Last week a friend told me how she was feeling optimistic about the recent progress made in public attitudes to end domestic violence. The media turned up the volume to an unprecedented level in late 2014 to profile celebrity abuse cases. Obama interrupted the Grammy's with a poignant anti-abuse message. The Super Bowl was all about domestic violence ads. It's almost hip and even trendy to speak out against sex assault. We. Are. There. The tides have turned. The tipping point has been reached. Everyone finally gets it and ending domestic abuse is just around the corner.
Or is it?
I wish I could share her enthusiasm and optimism. But a new Angus Reid poll commissioned by Interval House, Canada's first shelter for abused women, shows that Ontario residents still privately hold some very disturbing and problematic attitudes about domestic violence. I fear we still have a long, long way to go.
The study revealed that nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of Ontarians believe that it is possible for someone to bring abuse upon themselves. And this belief is higher among men (34.3 per cent) than among women (14.1 per cent). The term victim-blaming is becoming more widely understood but this is clear evidence that victim-blaming is still entrenched in our community. And the fact that a startling 1 in 4 feel this way gets to the heart of one of the reasons why we have such an enormous issue with domestic violence in our country. It's precisely why many women are trapped and have trouble leaving an abusive relationship; because they are terrified they will be blamed, not believed or have internalized that it is somehow their fault.
Abuse is always the responsibility of the abuser. Always. If we want to significantly change attitudes and feel optimistic about progress then we need to hear people saying loudly that there is no action or choice by a victim that can ever justify abuse. Not if she cheats on him, if she's a bad cook, if she nags, if she hates his mother, if she is passive, if she has different priorities, if she's stressed out, if she doesn't feel like sex, if she likes to spend, if she's a poor communicator, if she hates mopping the floor or if she forgets his birthday.
And unfortunately, the poll's stats did not just show that we think abusers can sometimes be blameless for their actions. It also seems many of us wouldn't help an abuse victim if we had the opportunity. The Interval House study showed that only 58.3 per cent of Ontarians would consider intervening in an abusive situation if someone told them that their spouse or partner was abusive. Imagine your friend or co-worker or neighbour or sister telling you that her partner was being abusive and your choice is not to help? Domestic violence is largely kept behind closed doors because many people still think that what happens in someone's romantic relationship is simply not their business. We can be outraged by the reported actions of Jian Ghomeshi, Ray Rice and Bill Cosby but we are much less comfortable making waves when it's our neighbour, co-worker, teammate, friend or relative.
This is where the opportunity for real change can happen. Domestic violence is everyone's business. We need to make it safe for women to come forward and be supported and believed and helped.
It's okay to feel optimistic, like my friend, about recent progress. But we all need to get comfortable about continuing to speak out about ending abuse. We need to keep on talking about this until we do get there together. We cannot shut up. Not yet.
As International Women's Day approaches, we can embrace that it's time for change and for the domestic violence conversation to continue. Just like we've collectively altered public and private attitudes about smoking, seat belt wearing and drunk driving, we can raise our voices to change attitudes about the acceptability and responsibility of abuse. This week Interval House launched the #StopVAW social media campaign encouraging everyone to use the #StopVAW hashtag while posting a selfie with a stop sign to reignite the conversation and raise awareness. Other actions you can take to #StopVAW can be found at www.intervalhouse.ca/stopvaw
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