When discussing domestic abuse the words ‘victim’ and ‘abuser’ come up frequently. These words are said with, or without malice. In most cases a second thought is never given to these words, and because of that we miss the power they have.
Labels like 'victim' and 'abuser' set up a juxtaposition of right and wrong, good, and bad. They lay out a framework in black and white. Unfortunately abuse is rarely so cut and dry. Framing clear sides to the issue forces us to miss opportunities for better treatment, education and prevention. Assuming one can only be either an abuser, or a victim leads us to miss holistic solutions that will provide a more effective outcome.
Let's start with the word victim. The word itself can strip away power, and create a sense or appearance of helplessness. This serves no one. Domestic abuse victims are not helpless and powerless. They have the power to seek help, to leave a relationship, to take back control, and to build and maintain a life free of abuse. They are, or have the potential to be powerful, not powerless. This may require education, assistance, help, or any number of things, but that is a far cry from helpless.
Additionally being a victim of an act, or acts of domestic abuse does not negate the possibility that one is also abusive. In many instances people are both abused and abusive. This doesn't mean that one act of abuse justifies another, but it does mean that treatment, education, and accountability are best looked at on both sides of abuse. For instance acts of isolation, emotional abuse,or economic abuse do not justify acts of physical abuse or threats, but both sets of actions must be looked at independently, accountability must be taken on both sides, and corrective actions must be taken by both parties.
The word abuser is easier to use within our society. Domestic violence is a horrific act, especially in physical abuse forms, so labeling someone an abuser, writing them off as a monster, and seeking steep punitive results is almost natural. The issue is that in doing this we are judging a complete, multi-faceted individual by one act, or series of acts. We are also ignoring all of the things that led that person to be abusive, which in many cases was being a victim themselves during childhood.
Again this is not a way to excuse an act of abuse, and does not negate the need for accountability. Being abused as a child in no way justifies abusing your partner, but ignoring these factors yet again serves nobody. A child is not born an abuser, any more than a person is defined by a single action. A serial killer that saves a dying baby is not a hero, any more than a philanthropist, coach, and mentor who kills someone drunk driving is simply a murderer. Labeling a person by a single action, or set of actions is throwing away the baby with the bathwater. A person who has acted abusively, and is committed to change can change, with time and help. A person who has suffered domestic abuse is not simply a victim, they are a human being with the power to build a life free of violence.
Domestic abuse is systemic, multi-generational, and overall insidious. The treatment, prevention, and education of domestic abuse is complex, and must be addressed simultaneously from many angles. Using nomenclature to boil abuse down to a black and white issue hinders our ability to focus on all aspects of treatment and prevention. When using labels in this context or others, understand the power you are giving to words, and thereby stripping away from people.