If there is anything that chips away at our souls more than people not believing women when they say men abuse them, it’s when the people who are listening suggest that women should buck up and be more assertive as a solution. Because insisting that women should be stronger in the face of physical or sexual violence, or that violence can be prevented with a little more confidence, not only misses the point, it also serves to perpetuate the culture that turns domestic abuse into a woman’s problem, when really, it’s a mess that men need to start cleaning up, too.
For starters, women are generally just tired of being told what to do or that we should do more. Saying we should “do more” in this context somehow implies that we invited the harassment or violence, instead of recognizing that, as human beings, we have autonomy over our bodies and we are not just vacant spaces waiting to be penetrated or struck by someone else.
Next: Being “strong” or “tough” has nothing to do with how we end up in violent relationships. Intimate partner violence doesn’t discriminate and can happen to anyone. Yet, this weekend, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway went on CNN to tell Jake Tapper that she wasn’t worried about White House communications director Hope Hicks, who is reportedly dating Rob Porter, the top staffer who resigned last week after his two ex-wives and a former girlfriend publicly accused him of domestic abuse, including strangulation, kicking, and verbal abuse.
Conway told Tapper that Hicks was “strong” and “capable” and had a good support system; therefore, she will be just fine. As if having friends and a can-do attitude will stop a man’s violence from impacting your life.
Although it’s a good rule to never listen to anything that comes out of Conway’s mouth, this position on domestic violence is basically the only consistent thing about this administration. In 2016, Conway also said that rape wouldn’t exist if women were physically strong like men. Eric Trump said that his sister Ivanka is “too strong” to “put up with” sexual harassment in the workplace. There are infinite people in this world, both women and men, who think that a woman should be strong enough to “just leave” a violent relationship. The directive that a women should be strong is a code for “you shouldn’t be the kind of woman who gets choked in her kitchen,” as if violence something we can prepare for. There is no such “type” of woman. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime.
Do you know what that really means? It means 10 million women and men are abused each year, or 20 people per minute in the U.S. alone. The longer we spread this vile idea that women being more confident and strong is the antidote to toxic masculinity, the more time we’re wasting not teaching men to stop treating us like their punching bags.
Conway’s suggestion is similar to that of the New York Times‘ Bari Weiss. who wrote an op-ed after a woman came forward about her “date gone wrong” with Aziz Ansari. Weiss suggests that the woman could have ended the date a million times before Ansari even began pushing sex. Her advice to women spending time with men, “If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.”
Teaching women to have confidence, to expect respect in their relationships, and to advocate for themselves in the moment is all good. Those are qualities we should all want for each other. But that’s just one part of it. When we say that a woman wasn’t “strong enough” to leave an abusive home, we’re blaming her for something she could not predict, did not ask for, did not know was coming.
Telling women not to “put up with” harassment or violence oversimplifies all of the factors that go into physical or emotional abuse. That oversimplification means that our law enforcement and justice systems, which are made up of humans with unavoidable biases, continue to see victims as people who somehow, because they did not leave, deserved to be abused. It also makes it harder for women to come forward because they fear the judgmental questioning from people like Conway about why they stayed or what they did to encourage the abuse.
Domestic abuse survivors can be strong and capable and have a support system and still be victims of domestic violence. And even if you don’t think they meet those requirements, they still deserve support and justice.