(Content Warnings: Emotional and physical violence and trauma)
“He hit me, and it felt like a kiss.” —The Crystals
Dear community: We need to talk about intimate partner violence.
A few years ago, I was at a party crowded full of left-wing activists, queers, and feminists (as I often am). There, I watched one of my best friends get drunk, lose her temper, and punch her partner in the solar plexus hard enough to make a sound like the air exploding out of a basketball.
The partner in question staggered backward, clutching her chest. For a few seconds, it was clear that she was struggling to breathe. As Beyoncé’s ‘’Partition’’ played in the background, she fought for air. Finally, she recovered and walked silently out of the room. My friend followed, yelling at her to “stop being a baby.”
I, like many trans women of color, am no stranger to violence between lovers. I have my own history of abuse (as both survivor and perpetrator), and am well acquainted with the fact that in any community – regardless of identity or class – intimate partner violence is a common dirty little secret.
So I was sadly not shocked to see a dear friend – a queer, feminist friend – hit her partner. This is a reality that I have come to acknowledge, though not accept. What did surprise me (though in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have) was the reaction of the people around me.
They stared at the ground. They looked away. Some continued to dance and knock back their drinks, as though oblivious.
“Hey,” I said, a little uncertainly, to no one in particular. “I don’t think that what just happened was okay.”
Someone beside me nodded. “I know,” they said quietly. “It happens a lot with those two. I’m just trying not to worry about it. I don’t want to, like, get all up in their business, you know?”
A few people around us murmured in agreement. And then the party continued, as if nothing had happened. I thought about this for a moment, weighing the emotions racing through me. And then I, too, tossed down a drink and went back to the business of having fun.
And we need to talk about this.
So here are four common ways that our communities fail to address intimate partner violence.
1. Not Talking About Abuse
The most common problem with the way people talk about abuse is simply not talking about abuse – particularly when it’s right in front of us.
Situations like the one I’ve described above are disturbingly common in my life – and I know that I’m not alone. Whether I’m among the working-class Chinese community I grew up in, upwardly mobile university students, or a group of queer punks, the dynamic is the same.
Almost everyone knows someone who is abusive, has been abused, or both. We bear witness to intimate partner violence, and we feel frozen in its presence, by its very proximity. Because it’s people that we know and often love, we’re unable to act. We don’t want to cast judgment or poke our noses in our friends’ private lives.
But in refusing to see or acknowledge our own responsibility in situations of intimate partner violence, we’re also contributing to the problem. In not acting or speaking out, we silently condone and enable the circumstances that allow — and even encourage — abuse to happen among those we care about.
The dynamic of community silence around abuse isn’t the result of people not caring (at least, I don’t think so) or not knowing that intimate violence happens. The problem lies largely in the way we’re taught to think about and define abuse as something private and shameful – not to be discussed.
2. Defining Abuse Too Narrowly
Part of the issue is that intimate partner violence is poorly defined to begin with. There tends to be a lot of disagreement about what exactly “counts” as abuse.
Whether violence is “just” emotional or if it’s also physical, exactly how much violence “makes” a partner abusive, and whether marginalized people (women, transgender individuals, disabled folks) are capable of abusing socially privileged people (cisgender men, white people) are just a few questions that add to the controversy about what abuse is.
Defining abuse widely is important because if we, as communities, can’t agree on what we think abuse is, then we have an excuse not to act.
We chalk up the dark circles we see under our friend’s eyes, the fact that their partner always needs to know where they are and who they are seeing, the bruises that line their arms, to “relationship issues,” not abuse.
And someone else’s relationship issues are none of our business, right?
There is no one definition of abuse that everyone will agree on. However, in my work as a relationship therapist in training and community organizer, I’ve developed a working definition of intimate partner violence that I like to suggest as a tool for individuals to use in their private and social lives:
Intimate partner violence (or intimate abuse, domestic violence, etc.) is the use of physical, psychological, or social power to try and violate or manipulate someone else’s consent. Abuse is a complex issue that is made up of personal, interpersonal, and collective factors.
In other words, abuse occurs when someone tries to use their power (whether their fists, money, words, or something else) to control or manipulate another person. This is why disabled folks, women, trans people, and other marginalized individuals are so often on the receiving end of abuse– because they have less power.
Yet marginalized and oppressed people are also capable of perpetuating abuse – usually, though not always, against other marginalized individuals.
Things start to become complicated and controversial here, because it’s not always possible to tell who is perpetrating the abuse in an intimate relationship by identity alone. It’s the relationship dynamic (the use of power to violate consent) that must be considered.
3. Thinking About Abuse as an Individual (Rather Than Collective) Problem
When we redefine abuse as the violent use of power, then we must also start perceiving abuse as a collective rather than individual problem. This’s because most power imbalances are created and preserved by society – that is to say, collectively.
To put it simply: Men would be less able to abuse women if society didn’t give men more power and credibility.
Men would be less inclined to abuse women if they were raised in a society that didn’t denigrate and devalue women. The same could be said for white folks abusing people of color, able-bodied people abusing disabled people, and so on.
And if no communities were marginalized, there would be fewer individuals who felt the need to resort to violence in order to survive in a world that is automatically violent towards them.
In many cases, abuse between partners occurs in the context of displaced violence: people who face oppression and discrimination in their day-to-day lives sometimes (though certainly not always) become more likely to behave violently in their intimate relationships as a result of trauma.
The reason for this is simple: if one lives in a society where one is constantly deprived of love, respect and vital resources, it may seem as though there are no other options but to obtain this things through violence.
While there are certainly many marginalized people who come to other conclusions, this is the narrative I hear over and over again as a therapist working with people in abusive relationships.
We live in a society that makes intimate abuse seem inevitable, perhaps even necessary.
4. Blaming Everything on a Caricature of ‘Abuser’
One of the most tempting mistakes we can make when thinking about abuse is to blame everything on the caricature of an imaginary abuser, someone who hurts people purely out of malice.
This is tempting because it absolves us of any responsibility and allows us to single out someone to punish. But the reality of abuse is usually much more complicated than that.
When I have done therapy with clients who were abusive in their relationships, the vast majority of them felt on some level that what they were doing was either acceptable, unavoidable, or both.
They felt that what they were doing wasn’t abusive (because they didn’t feel as though they had power), or they didn’t believe that they could get their needs met in any other way.
It’s easy for communities (and most do) to paint abusers as entirely evil, immoral people who should be imprisoned or shunned. It’s also easy to look at them as “mentally ill” aberrations who need to be treated with drugs or therapy.
It’s much harder for us to look in the mirror: Who makes up the communities that give abusers the power to hurt the people who love them? Who creates the situations in which people become so desperate for care that they manipulate others to get it?
Let me make a radical suggestion: In a world where everyone was economically and socially secure, where everyone had access to mental health care and community resources, where people were not socially oppressed, intimate partner violence wouldn’t exist.
In this world, individuals with abusive tendencies – who feel the need to control and dominate their partners – would have the mental health support necessary to confront the fears and traumas that lead to abuse. Their communities would hold them accountable for their actions, while also refusing to “give up” on abusers by socially ostracizing them or putting them in jail.
And individuals who have been hurt by their partners would have the economic and social networks they needed to transform or leave their relationships – which themselves would not be warped by imbalances of social power.
It will take a movement, more than therapists or prisons (definitely not prisons), to end intimate partner violence.
5. Centering the ‘Abuser’ or the ‘Rescuer,’ Rather Than the Survivor
None of this means that we need to swoop in and “save” anyone from their abusive partners. Perhaps the worst thing one can do is try and seize control of a situation in which we think someone we care about is being abused.
Abuse is an attempt to render the survivor powerless over their own life – so acting on a savior complex and trying to rescue them without their consent is often a continuation of the abusive dynamic.
Telling a survivor that they need to leave a relationship that they’re not ready to leave can be only unrealistic, but alienating. (However, I would suggest that asking someone how they feel about their relationship, particularly if you have witnessed them experiencing violence, is always acceptable.)
A movement to end intimate violence should be led by survivors of intimate violence – and there are many survivors already working as activists, organizers, writers, and artists to achieve this goal.
So Let’s Start Talking
When I talk about a community response to intimate violence, I’m talking about creating space for survivors to express themselves on their own terms, to be believed, and to develop their own freedom to act.
I’m talking about supporting the resources for survivors that already exist, such as shelters and mutual aid groups, and campaigning to make those resources available to everyone – particularly sex workers, trans women, and undocumented migrants, who are often excluded from such things.
I’m talking about creating and supporting educational programs for community members, particularly young people, so that they’re able to define and reject abusive dynamics in their own lives.
I’m talking about creating community spaces in which violent behavior is recognized and not tolerated.
I’m talking about finding ways to work with perpetrators of abuse with both compassion and justice.
I’m talking about calling in our friends and family and holding them accountable when they’ve hurt someone who loves them.
Intimate partner violence is a deeply emotionally charged topic – it’s complicated, and it’s frightening, and it’s hard. No doubt I have gotten something wrong or missed a nuance in this article.
I think the important thing, however, is that we start a dialogue about this issue which silences and makes so many of us feel helpless. Silence and fear are the fuel that feed abuse and give it power. I believe in the potential of communities to break taboo and isolation.
I believe in the courage of our communities to speak.
Kai Cheng Thom is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Chinese trans woman writer, poet, and performance artist based in Montreal. She also holds a Master’s degree in clinical social work, and is working toward creating accessible, politically conscious mental health care for marginalized youth in her community. You can find out more about her work on her website and at Monster Academy.