlement, justification, opportunity, and a lack of consequences.
It’s worth reiterating that every person has the potential to become a person who causes harm. In recent years, a number of well-known pagans have been outed as predators, in one way or another, and I can tell you, as both a survivor and as a professional, that survivors watch very carefully to see how their community responds. When community leaders are not held accountable for their behavior, or may be actively excused for their choices, we remember.
Violence starts as a learned behavior. No one is born a domestic abuser. If a child witnesses domestic violence and sees that vulnerability results in pain and that being aggressive keeps you safe and your needs satisfied, then it’s likelier that that child will internalize that dynamic and become an abuser themselves. Children learn through observing the adults and the world around them, and they learn to mimic behaviors even if they’re not old enough yet to understand the underlying reasons that motivate specific behaviors. If they observe actions which teach them that it’s okay to punch someone who makes you frustrated, or that saying cruel things is how you make someone do what you want them to do, then they will naturally believe that this is normal for how we interact with other people and this is how the world works. Of course you hit someone when you’re frustrated! They learn that in order to get their needs met – comfort, companionship, security – they must make it happen. As they get older, this can translate into entitlement: “My needs are more important than yours, and if you don’t do what I say or expect, then I will correct your behavior by whatever means are necessary until you learn better regardless of your own needs. If I don’t do that, then I become the vulnerable one, and to be vulnerable is to ask to get hurt.”
When boys are told to stop crying like a girl, to ‘man up,’ that showing physical or emotional affection makes them a ‘faggot’ or a ‘girl’ or otherwise results in punishment, then those boys are being molded by something we call ‘toxic masculinity.’ This doesn’t mean that masculinity itself is toxic or that being a boy or a man is wrong, not at all: it means that the way in which boys and men are expected to express their gender is itself harmful. It punishes boys and men for showing emotions that aren’t ‘manly’ enough, which usually leaves them with anger as their primary emotional outlet, and as they get older the main, socially acceptable form of physical affection they’re allowed is sexuality. But only certain kinds of sexuality! They can’t be gay or feminine, because that makes them vulnerable and weak. The mold of toxic masculinity forces boys into an unnatural shape, leaving them fewer healthy outlets that are socially acceptable or celebrated.
On the other hand, children socialized as girls are taught to be more accommodating, to be quieter, to be a ‘nice girl.’ Studies show that young girls are expected to do more household chores than boys of the same age. Toys marketed towards girls are overwhelmingly dominated by those that encourage emotional sensitivity, social bonding like baby dolls, and household-related roles like cooking and sewing. Boys are expected to focus on things like sports and physical fitness, spatial awareness, and puzzles or activities that focus on cognitive rather than emotional development. And there’s nothing wrong with being emotionally sensitive or enjoying cooking and sewing – unless it’s presented as a girl’s only choice and trying to move beyond those models punishes her. Young girls sometimes have a little more room for gender exploration than boys, like the whole ‘tomboy’ stereotype, but that’s because masculinity is the preferred default over femininity. Eventually she’ll be expected to conform to feminine expectations or risk being labeled ‘butch’ or a lesbian in a negative way that results in social punishment or isolation.
Not only does this reinforce narrow definitions of what it means to be boy or a girl, and that there are no other options in gender identity or gender expression, but it also sets up an adversarial relationship within that binary. Because binary limitations alone aren’t enough, let’s weaponize them against each other too!
Of course, I’m making generalizations here. Again, cultural differences apply, and so do differences between communities, families, and individual people. What I’m speaking to is a law of averages, specifically in American culture, although variations on this theme are certainly not limited to America.
As adults, straying too far outside of what your contextual society considers normal and expected can have consequences ranging from teasing, bullying, harassment, loss of employment and opportunity, restriction from resources, and even hate crimes and murder. It becomes a vicious cycle of group pressure imposing restrictions on people who grow up constrained, and they often turn around to impose those same restrictions on the next generation. On the personal level, this is how domestic violence gets perpetuated through families: the dysfunction is internalized by a child, normalized within the family, and then expressed when that person grows up and has their own children.
In social services, you’ll sometimes hear the phrase, “Hurt people hurt people.” This describes the phenomenon in which people who have been victimized in some way, especially on a chronic basis such as with child abuse or domestic violence, will end up becoming abusive towards other people themselves. This may sound counterintuitive, but there are many reasons this can happen: it might be the behavioral message that children can internalize, as I described before, but it can also be someone who is so determined never to feel powerless again that they end up overcorrecting and becoming aggressive in an attempt to protect themselves. Sometimes a person who is carrying trauma from their past will get triggered or activated by an incident that in some way recalls that past trauma, and the resulting response is the brain’s survival side suddenly kicking in.
Statistically, many people who cause harm have themselves been harmed in the past and their abusive behaviors are often informed by that past trauma, to one degree or another. This isn’t true for everyone, of course, but there is a statistical relationship. This is why it’s currently considered best practice to use the term “person who causes harm”: it places personhood first, acknowledging that real people aren’t supervillains while also reaffirming that violence is a choice, not an innate characteristic.
However, at this point I want to reaffirm that understanding why someone might be abusive does not at all mean that their behavior is justified. We can’t control what we feel, but we do control how we choose to express those emotions. You can be compassionate towards someone while also holding your boundaries and making them accountable for their actions. I truly believe that accountability, when done correctly, is an act of compassion because it says, “I know you have the potential to be better than you are in this moment, and not only do I deserve better, but so do you.”
Domestic violence tends to occur when there’s opportunity to do so, when it can be justified by the people or culture surrounding the relationship in something we call ‘social collusion,’ and when there aren’t immediate consequences for the abuser. Alcohol and other substances don’t cause abuse, although they can exacerbate whatever pattern of abusive behavior is already present. Same with life stressors: we tend to see the severity of DV increase with issues like unemployment, but those factors are feeding into a fire that was already burning.
Warning Signs Someone May Be Abusive
Because people are complex creatures, some of the warning signs I have listed here can be indicative of an issue other than domestic violence. Others are pretty straightforward. This list isn’t exhaustive: when in doubt, remember to look for patterns of behavior, context, and especially the repeated undermining of a partner’s consent or own needs.
Pushing for quick involvement (“moving quickly”) – these are the relationships in which things roll quickly: moving in together after a few weeks of dating, getting married after a few months or even sooner, etc. This is often framed in a romantic way, such as the “whirlwind romance.”
Jealousy, possessiveness – which are usually played off as being romantic. It’s not.
Controlling behavior (“being dominant”) – if someone takes pride in being ‘dominant’ or even admits to being aggressive and thinks it’s a good thing, that’s a huge red flag.
Unrealistic expectations from the other person and the relationship itself. For example, a person may have a specific idea in mind on what their perfect partner is like, and they will do what they can to force someone to meet that idealized image whether or not that person wants to.
Isolation – In addition to some of the methods I described in Part 1 of this class, an oddly common form of isolation I see is abruptly moving to another city or state, or moving to a more rural area. This removes the victim from close social networks and familiar geography, and in the case of rural areas…well, no one can hear you scream. But it can also be social, if not physical.
Blaming other people or factors, the abusive partner always presenting themselves as the victim.
Hypersensitivity, especially the kind where disagreement is almost always seen as a personal attack. This one can be complicated in the sense that a lot of survivors of abuse, especially childhood abuse, can appear to be hypersensitive as a result of the trauma. We learn to read into tone and body language and changes in behavior as a survival tactic, but once we’re out of that situation the habit often lingers in unhealthy ways. It can also be indicative of certain mental illnesses or some forms of neurodivergence, like ADHD, where rejection sensitivity may be a factor. Hypersensitivity needs to be taken in context.
Rigid roles, especially around culture and especially around gender. In the pagan community, this can translate into what a witch or devotee is allowed to do, or believed capable of doing, based on the sex they were assigned at birth.
Taking your own romantic or sexual history as a personal threat to their own masculinity or emotional security, particularly if they use it as a way to emotionally manipulate you or to ‘win’ arguments. This might look like slut-shaming, whether or not the alleged sexual history is actually true, or accusations of being frigid or prude.
Cruelty to animals and children, or threats towards them.
So-called“playful” use of force during sex. Everybody has their sexual preferences, but there should always be room for negotiation or discussion if the partners have different preferences; a partner getting a bit rougher without prior discussion, and then playing it off as a ‘joke’ or ‘just a little spice’ when the other person tries to slow it down or stop it, is a red flag. In many cases, it’s the first step towards escalating sexual violence.
Verbal abuse – pay attention to how someone treats not just waiters, waitresses, and other customer service people but also children and animals: basically anyone that the partner has some degree of power over. It’s often a good indication of how a partner handles power over others and how they’re likely to start treating someone after the honeymoon phase has worn off.
Sudden or unpredictable mood swings, especially the kind where they say one thing and do the opposite, or if they act like a disagreement or incident never happened, or if they have a reaction that’s disproportionate to an event.
History of abuse – it’s not a betrayal to do an Internet search on someone’s name to see if they have any assault or DV convictions! (These are sometimes specific to counties, not states, so make sure to check previous counties of residence.) You might be surprised how often I see respondents in court with their new girlfriend, and the new girlfriend is acting like he’s being victimized and she’s somehow going to be the one to heal him. At least in my own professional experience, you are never the exception in someone’s pattern of domestic violence.
Threats of violence, including ones passed off as bad jokes. Threats of violence can be nonverbal, such as leaving weapons lying around unnecessarily: this is a documented tactic often done in particular by abusive people who are gang members or who have a military or law enforcement history.
Entitlement to your time, attention, money, sex, housing, text messages and voicemails, and basically anything else that’s yours. Privacy is limited or even nonexistent; no part of your life is allowed to simply be your own and separate.
Can a person who causes harm ever change?
Yes. If violence is a learned behavior, it means we can also learn to do better. But the likelihood of that change being long-term or permanent requires that several criteria be met. The person causing harm must:
- Recognize that their behavior is wrong;
- Take responsibility for their own behavior without making excuses;
- Sincerely want to change;
- Be proactively involved in getting help for themselves.
Success is likelier if there are also consequences for the person if they fail to continue their process of change. The consequences can be legal, such as losing custody of their children or facing criminal charges; social, such as losing a job or their circle of friends or their family’s support; or personal, such as losing the relationship in which they caused harm entirely. Incentives also help: this might include regaining custody of children, or it might be the reestablishment of personal relationships with friends, family, and occasionally even partners. All of this has to come with the understanding, however, that change isn’t a matter of jumping through a handful of hoops and bam, you’re done and forgiven, but rather than what has been earned can be lost again if there’s backsliding into abusive patterns of behavior.
None of this is easy, even if we’re not looking at a long history of ingrained behavior and possibly even trauma. Failure to internalize permanent change is very common and it’s not at all unusual for abusive person to eventually slide back into old patterns. But change is possible.
Community accountability processes which don’t involve legal interventions is a tool that has been gaining greater awareness in mainstream conversations about interpersonal violence since the escalation of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by law enforcement. I know some pagan communities have attempted these before, with varying degrees of success. If your community is one of them, please know that these processes take time and educating all the parties involved, including community leaders and members: there are lots of incredible resources out there, and if you want to avoid making some of the most common mistakes of folks with the best intentions but less practical knowledge around dynamics of interpersonal violence, encourage everyone involved in your community’s process to seek out that help. If you’re not sure where to start, Macha’s Justice itself can offer some suggestions too.
Summary of Key Points
1. Domestic violence occurs in all demographics and by up to a third of people in the US alone. It is experienced and also perpetrated by individuals across all demographics. There is no “typical victim” or “typical abuser.” Anyone can experience domestic violence and anyone can turn out abusive.
2. However, individuals who experience other forms of oppression, such as racism and ableism, are more likely to experience domestic violence and may be unable or unwilling to reach out for support. This may be due to dynamics of sociopolitical oppression, discrimination from law enforcement or social services, fear of losing support from their community, or the services simply don’t exist or aren’t accessible. You cannot fight for gender justice without also fighting for justice of other vulnerable demographics.
3. “Toxic masculinity” is a term describing how masculinity is expressed in unhealthy ways, not that masculinity itself is unhealthy, and it has detrimental effects not only on other genders but also on men and masculine folks themselves.
4. Domestic violence is a learned behavior, not an innate one. People who witnessed or experienced family violence in childhood are statistically more likely to experience or perpetrate domestic violence in adulthood.
5. Change is possible, but for an abusive person to be likely to change their behavior permanently, they must acknowledge that their behavior was abusive, accept responsibility for it, sincerely desire to change their ways, and proactively seek help for themselves on an ongoing basis.
If you have questions or feedback, you may leave a comment or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.