Why would you stay? If someone hit you, why would you stay? If your partner beat you, harassed you, assaulted you, raped you, why? How could you stay with that person? Why wouldn’t you come forward with your story?
Coming of age as a young woman in America, these were questions that crossed my mind more than once. Growing up and hearing stories of rape, assault, and abuse, I assumed it to be illogical for women in toxic or abusive relationships to remain. Of course, I was naive. I was oblivious and lacked a complex understanding of the world around me. I could barely open my locker, much less understand or analyze the pervasive nature of gender roles.
But, as I’ve grown up and experienced, unfortunately, some of these realities firsthand, I have come to realize that the understanding of a survivor’s experience remains under-considered and oftentimes completely unspoken. There is something more complex that lays beneath the surface of toxic relationships and power dynamics. Undoubtedly, emotional and physical abuse suffered in the moment is deplorable and often times unbearable. But what happens after that? What are the consequences for the women in these relationships? It’s more than just a Stockholm syndrome effect, it’s an intrinsic self-degradation and a consistent need for a source of external validation, however dangerous that source may be. And the need for this validation, the need to be valued as pretty, hot, skinny, sexy, etcetera, etcetera is a seed that is planted much earlier than the relationships themselves.
In high school, I thought I was in my first relationship: experimenting with physical and emotional intimacy. But really, I was fifteen, insecure, uninformed, and my first foray into the romantic sphere was marked by constant physical and emotional threat, abuse, and manipulation. That was my normal. I had little to no basis for comparison. Did it really matter how I was treated as long as I had someone who was interested in me?
By the time I was sixteen I had lost my virginity without having my first kiss, stopped eating regular meals, and came home in tears more nights than not. At that point in my life, I was attending one of the best high schools in the world. I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship, have the opportunity to travel, study, join clubs, play sports, sing my heart out, the list goes on. Anything I wanted to do I was provided with the opportunity to achieve. And I didn’t care. That’s not what gave me any sense of self-worth. It was who thought I was hot when I wore my Nike spandex shorts to a chaperoned school dance. That was validation; that was sexy. That was all I wanted to be for almost half of my high school experience. That was my normal. I would not be able to name my situation for what it was, abuse, for years to come, let alone admit it to anyone else. It wouldn’t dawn on me until one supportive boyfriend and a couple years later just how damaging that was. It wouldn’t dawn on me until much later, i.e. now, how much time and effort would be needed to fully understand and erase the mindset I had adopted up until that point in my life.
Entering my junior year, I had an older friend notice my changes and grow concerned about me. She told me, “I think you need to find some form of validation within yourself this year. You have a lot going for you, and this is a time where things start to matter. Pick something you have complete control over your like grades, sports, or a club. Tell yourself you are going to get the best grades of your life or train harder than you ever have before. Then, whatever happens with him, you can look back on what you’ve accomplished when you graduate and say: I did that.”
And this was it. This was the single most revolutionary statement I’d ever heard: to base my self-worth in myself.
I couldn’t quite grasp that the confidence could from something I did rather than the way I dressed or fulfilled a certain expectation of gender performativity, which, albeit I didn’t know that phrase yet. I was shocked to realize that I could create my own validation, a kind that wouldn’t fluctuate based on the whims or hormonal urges of a teenage boy. I cannot capture how much self-pity I feel reflecting on that moment. What’s more upsetting, however, is how I feel knowing that there are countless young girls feeling the same way right now, wondering how it’s possible to value themselves independently of the hookup or dating culture they find themselves in. Can’t we do better than that? Can’t we teach girls, from the moment they’re born, that how they feel about themselves does not have to entirely depend on a commodified image they consume, recreate, and project, but rather on their own passions, strengths, and ambitions?
There was a line I was taught to walk, to try to be pretty enough to get guys to want me and girls to envy me, but never to believe that I was pretty myself. Growing up, this was reflected through revolving fashion and beauty standards based on the hottest pop princess at the time… A few years later, this would transform into the image of the Cool Girl: a recipe for the perfect woman sexualized enough to be desirable and carefree enough to be non-threatening. Of course, these public images are not the sole reason toxic relationships form or why women stay in them, but it is a crucial aspect to consider as we look to a new young generation of women coming of age in the era of #MeToo. These portrayals, roles, and ideals affect how we begin to talk, chat, flirt, and eventually date. More importantly, this becomes deeply personal: a form of self-definition before, during, and after romantic relationships.
Women are more liberated than ever before yet remain forced to live in a deeply confusing and exhausting in-between, somewhere within the everpresent contradiction of old and new gender roles. We still fear being perceived as crazy, bitchy, clingy, needy, psycho, cold, and with that fear comes the threat of social ostracization. When we stand up and say that we have been mistreated, abused, and assault we do not fear being questioned or disbelieved; we expect that. We expect to be disheartened, probed, and gaslighted, whether we must relive an incident from the school place or the workplace. We are taught to take the blame yet keep the peace. We fear much more than just a toxic partner, we fear the inevitable blame and shame that will be cast upon us. This perfect storm of social considerations begs women to ask not, “Why wouldn’t I report?” but instead, “Why would I?” Are the internal reminders of a lifetime not enough?
Instead of asking why women don’t leave or report, why don’t we ask instead, why do women feel like they can’t? Why don’t we push for a stronger sense of social responsibility from people of all genders to work to eliminate a reality where sexual assault circulates like a plague? We must believe survivors, regardless of gender, when they report. We must believe survivors if they report. We must believe survivors not because they are our wives, girlfriends, aunts, nieces, cousins, daughters. We must believe survivors because they are human. We do not need to know someone personally to grant them the courtesy of basic sympathy and sensitivity.
The reasons not to report or not to leave an abuser stretch far beyond the fear of a single person. They stretch not only into the ways women and men are taught to interact with each other but also the ways in which women are taught to interact with themselves. Until these understandings of gender can shift within our culture, let’s believe in the experiences that have shaped countless women’s lives, experiences that none could have ever predicted nor prevented. Let us not reduce the amalgamation of social pressures that shape modern relationships to a matter of report or don’t, stay or go. Let’s give women and girls the freedom to define their own validation and healing processes. Let’s do better.
Feature image via Victoria Morris