The Power of Silence in Enabling Domestic Violence

Source: GRIID

Source: GRIID

Society has long known the power of words. In 1838, Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword”, a phrase that has proven its own point by marching its triumphant way down the generations. Books and speeches have been immortalised as turning points in history, ideas that have taken root and changed the world. And as the power of words has been celebrated, the power of silencing has emerged as a crucial tool of the patriarchy, a way of keeping women underfoot. This is why old texts like the bible contain the following lines – “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak” (1 Corinthians 14:34), and “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence” (1 Timothy 2:12). It is why many cultures around the world require women to be demure and soft-spoken, speaking infrequently, and why, even in what we think of as the progressive West, outspoken women are regularly labelled ‘shrill’ or ‘hysterical’. It is a pattern cut from the same cloth, a way of ensuring that women’s views are kept hidden away, that we are kept compliant in the face of a system that has always been stacked against us.

Of course, it isn’t only women’s words that are erased. Any man bold enough to speak out against the patriarchial order is mocked for it, called a ‘gender traitor’ or ‘pussywhipped’, sometimes even leading to social exclusion. Given the immense social pressure to go along to get along, it is no wonder many choose to stay silent, no matter how much they may disagree with the rape joke that has just been told, or how much they dislike seeing their friend sexually harass a passing woman. And in this way, by meting out punishment to its critics, the status quo maintains itself.

And when it comes to domestic violence, the silence can be deafening. There is an overwhelming tendency in society to see it as a personal problem between two people, something they should sort out for themselves, and that it isn’t our place to judge the relationships of others. Our judgment centers around the woman in the relationship—we wonder why she doesn’t leave, speculate on her individual character, all the while viewing it as her problem to bear, rather than as a crime plain and simple, committed by the perpetrator. But here’s the key thing. Whenever we portray domestic violence as somehow less bad than random violence against a stranger, we’re furthering the idea that being in a relationship automatically gives a man the right to a woman’s body, and that being with him is tantamount to consenting to be hurt in that way. I feel this is really important, so I’ll say it again: Whenever we think that a woman who just doesn’t leave is responsible for what a man does to her, and that he is less culpable than if he had beaten a stranger, we’re implying that being in a relationship with him is akin to giving consent for whatever he might do to her. In other words, we’re equating a relationship with ownership, and decide that what goes on within it is nothing to do with us.

We need to break this silence, and decry domestic violence as an epidemic that is everybody’s problem. In the aftermath of the Cleveland kidnapping horror, it has emerged that warning signs aplenty were ignored—Castro’s long record of violence against women, neighbours’ calls to police treated lightly, and not followed up on. Could it be that, given that these incidents were taking place in a house, it was seen as ‘just’ domestic violence by the police? A personal relationship problem, and not a ‘real’ crime?

If you follow my blog or regularly read feminist writings, you’ll be familiar with the fact that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. Yet despite this staggering statistic, it is still largely marginalized as a ‘women’s problem’, and virtual silence in the mainstream about it as a pressing social issue. Male celebrities (especially white male celebrities) who have committed domestic violence, like Charlie Sheen, John Lennon, Mel Gibson, and Gary Oldman, have been subject to a ripple of condemnation, before the curtain of silence fell again. And while many brave survivors have spoken out about it, the onus cannot be placed solely on them. Every single one of us has a part to play in breaking the silence that has served to protect perpetrators for so long.

So what does ‘breaking the silence’ entail, exactly? Well, we could start by firmly disagreeing whenever someone makes a joke about violence against women. We could write to our MPs, asking them to make tackling DV a priority, and to increase funding for women’s shelters and other support services. We could volunteer at said services. We could contact companies selling products that promote or trivialize domestic violence and let them know how abhorrent we find it. We could air our views online, take to Twitter, write a blog, post on Facebook. We could challenge those who make excuses for violent men, and publicly refute those who mock or blame the victims. And we (especially the men amongst us) need to be far more vocal in challenging other men, and ask what it is about male culture that continually churns out men who abuse and control women.

None of this is easy. But if we keep turning a blind eye to the rampant problem of domestic violence in society, and insist on seeing it as isolated cases of relationships gone sour, if we excuse celebrity men for their actions and stigmatize the victim instead of the perpetrator, then the culture of male violence against women will continue to flourish in the silence of our complicity.


* If you know a friend or family member who is experiencing domestic violence, please see this guide from Women’s Aid on what you can do to support them.

21 thoughts on “The Power of Silence in Enabling Domestic Violence

  1. Speaking up is excruciating. Especially when so many male associates cannot bring themselves to see the larger problem, because they’re not ready to take the responsibility this sort of thing entails. I need people like you to help me to stay the course. Thanks as always for your words.


  2. we’re getting an abject lesson in the US about the danger of letting perps get away with domestic violence


  3. Thanks so much for writing about this. I can’t stop thinking about how Castro got away with DV against his former wife and thus was able to commit more heinous crimes against women.


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  5. You’re so right. The only thing I ever hear anyone say when the conversation turns to DV is “Why doesn’t she leave?” No one ever says, “Why don’t the police arrest that man?” As if it’s solely the woman’s responsibility.


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  7. Didn’t know that about John Lennon or Gary Oldman. Used to like them. Not anymore. Is this why men are constantly harping on about what “geniuses” they are? Because they instinctively sense that they are “one of them” and tick the same way? Is the “genius” label put on them to cover up their behavior, or to reward it?

    This is why at film class and other such places I always hear men wax poetic about certain celebrities and claim they have a certain appeal to them (“insightful”, “genius”, etc), and I can never understand why. And now that you’ve mentioned, all the so-called “genuises” or “genius” works of art/films are either misogynists (it’s subtle sometimes, but the male viewers sense it among these actors). And have you also noticed it’s preferable “edgy” or “dark” or those outside of society they adore so? Perhaps they like a man who will break the rules (i.e., hurt others).

    or they are films which embody misogyny or at least “typical male” behavior more so than other films, and preferably make it more subtle- I suppose its’ genius because it preaches misogyny or male behavior but keeps it from women, or at least keeps it unspoken so that they cannot be called out on it. That’s the double edged “genius”- it is “genius” enough to know what men are thinking, but also “genius” enough to know how to say it without words, to brilliantly keep it away from women’s criticism by not openly admitting to it.

    This is why film class is so difficult for me; we have to watch shit like Clockwork Orange (rape scene), Pulp Fiction (typical ADHD male wet dream action movie) and other such emperors who I’m dying to point out have no clothes, are not “genius” like their cheerleaders claim, but I risk not being taken seriously in the film world if I do so, or even in film class. If you’re not “artistic”, you’re square and “bourgeois”. Whatever.

    It’s not that I don’t like the dark or edgy or even shocking/immoral film. Those are high on my list. It’s that it always has to be the woman who suffers, and I wonder, “well, why?” It’s also the films that reinforce real life misogyny, not just fake movie misogyny that no one takes seriously because it’s only necessary for the story. It’s not incidental- oh, in this particular film the feminine happens to be mocked, and in this other film the masculine happens to be mocked. No, it’s the fact that it reinforces and reminds you of the real life imbalance, that they are not “just films” anymore.

    And the other bad part is, aside from the misogyny, that they aren’t even creative, except for the fake “genius” that gets awarded to misogyny (which, even if it had been right or true, wouldn’t require “genius” or creativity to portray or push). At least if the films were creative and interesting I could enjoy film class. But they are just weird. And the “feminist” films aren’t much better. Even when they take a healthy feminist approach, or at least don’t employ misogyny, most films at film school, frankly, are boring. But that’s’ a film school topic, not a women’s topic.

    Anyway, I’ve noticed, thanks to this site, the parallel between “genius” actors and movies and their misogyny; the obsession with John Lennon being “as good as Beethoven”, the “but Charlie Sheen is a brilliant conspiracy theorist and social commentator and he’s so RAW!” nonsense, the “But Gary Oldman is an artist! Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was AMAZING and he keeps reinventing himself and is so edgy, man!”, and “Mel Gibson is just hard on his luck, the Hollywood elite makes him do it by pushing him around” (i do think mel gibson is talented, btw, just not moral).

    Perhaps I can grow some ovaries and be bold enough to present this theory in film school next semester. Should I?


  8. Well, shit. I didn’t realize Gary Oldman had ever done anything like that. He’s long been one of my favorite actors. My mom’s, too. 😦 That really pisses me off, especially since I try to make a point of avoiding the work of actors or actresses who are abusive. Thanks a lot, Hollywood.


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  10. I was verbally and occasionally physically abused in my marriage, and finally had the courage to call the police and have my husband arrested for hitting me in a drunken rage last year.

    It turned out that he would lose his job and his entire career had he been found guilty. I didn’t want that to happen because of the impact on our dependents. So I agreed not to testify, and the charges were dropped.

    Always a master manipulator, he has told everyone that he never abused me; that I’m a drama queen who made it up. I mean, the charges were dropped, right? What is so disappointing is the people who believe him– including a woman who founded an international cosmetics company and positions herself as a role model for women. For many it’s just socially inconvenient to take a stand. His family is a lost cause… they would support him no matter how serious a crime he committed.

    The problem with friends and family denying–or at best ignoring–the existence of abuse, is THAT is how the behavior leading to, and encouraging abuse, is enabled. I hope anyone reading this article has the integrity to take a stand on this issue.


  11. My mum suffered domestic violence at the hands (*fists*) of my father. I witnessed it first hand when I was a child. It’ not pretty. It’s not clever. I do not condone violence against anybody, male or female, for any reason. I’ve recently learned that I am somewhat of a feminist, believing not in a fight for equality, but that women are more often than not the stronger sex of the two. There is an insurmountable strength is remaining quiet. Yes there is fear. But strength outweighs the fear. The strength to continue. The strength to forgive. The strength to love. The strength to survive. I am a photographer and I see an ever-growing number of photographers coming out wanting to shoot women naked: boudoir, topless, “fine art”, porn etc etc. Is it for self gratification? Or art? A no brainer I think. I’m about to plan a series of images which I hope will tackle not only domestic violence, but the ever apparent misogyny in today’s world. Let’s hope these images make people think, because I plan on making some waves 😉


  12. Pingback: | The Power of Silence in Enabling Domestic Violence by @CratesNRibbons

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