FKA twigs is exactly right – why do we still ask abuse victims why they didn't leave?

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Arwa Mahdawi
·6 min read
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Flipping the narrative on abuse

Why did you drink so much? Why did you wear such a short skirt? Why didn’t you call the police? Why did you put yourself in that situation? Why did you stay so long if it was really that bad? Why didn’t you just leave?

It’s a familiar refrain isn’t it? Whenever a woman accuses a man of abuse there’s an immediate chorus of victim-blaming. The accuser is put under a microscope: her history’s dug up, her actions are scrutinized, her motivations are analysed. A standard narrative emerges: the woman is somehow responsible for what a man did to her.

On Thursday, the British musician FKA twigs went on CBS This Morning for her first TV interview since she accused the actor Shia LaBeouf of “relentless” physical, emotional and verbal abuse in a lawsuit filed last December. (LaBeouf has denied the allegations.) And, sure enough, it wasn’t long before interviewer Gayle King asked one of the usual “why” questions.

“Nobody who’s been in this position likes this question,” King acknowledged. “[A]nd I often wonder if it’s even appropriate to ask … why didn’t you leave?”

Twigs replied: “We have to stop asking that question … I’m not going to answer that question any more. Because the question should really be to the abuser: why are you holding someone hostage with abuse? People say it can’t have been that bad, because else you would’ve left. But it’s like, no, it’s because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.”

Twigs’s use of the word “hostage” is important. “Coercive control is akin to hostage taking,” notes Jess Hill, the author of See What You Made Me Do, an award-winning investigation into domestic violence. “Most people still think of domestic violence and abuse as a set of discrete incidents: assaults, put-downs, threats. But when it comes to coercive control, we’re talking about a system of abuse that operates like a cobweb, each strand pulling tighter and tighter until it feels there truly is no way out. This is not just abuse or ill treatment; it is entrapment.” Perpetrators of abuse make it clear that leaving will “carry such serious consequences that it is actually safer to comply and to stay”.

Statistics bear that out. The first 90 days after leaving is the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic abuse. Up to 75% of domestic violence homicides happen at the point when the woman is trying to leave or after she has already left. Women stay to stay alive. And yet we are still asking victims of abuse why they didn’t just leave. As if it’s as simple as just hailing a taxi and heading off to a whole new life.

Twigs has a career, a profile, a support network, money. She has far more resources than many victims of intimate partner violence. And yet she’s still not sure how she managed to leave the situation she was in. “I honestly wish I could say that I found some strength and I saw this light,” twigs said in a recent Elle interview. “I wish I could say, ‘[It is] a testament to my strong character,’ or ‘It’s the way my mother raised me.’ It’s none of that. It’s pure luck that I’m not in that situation any more.” She’s speaking out about her experience, she says, because she wants to show people that if it could happen to her it could happen to anyone. And indeed, one in four women and one in 10 men in America experience intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost a third of women who have been in a relationship report some form of abuse and, globally, as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.

While it’s depressing that we’re still asking why victims of abuse don’t just leave, the good news is that the conversation around abuse is slowly growing more sophisticated. Hill notes that “what FKA twigs is doing in her answer to Gayle King is actually part of the massive paradigm shift that is going on right now around coercive control”; there is growing awareness that abusers don’t just harm their partners but entrap them with controlling behaviour. New laws addressing coercive control have been introduced or proposed everywhere from California to the UK to Australia. While these laws are not a panacea – indeed some activists are worried they may have unintended consequences – the fact that they are being considered is a very good thing. It points to a much-needed reframing of how we think about abuse.

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