Editor’s note: Because of the sensitivity of these issues, victims and perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual abuse spoke to us for these two stories on condition of anonymity. Names and identifying details have been changed accordingly.
BRATTLEBORO— It’s late. Crossing the dark parking lot, you notice two of the streetlights have gone out. Another person walks toward a car at the other end of the deserted lot. The person pauses to look at you.
Do you confidently amble on your way?
Do you double-check that your car keys are at the ready and walk faster?
Most women do the latter. It’s one of the many habits acquired over the lifetime of a woman in American society.
Do X, and you’ll be safe. Do Y, and they won’t notice you. Dress like Z, and you won’t get raped.
“As long as women are less safe, they are less free,” says Shari, an advocate at the Women’s Crisis Center in Brattleboro, an organization that has aided women dealing with domestic violence for more than 35 years.
Advocates like Shari — who guard their last names because of the threat of violence surrounding their line of work — have offered counseling, accompanied women to court dates, drawn up safety plans, helped women relocate, and found them shelter in secure locations.
“We don’t have all the answers,” she says. “We don’t know what freedom will look like, but it’s what we want to work towards.”
It’s time for change, the advocates say — for women to define freedom for themselves and to be free from men’s violence. It’s time, they say, for the Women’s Crisis Center to expand its services and goals beyond triage and into improving society for all women.
“Until we’re all free, none of us are,” says Co-director Vickie Sterling.
This month, the Women’s Crisis Center will become the Women’s Freedom Center.
Donna Macomber, the center’s other co-director, says the issue of men’s violence toward women is not about crises, but about the culture’s acceptance of men’s violence as a natural and logical part of men’s behavior.
The advocates at the center hope that the name change will “restart the conversation” about men’s violence, women’s rights, and how to reorganize the culture to support women’s freedom.
The word “crisis” implies unresolved violent situations and desensitizes society to the issue, the center’s staffers say. But the word “freedom” is active and open, and nothing to cringe about, says Shari.
Focusing on freedom raises the bar to supporting women beyond the survival level, says Macomber.
“We want to ask for more sustainable kinds of support for women,” she adds.
Listening to the experts
“At its root, the Women’s Crisis Center believes women are the experts on their own lives,” says Macomber.
She describes the advocates’ goal as keeping women safe throughout a span of abuse. Advocates don’t have any agenda, she says, and they ask only what the woman is dealing with and how she wants to manage her situation.
Women know whether it’s safe for them to leave an abusive relationship or to report a rape. They know best how to protect their children.
One client, Tracy, called the Crisis Center after a former partner threatened to kidnap their child.
Tracy had loaned him some money. “You’ll never see a dime,” he said. “And someday, I’m going to take your child, and this is the only warning you’ll get.”
The threat sat over her like a boulder on a string, she says. Any second, the string could snap.
She didn’t feel she could call the police because the man hadn’t broken the law. Yet.
“It floored me,” said Tracy.
The incident left her feeling “powerless, pissed, terrified, and threatened,” she says.
Jessica, another survivor of abuse, agrees.
It’s not a “them or us” situation. Violence can happen to any woman, she says.
Jessica went to the center for support three times over 10 years — once after a situation of domestic abuse, another time after a rape by a stranger, and then after an ex-boyfriend stalked her.
She says that she never felt the advocates told her what to do. Instead they gave her the right to make her own choices, without judgment.
She knew that she could go to the center or call 24/7, and that she would be welcomed and not treated as a burden.
She chose to divorce her husband, not report the rape, and deal directly with her stalker by writing a letter telling him his behavior had to stop or she would report him to the police.
Tracy says that she felt embarrassed about calling the Women’s Crisis Center.
“Here I was, an educated, bright woman, and I didn’t feel I fit that [abused woman] demographic,” she says.
But she says the advocates viewed her as a whole person. She never felt victimized or pitied. She walked into meetings with the advocates “like the CEO of my own company” rather than a “pathetic loser.”
“It’s almost a blessing it [the abuse] happened,” Tracy says. She credits the center with helping her “reframe” and “refract” the situation to see it in a new light.
With the help of the advocates, Tracy enrolled in numerous social programs, like WIC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s program that provides food and health care to women, infants, and children.
Tracy returned to school, opened her own business, and resolved anger with family members. Gradually, she shed the social programs and now supports herself and her children as a professor. She also reports being in a long-term, healthy, and loving relationship with a kind, caring man.
During the stalking episode three years ago, Jessica also experienced embarrassment. She asked herself how she could get into such a situation. Wasn’t she smart enough? What did she do to her ex-boyfriend that he would do this?
Society thinks that abused women are a separate demographic, and that it’s the woman’s job to fix an abusive situation, says Jessica. But she knows that his stalking resulted from his issues, not her actions.
She says that she has learned to trust herself and mine the positive from the bad situations rather than stagnate in the feelings of “this was done to me.”
Jessica now works as an advocate at the Women’s Crisis Center.
A matter of men’s violence
Macomber says that she understands that focusing on men’s violence can give the impression that the center only considers heterosexual relationships dangerous and believes that women are never violent toward same-gender partners.
It’s true that abuse can happen in homosexual relationships and that women can be violent, she says, adding that the center also supports lesbian and bisexual women in abusive situations.
But “we’re just trying to keep focus on a gendered phenomenon, because men commit most of the violence,” she says.
When men fear or experience violence, it’s from other men rather than women, Macomber points out.
Also, advocates say, focusing on women’s violence in a gender-neutral manner gives a free pass to the men responsible by allowing society to focus anywhere but on the root problem of male violence.
For generations, society has operated as a patriarchy, the advocates say, placing men in general — white men, specifically — as kings of the mountain. As a result, men have inherited most of the power, entitling them to roles like the head of household, the decision-makers, or the wage earners.
Many of society’s rules also reinforce men’s position of being in charge, say advocates.
Macomber says that even though most men did not ask for the status awarded by patriarchy, they still benefit from it.
However, Sterling says, no one at the soon-to-be Women’s Freedom Center spends her day bashing men. She says that the advocates believe men can be allies and that by supporting women’s equality, they also support their own.
“On some level, we’ve all been touched by it [domestic violence],” Shari says.
One out of three women have experienced domestic abuse.
Or, to flip it around, one out of three men abuse women.
In its last fiscal year, from July 2009 to this past June, the center responded to 1,147 phone calls to its hotline, and offered counseling and other services to 356 women and their 311 children. The agency provided shelter to 47 women and their 51 children.
Sterling says that domestic abuse is a reason that men can be great allies in changing society’s view toward violence against women.
Many men grew up in violent homes, yet they have made the choice not to batter women.
The advocates are calling on men to step up and hold themselves and other men accountable for sexist or violent behavior.
Why doesn’t she just leave?
If it happened to me, I’d leave. This attitude presumes that women have the choice to avoid a man’s violent behavior, Shari says.
For most women, it’s more dangerous to leave, especially from the first seven hours through the first few months after an incident.
But “the burden [to change the situation] is always on the person experiencing the violence,” Sterling says.
Advocates point out that society doesn’t expect the batterer to change, or leave, or stop the abuse.
For example, another advocate says, after responding to a 911 call, state authorities might ask a mother why she didn’t do a better job protecting her children from a raging father, rather than asking the father, “Why did you think this was okay?”
There’s an unspoken assumption that a man’s violent behavior results from a woman’s actions, they say.
Donna says she has problems with the words “prevention” and “sexual assault” in the same sentence.
She says rape victims are asked, “What were you wearing? Did you lead him on?”
What if the burden were placed on men? What if the male abuser were asked, “You know rape is wrong, so what made you think you had the right?”
Jessica chose not to report her rape. She went through the tests for HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy. At the center, she worked through her feelings of embarrassment and shame.
But, like many other victims, she chose not to file a report because she didn’t want to be asked, “what were you wearing?” or relive the experience multiple times in police interviews or a court case.
Advocates also point out society’s impulse to excuse an abusive man’s behavior, saying that he was “just” angry or tired, or that things aren’t going well for him at work.
If that’s the case, they say, why does he abuse his female partner rather than take out his anger or whatever else he is feeling on his boss, neighbor, friends, parents, or the other man ordering a coffee at Starbucks?
Anatomy of an abusive relationship
“Battering tends to be serial behavior. It’s never over,” Shari says.
A batterer will often abuse his current partner. And the next. And the next.
Sometimes, batterers will attack their victims years after the women have left the relationship.
Abuse takes many forms. It can be hitting, manipulating, terrorizing, or even simply hiding the car keys.
Verbal abuse can take the form of “Oh, honey, don’t wear that dress — all the men will be looking at you.”
Or it can be, “Baby, you shouldn’t hang out with those friends, because they’re a bad influence.”
Or, “Of course, you burned the toast again. You can’t do anything right.”
Abuse generally starts small and escalates over time, the advocates say. If a man punched you on the first date, there wouldn’t be a second one.
But abusers carefully test the waters, seeking out soft spots and looking for where they can take control, they say. The goal of abuse is control.
Often an abuser will isolate a woman from outside support systems and erode her self-esteem. She will believe that she can’t live without him, or that she’s stupid, or dirty, or that it’s all her fault. Thus, she will think she doesn’t deserve respect, compassion, or love, or that she doesn’t deserve to live free of abuse.
Jessica says her therapist had to point out her husband’s behavior. In her marriage, he had isolated her from her friendships.
She says that she entered the Women’s Crisis Center in a cloud, but eventually felt that she could drop the “everything’s OK” mask.
Women leaving abusive situations also face hurdles like a three-year waiting list for housing, entering the job force without adequate skills, and finding child care or legal aid. Sometimes these obstacles can loom larger than the abuse.
From Crisis to Freedom
The Women’s Crisis Center began in the 1970s as a necessary response to violence toward women in the community, Macomber says. At the time, few took domestic abuse seriously. The foremothers had to shelter women and educate the community.
Women and their male allies have made many strides in women’s rights since the early 1970s, says Shari, but adds that these rights haven’t gone far enough, despite people’s impression the work has been completed.
The center’s domestic abuse hotline still rings, 24 hours a day.
Macomber hopes that the community will participate. “We want our community’s best thinking and how to step up and help,” she says. “We have [the community’s] support, but we want active support.”
The name change, she says, is laced with the possibility of women thriving and expanding in society.
She hopes that local organizations and community members will participate in the conversation, and find ways to increase women’s access to support and resources. She challenges people to imagine lasting benefits and change.
“It’s humbling and staggering, but it keeps the work alive. Hope is what gets advocates out of bed in the morning,” Macomber says.
Jessica calls the elimination of the word “crisis” from the center’s name “incredible.” The word “crisis” makes everything feel huge, and may turn some women away, she says; she remembers asking herself before calling the center the first time, “Is this [situation] bad enough to call?”
To her, the word “freedom” gives women permission to realize what they want their emancipation to look like and what they want to do in their lives.
Tracy says that the name change reflects work the center is already doing: helping women gain confidence and supporting them through their hard times.
She says that she feels freer after walking through the center’s doors, and that the women there helped her realize her right to listen to herself and to choose her life’s path.
After working with the center, drama is unattractive, Tracy says.
“My mistakes are my mistakes. I’m the chess board, not the chess pieces, and freedom is ownership of myself,” she says.
The advocates at the center say the change may affect their funding, because most funding organizations focus on the “crisis” part of what the center does, such as providing emergency shelter, rather than on long-term change, such as funding a college degree.
Macomber feels, however, that the name change represents a leap of faith worth taking.
“How can we ask for anything less than freedom?” she asks.