Stop Asking Women Why They "Didn't Leave" Their Abusive Relationships
On CBS This Morning's Thursday broadcast, Gayle King asked FKA Twigs, "Nobody who's been in this position likes this question, and I often wonder is it even an appropriate question to ask, and you know the question is: Why didn't you leave?"
The interview came after musician FKA Twigs, whose real name is Tahliah Barnett, expanded on her allegations of emotional and physical abuse against Shia LaBoeuf in an Elle profile. In her response, Twigs seemed to agree with King's instinct that this question is inappropriate to ask.
"I think we have to stop asking that question," she said. "I'm going to make a stance and say that I'm not going to answer that question anymore because the question should really be to the abuser: Why are you holding someone hostage?" The artist continued, explaining, "People say, 'Oh it can't have been that bad, else she would have left.' And it's like no, it's because it was that bad, I couldn't leave."
The truth is that people in abusive relationships are not always, or even usually, free to simply leave when things get bad. Generally speaking, a combination of psychological and practical factors play a part in keeping someone trapped with their abuser. Victims of abuse may be financially dependent on their abusive partner, or they may have become so isolated from their support network of friends and family that they feel they have nowhere safe to turn.
And emotional and psychological abuse on its own works to keep people from feeling like they can or should leave a relationship. Gaslighting prevents a person from trusting their instincts and feelings, so they may be suffering abuse without understanding they are being abused. Constant beratement and criticism can make a person feel that they deserve the abuse. And love-bombing can lure abuse victims into a false sense of security, because the doting, devoted behavior undermines the cruelty.
In her allegations, first detailed in an interview with the New York Times about her lawsuit against the actor, Twigs describes experiencing all of these psychological abuse tactics. She says at the beginning, LaBoeuf was a master love bomber, telling her he loved her just weeks into their relationship and jumping her fence to leave her flowers and love-notes. But soon he set up impossible tests for her to prove her affection for him, like a hugs and kisses quota, and berated and cut her down when she inevitably failed. "People wouldn't think that it would happen to a woman like me," she explained in the Elle profile. "The biggest misconception is, 'Well, you're smart. If it was that bad, why didn't you leave?' "
Coming to better understand how abuse keeps victims trapped in the relationship clarifies how questions like King's are another form of victim-blaming, not much different than asking why a victim of sexual assault didn't do more to fight her attacker off. If the default position is to place all responsibility on the woman's shoulders, we are still letting men off the hook.
The media's power to shape women's narratives, to set up the framework by which the public understands their personal relationships, to independently cast the roles of hero and villain, can be culturally devastating. Particularly when interviewing someone famous, this kind of blame-shifting confuses our notions of power, victimization, control, and mental health.
Twigs acknowledges that being comfortable financially and having a reliable support system gave her more freedom than many other women in similarly abusive relationships, and says she wouldn't have been able to leave without these resources. But this kind of privilege does not equate to the same level of power in an interpersonal relationship. She still feared for her life. She was still having her mind messed with by a manipulator and an abuser.
King's gentle, halting, "Why didn't you leave?" recalls the 2003 Diane Sawyer interview with Britney Spears featured in the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears. In the interview, Spears was at the height of her fame and influence, and had just broken up with Justin Timberlake. After repeating Timberlake's claims that the breakup was on Spears, that she had essentially bulldozed his heart and threw it in the dumpster, Sawyer asks, in hushed, gentle tones, "What did you do?" Spears burst into tears.
Sawyer had uncritically accepted Timberlake's version of events and framed the question in such a way that Spears had no real opportunity to tell her own story as she experienced it. It was easy to accept Spears as the femme fatale in all of this because that is a pre-prescribed narrative we're already familiar with, and Spears was young and hot and successful — why wouldn't she be the one with all the power?
In asking "Why didn't you leave," King attempts to do kind of the same thing with Twigs, to retell her own story and assign her a level of agency that she didn't have and didn't ever claim to have. It suggests that abuse victims in general have an implicit level of agency, which is untrue. When you create this kind of assumption by framing the story in this way, you also foster an atmosphere of shame that, in itself, can work to keep victims from leaving the relationship.
No one wants to be "the kind of woman who lets a man hit her." No one wants to be "the kind of woman who stays." But the truth is that there is no specific type of woman who stays or type of woman who leaves. When you ask, "why didn't you just leave," you're assigning a victim the role of "woman who stays." You've dubbed her the weak one. The one not strong enough to get out, and the shame and humiliation of that is sometimes enough to excuse away the abuse and to pretend it's not happening. It makes all the psychological manipulation tactics that much more potent. When you operate on a mistaken assumption that a victim of abuse has enough agency to escape, all you're doing is help take the agency they do have away.