Daring to Study Domestic Violence: Who is the Victim?

domestic violence

As an international student in UC-Berkeley who has only been in the United States for just over a month, my journey has not only been geographical, from Nanjing, China to Berkeley, USA, but also philosophical and intellectual. When going through the course offerings list, my attention was drawn by a seminar called “Intimate Partner Violence and the Law.” This was a brand-new area, for this topic is seldomly discussed in an organized way in China. Here, I thought, it must be quite common to discuss such violence. Here, I assumed, such violence must be rare.

Walking into the classroom with curiosity, I was shocked by the diversity of students it had attracted, and the range of stories emphasizing the common occurrence of domestic violence. I also began to see how slow and difficult the journey for change has been in the United States. Back home, victims of domestic violence could only be protected by the law when the anti-domestic violence law of the People’s Republic of China came into force in 2016. Even with the law in place, victims still encounter many obstacles in seeking assistance for reasons such as lack of shelters and so on.

As a result of this class, my eyes have opened with regard to victims of domestic violence, whether in the U.S. or in China. Like the majority of people, my assumptions reflected common stereotypes that victims of domestic violence are weak and fragile women of color who are poorly educated. I have learned, however, that four errors exist in this assumption: Not all victims are weak and fragile. Not all victims are women. Not all victims are people of color. Not all victims are poorly educated. These assumptions make invisible a great number of victims of domestic violence who are struggling to survive and in urgent need of the public’s attention. If we fail to break down stereotypes about victims of domestic violence, this group of invisible victims will remain in the dark abyss, whether hear, or across the ocean.

One of the reasons that these stereotypes have persisted for so long is the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes domestic violence. Physical and sexual violence are not the only forms of domestic violence. There are other kinds of intimate partner violence that do not require physical strength: emotional, financial, psychological. Indeed, one does not need to be physically strong in order to inflict abuse on an intimate partner. According to National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, “About 1 in 3 men experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.” In patriarchal society where women are traditionally subordinated to men,the popular imagination and expectation about “masculinity” connect men with notions about self-reliance, resolute dominance, while women are considered more emotional and fragile. These stereotypes play out in relationships. Therefore, it is less common that men are victims of abuse.

As an international student from China who has learnt about the inequalities in U.S. society, might assume that people of color are generally the community experiencing domestic violence. Nevertheless, statistics—and my classmate’s experiences and our guest speaker’s stories—demonstrate that the 1 in 3 statistic applies equally to White, non-Hispanic, women. These statistics indeed contradict the widespread belief that higher income which is associated with higher levels of education can protect people from domestic violence.

Outside class, I attended an activity called “Free Them: Panel of Criminalized Survivor”. I was shocked that so many survivors have been criminalized. Although numerous actions have been taken to protect victims of domestic violence, the persistence of popular stereotypes intensifies these invisible victims’ reluctance to report victimization. The biggest obstacles they have to counter is gaining trust. When a person who claims to be the victim of domestic violence but doesn’t fit into people’s assumptions of the victims, they may be laughed at, or even be misunderstood as the abuser. This has disastrous consequences.

Domestic violence is a complicated concept triggered by various factors. It is admittedly that poorly educated women of color make up the majority of domestic violence victims which conforms to popular stereotypes. Nevertheless, what I am trying to clarify here is to offer domestic violence victims a broader and more fluid notion and to treat them without any presumptions.

Speaking and studying about intimate partner violence is not enough. Taking actions to break stereotypes about who victims are, adequately protecting victims, and always remembering victims include people we know but would never suspect of having experienced such abuse: it could be me from Nanjing, and it could be you from Berkeley.

Yingbin Chen, an international student at the university of California, Berkeley from Nanjing, China, who majors in law.




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