One of my readers posted a comment basically wondering why, if women were being routinely victimized by soon-to-be-former Sen. Norm McAllister, they didn’t go to the authorities? Why put up with the abuse? Why not stay away from the guy?
It’s an understandable reaction. I’ve never been in that situation, and it’s almost impossible to imagine being in that situation. But many people are — more than it’s comfortable to think about — and they feel powerless to resist, evade, or report.
For one great example of this phenomenon, see Morgan Trus’s fine piece on VTDigger regarding “survival sex” — in which victims feel their well-being is dependent on their abuser’s approval. It’s a surprisingly common occurrence, especially in a society where many women are financially dependent on a man.
Several years ago, I had the chance to interview Wynonna Ward, founder of “Have Justice, Will Travel,” an organization that provides help and support for domestic abuse sufferers. Over and over again, she’s seen women who are essentially trapped in their situation: they’re economically dependent on their abuser, they may live in an isolated setting from which escape is almost impossible (say, if they don’t have a car of their own), they don’t have resources to seek legal or social-service help. Most crucially, they feel absolutely imprisoned in the situation. Even if you or I could see a way out, they cannot.
This isn’t always a male/female dynamic. You might recall the scandal in Canada about youth hockey coaches abusing their charges. These kids, usually teenagers, are dependent on their coach for their future in the sport. The coach has almost absolute authority. A player can have constant contact with parents, and even live at home most of the time, but they’ll still be afraid to report the abuse. Google “Sheldon Kennedy” for the story of one athlete who didn’t go public with his story until years after the fact.
Abusers are very skilled at reinforcing the feeling of isolation and dependence. Kennedy’s coach was a serial abuser who made it very clear to his victims that their athletic futures depended on his approval. And, because he was a “respected” figure in youth hockey, he was right!
The common element is an unbalanced power dynamic, which makes the victim feel powerless. And often feel that s/he will not be believed by others. Add in the complex of guilt, shame, and self-blame that victims often feel, and you get a potent blend that serves to keep victims in their situations even when there are opportunities to get out.
The McAllister case didn’t come to light until he (allegedly) tried to recruit a new woman, and she went to the police before she’d ever submitted. It was only after police took a hand, that they were able to identify other victims.
Given the dynamic of the situation, it’s virtually certain there are more stories yet to be told.