By Sheena Vasani
In her quest to achieve some semblance of justice in the world and in her own life, abuse survivor Rachael Kay Albers angrily sought refuge in feminism.
Until one day, she noticed an irony: In her aggressive approach to fighting for a more humane world, she was becoming like her abuser.
“I was becoming an angry, militant activist, simply participating in and replicating the greater cycle of violence,” Kay Albers said. “As I began to recognize some of my own abuser’s characteristics in myself, he turned from abuser to human. I started looking at these issues from a place of empathy and compassion.”
Like many social problems, gender-based violence stems from myriad root causes. From child abuse to cultures of violence, the intersections highlight how the common ‘oppressor versus oppressed’ narrative fails to paint the full picture.
Research conducted in 2010 by the International Center for Research on Women [ICRW] illustrates this complexity, demonstrating that a significant number of men who abuse their partners were themselves abused as children. The reverse is also true, by the way: most abuse victims do not go on to be abusers.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) referenced the study when she introduced H.R. 1340 – the International Violence Against Women Act – on March 6, 2015. Unlike its failed predecessor in 2010, it emphasizes engaging and helping boys and men.
“The fates of the two genders are intertwined; for women to thrive, men and boys must be part of the gender equality agenda,” said Gary Barker, co-founder of MenEngage, in a column for New America.
Often in global conversations, abuse is oversimplified into an us-versus-them issue. But as the ICRW study illustrates, such a depiction doesn’t accurately capture the whole story. By dichotomizing one party as good and the other as bad – male or female – it can prevent further exploration into the deeper roots of gender issues that could help make the world more humane for all.
The ICRW study notes men who abused their partners were often abused as children, it doesn’t take into account women are more likely to be child abusers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2013 Child Maltreatment Report published in January 2015, 53.9 percent of perpetrators were women while 45 percent were men.
Perhaps, then, the “solution” here is to simply accept there isn’t just one. Social problems are too grey for black and white diagnoses and solutions – the humans they involve, too vast for victim and villain.
Or as Kay Albers succinctly puts it: “We’ve all been socialized into accepting violence as normal. [We need] open spaces to have these conversations. Be open to dialogue…to learn and to self-reflect.”
Sheena Vasani wrote this story for the Journalism for Social Change massive online open course.