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Session 177: Black Women & Intimate Partner Violence

The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a Licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible version of ourselves.

Today we’re digging into why there continues to be such a disparity in the way intimate partner violence is regarded when it involves Black women. Dr. Carolyn West joins us to discuss the role race plays in navigating intimate partner violence, the idea of the perfect victim, and suggestions for supporting women in your life who may be suffering abuse.

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Read Full Transcript

Session 177: Black Women & Intimate Partner Violence

Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for session 177 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. Each October, we take time to share resources and raise awareness of the continuing ways intimate partner violence impacts our community. Today, we're digging into what this looks like, particularly for black women, and why there continues to be such a disparity in the way domestic violence is regarded when it involves a black woman. Joining me for this conversation is Dr. Carolyn West.

Dr. West is an award-winning Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, where she teaches courses on family violence and the psychology of black women. She's the author of Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue and producer of the documentary Let Me Tell Ya’ll ‘Bout Black Chicks: Images of Black Women in Pornography. Dr. West and I discussed the role race plays in navigating intimate partner violence, the idea of the perfect victim, and suggestions for supporting women in your life who may be suffering abuse. If something resonates with you during our conversation, please share with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession. Here's our conversation.

Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. West.

Dr. West: Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Joy: I'm very pleased that you were able to join us, and always appreciate having someone who has history and so much research that you've done related to black women, as it relates to intimate partner violence and domestic violence. I'm curious to hear the evolution, maybe, of some of that work and how it looks different now than it did maybe even 10 years ago in doing the work.

Dr. West: What we've learned in the last 10 years or so, we have better research and that's one huge advance in the field that I’ve found. I would say think about 10 African American women that you know: could be a friend, a family member, a coworker. Four of those women, according to national statistics, will be a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking–after the age of 18–at the hands of an intimate partner.

Dr. Joy: It really is a very stark statistic when you share it. Like if you think about yourself in a group of nine girlfriends, that is quite a lot of people in the group who will have been impacted by this.

Dr. West: Exactly, and that's devastating.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, and so it sounds like you're suggesting that it is not as urgent to people as it really should be.

Dr. West: Absolutely. I think in some ways ironically, with black women, violence is so visible because it's impacting us all the time. Which makes it ironically really invisible because nobody's talking about it.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Interestingly enough, of course, we have a very public violence situation between–I think they were in a relationship–Tory Lanez and Meg Thee Stallion, right? And so we have a very public example right now and I think it feels like it has brought together all of the pieces of your research in this one incident. We see that there has been lots of backlash against Meg for sharing this information. But even on her end, she was initially reluctant to press charges or to say anything, even on the scene, because of fear for herself and fear for him and the other people who were there within that evening. I'm curious just to hear more about your thoughts about how the media and just other black people have kind of really ganged up on her in a lot of ways and are not necessarily believing her.

There were quite a few memes shared when this initially happened. Even now, Tory Lanez has come out with a new album–I've not listened to it. I wasn't a fan of his music even before, but definitely not now, but it sounds like there are some suggestions he's making on the album that he didn't do it. And so it very much feels like the pain that she has experienced is not being taken seriously and in some ways he's trying to invalidate that it even happened in the ways that she's saying it did.

Dr. West: And I think that we need to understand that what happened to Meg is actually a reality in the lives of too many African American women. Black women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner at double the rates of white women. Oftentimes, when they're killed, they're killed by an intimate partner (with usually) a handgun in the context of an argument and so she was really lucky, actually, that she didn't become one of those statistics.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, and it is very unfortunate–both the incident and the aftermath that we are now kind of seeing play out on social media and in magazines and other websites and stuff. I do want to hear a little bit more, because it does feel like it's often a very complicated situation. I have a background in college student mental health and so I have worked with lots of young women who maybe have been sexually assaulted and feel very mixed feelings about whether they want to press charges.

We know, again, the backdrop in which we exist in terms of police violence and how our stories are not often taken seriously in the system. And so there is often some trepidation about, “Do I prioritize trying to get justice for myself versus what might happen to this black man in the system?” I'd love to hear more about what has come out in terms of your work related to that.

Dr. West: That happens a lot and I think it's deeply rooted in history. I think, historically, black women have known this from the very beginning, where we just don't talk about these things because we know that there's a safety issue. We’re really kind of groomed and taught and encouraged to take sides against ourselves.

Dr. Joy: I'm wondering, do you have some ideas about how we can begin to kind of shift that conversation? And again, I think it is a very complicated situation, but it feels like the answer can’t always be at our expense.

Dr. West: Exactly. I think part of it is to just really start having critical conversations about domestic violence and sexual assault and all forms of gender-based violence within the community. I think oftentimes it’s this expectation or belief that women are lying, that it’s not happening, that it's not really real. But as I said with the statistics, if four out of 10 of us experience this, this is very real so we need to start opening our eyes and seeing that these aren't strangers out there; these are people in your social network that you know. And listening to their stories and hearing their stories.

Dr. Joy: Dr. West, is there a higher likelihood of black women who come forward with these stories not being believed than in other groups?

Dr. West: It's complicated, like most things are. In black women, when we look at services in particular, like reporting to the police and reporting to social services, we may tend to under-report, actually. But then when we come forward and we talk about it, we oftentimes are disbelieved or our victimization is not taken seriously and I think that has a lot to do with stereotypes. Historically, you have to understand: for most of this country's history, the rape laws were race-specific so they didn't even cover black women. So for most of this country's history, black women were not even “rapeable” under the law.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. We know that the laws don't always protect us, probably very often, but they weren't even on the books for quite some time.

Dr. West: Exactly.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. So what kinds of things can we do in our own circles to try to protect one another? How can we maybe initiate some of these critical conversations that you're saying we need to have?

Dr. West: I think part of it is that we also have to hold perpetrators accountable and that doesn't tend to happen very often. I think we have to carve out spaces where we really challenge ourselves around the stereotypes in this, the misconceptions around domestic violence and sexual assault. That it only happens to certain women, and if you just do everything right–those old politics of respectability–you just kind of keep your dress down and your legs closed, if you carry yourself “like a woman or a lady,” that these things won't happen to you. If you aren't aggressive or you speak in a certain way, that you're going to be protected. And so those are really old tropes and misconceptions about who is being victimized because the reality is anybody can be victimized.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, so it makes me think about this whole story around like the perfect victim. That there is a way that if you, like you say, keep your legs closed and wear your dresses long and all of these things, bad things won't necessarily happen to you. When we know, basically, anybody could become a victim.

Dr. West: Exactly. And these are the people that we know. You're more likely to be victimized, not so much by a stranger, but somebody who's in your social network.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, it does feel like very early on… and you probably can speak to this better than I can with your years of research, but it does feel like historically, the messages around assault were, “Be careful about somebody jumping out of a bush on the sidewalk.” And clearly, the research indicates that we are much more likely to be victimized by somebody who we actually know and not a stranger.

Dr. West: Exactly. People within our social network, within our family or our friendship network, in our neighborhood, or intimate relationships.

Dr. Joy: I would love to hear you say more about the whole idea of commodifying my sexuality and having it sold back to us. What do you mean by that?

Dr. West: What I mean by that is, I did a documentary called Let Me Tell Ya’ll ‘Bout Black Chicks: Images of Violence against Black Women in Pornography. The title comes from one of the first interracial porn videos that was on the market in 1985 and it was taken off the market because it showed Ku Klux Klan members having sex with black women. And so, everywhere we look around this culture, some aspects of hip hop (not all), pornography, all forms of sexualized media, black women are kind of depicted as these hyper-sexual out-of-control creatures that you can just do anything to us.

Dr. Joy: I wonder if there is an opportunity to discuss, then… like most recently, Megan and Cardi have the example of the WAP song, right? I think in some ways, you could see that as, “Okay, are they selling back what has kind of been internalized to them?” But where does black women embracing their pleasure and being free to be sexual, like, where is the spectrum there? Or is there a spectrum?

Dr. West: I think that there is a spectrum and I think it's incumbent upon all of us as individuals to decide what a healthy sexuality is going to be for us as individuals. The problem becomes when you reduce your entire being to your sexuality. The problem comes when black women don't have control over how they express their sexuality. And if you are being sexual in spaces where you don't feel comfortable with that because the whole culture and your partner expects that of you, and you don't feel like you can say no, I would argue that that's not a healthy sexuality. So making sure that it's internally driven, not driven by the culture.

Dr. Joy: I completely agree with you there that it has to be something that you've thought about and that this is how you want to express it, as opposed to, “This is all I feel like I can do.”

Dr. West: Exactly.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. Dr. West, you mentioned something earlier, and I want to follow up on this–the whole idea of holding perpetrators accountable. Again, we know that the justice system as it is set up now doesn't typically work for us, so are there other things or other ways that you have seen be successful in terms of holding perpetrators accountable?

Dr. West: That's such a good question. You know, there are various justice programs where instead of incarcerating perpetrators: getting them treatments, making sure that they own what they’ve done and they apologize to the victim and they try to make some restitution and they try to make things right. So that they're not just shifting the focus to the victim; that they're owning their part in the trauma, in the violence. That could be restorative justice.

Dr. Joy: Right, yeah, I've definitely heard some about that and have not at all done a significant amount of research there. But I have heard that as another framework to use, and I think that that's where a lot of people struggle with these conversations around abolition and defunding the police. People are really concerned with especially things like sexual assault and domestic violence, because it does feel like–okay, how do we make sure that other sisters don't continue to be victimized by the hands of people who wish us harm?

Dr. West: Exactly. The project I'm working on these days, is a project out of Seattle called Survivors First. What we're hoping to do is to work with black victim defendants and these are black women who are actually victims of domestic violence but they end up getting arrested at higher rates than other women of other ethnic backgrounds when they use violence in self-defense. And then they end up in the legal system and so they don't get access to other services because you're treated like perpetrators.

And so how can we work with the prosecutor's office? How can we work with saying, “Maybe let's take a second look?” Oftentimes, these women have an extensive background of being victimized by the person that they're accused of assaulting. What we need to do is then put them in contact with social service agencies so that they can get the help that they need; not arresting them and throwing them in jail.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, there definitely have been some pretty high-profile cases recently that we've heard, of people defending themselves and then going to jail for a significant amount of time.

Dr. West: Marissa Alexander, the woman in Florida. Cyntoia Brown, the young woman who was being trafficked and killed her abuser and then was looking at a lifetime in jail. Prison.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. And again, I think that's just another example of how the justice system is not really set up to protect us in a lot of ways.

Dr. West: We're not believed and we're not seen as victims.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, so it again goes back to your earlier point about just us not being believed.

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Dr. Joy: I want to hear more, Dr. West, since you brought up the idea of working with this program called Survivors First. We know of course that we are still in the midst of a pandemic. We know that for some time, lots of businesses were closed and lots, I think, are still primarily closed and I know that there has been a huge impact. Even though we've seen an increase in calls for domestic violence and we know anytime there's a major stressor like this, there is a likelihood of increased instances of domestic violence as well as child abuse, but a lot of those services were closed, right? Like the shelters. And so I'm curious to hear if there are ways that you've heard organizations being able to shift to offer their service digitally. Like what kinds of resources are even available, given that we're all still in a pandemic?

Dr. West: That's the real challenge. It's exceedingly complex. Social services were under-staffed, under-resourced, even before the pandemic. I think what's going to need to happen next is that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. We also, as individuals, have to reach out to these social services and say, “What is it that you need and how can we help as a community?” Because there’s got to be a community-based response.

It could just be something as simple as donating money so that survivors can stay in a hotel for some time, or donating clothes or food so that they have some economic resources. It is a problem. We'd have to be calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline and seeing what services are available in your community.

Dr. Joy: It was a struggle even before the pandemic and, like you're mentioning, now that so many offices you can't necessarily visit in person, it has become even more of a struggle.

Dr. West: Exactly.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. I am curious, Dr. West, to hear… We talk a lot about social media here on the podcast and the ways that it can often be helpful but also harmful. I'm wondering if you have seen an evolution in your research and looking at, like the impact that social media has in domestic violence or in the ways that memes and things contribute to this gendered violence. Can you share anything about that?

Dr. West: Absolutely. Social media and all forms of technology has just absolutely made things more challenging. You can put cameras up. Cameras are available and smaller and you can actually put those up in the victim's house and be able to stalk them virtually in that way. You can harass them and stalk them on social media. You can put a tracking device on their car or in their purse, so you know where they are all the time. With social media and technology, stalking has become much more complex as a form of violence. We're seeing more of that.

Dr. Joy: Yeah, and it does also feel like the whole idea of leaking people's nudes is an additional thing that the laws have yet to catch up to. That is, of course, another way in which people are violated.

Dr. West: Right, it's called revenge porn and so that is something that that's happening a lot. You share nudes, maybe within the context of a personal relationship and that can be used to harass the victim afterwards. Or they can be taken without her knowledge and consent.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, yeah. You mentioned earlier, Dr. West, the whole idea of there still being some huge misconceptions related to intimate partner violence: can you share some of the things that you feel like are the biggest misconceptions?

Dr. West: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that victims deserve it, they've done something to create the problem of why they're being victimized and if they just change their behavior, that it wouldn't happen. Rather than seeing what's going on with this perpetrator that he's doing this. “The victims enjoy it, that they are stupid or they're emotionally defective in some way if they can't just leave.” One common misconception I hear all the time, “Well, if it's that bad, just leave. Just leave.” People don't understand that leaving is a process and it's not always easy to disconnect yourself from a relationship. Those are really common ones.

Dr. Joy: And when we've talked about this in the community before–this whole idea of if it's that bad, then just leave–and not understanding all of the things that need to be in place, even for somebody to have an attempt at leaving successfully. And the evidence that we have that talks about that being one of the most dangerous times in a survivor’s life.

Dr. West: We need to understand that. That's exactly right because leaving… And I'm not saying don't leave, but there’s safety planning that you may have to put in place. Where are you going to go? Or making sure that you have your children's birth certificates in your documentation when you leave. How are you going to provide for yourself when you leave? How can you keep other family members safe when you leave? There's got to be safety planning in place, because leaving oftentimes may trigger an escalation in the violence.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. You know something, Dr. West, I have been thinking about? And I don't know if there's any research that supports it but it feels, at least in the stories that I hear in the news, that when women are killed by their partners, it often happens at their places of employment. Is there anything behind that?

Dr. West: Leaving certainly can trigger that. Getting an order of protection can trigger that. And if you have a perpetrator who has those kinds of control concerns and the belief that, “If I can't have you, no one else can,” then if they're really motivated to commit this homicide, they'll commit it wherever you are: within the home, in your workplace, wherever they can find you.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. So that may just be anecdotal; there's no real research that you've seen that talks about an increase of violence happening at the workplace?

Dr. West: Not so much in terms of an increase, we just know that it can happen. I haven't seen any research that indicates that we've seen an uptick in it happening within the workplace, but it certainly does. Which is another reason we should all care about this because it's not something that is hidden behind doors; it can happen anywhere.

Dr. Joy: Are there things that we should be on the lookout for with people in our communities that might indicate to us that something might be going on? Or certain questions we should ask?

Dr. West: Yeah, I think that there is a danger assessment that we do as researchers and we look for things. Has there been a history of violence before? Does the person have a history of drug and alcohol use? Is there stalking? Is a person abusing the victim when she's pregnant? Perpetrators who are both physically and sexually abusing are more potentially dangerous. Is a perpetrator suicidal? Perpetrators who feel like “I don't have anything to lose,” may not have a problem killing themselves and the victim. Do you have a child with the perpetrator, who's not their biological child? Is the perpetrator unemployed and has lost employment? All of those are things that could be potential risk factors for the person who may actually try to take your life.

Dr. Joy: Can you say more about the pregnancy risk, like why that increases the likelihood of violence?

Dr. West: You know, I'm so happy you asked that. Black women experience certain types of violence at higher rates than other women of other ethnic backgrounds. We are more likely, as I mentioned, to be killed by an intimate partner. We are more likely to be strangled by an intimate partner. Can you imagine somebody trying to choke the life out of you? Black women experience that at higher rates.

And we're more likely to experience higher rates of what we call reproductive coercion. That's a special type of sexual violence that involves pregnancy coercion, so the perpetrator is going to try to pressure you to become pregnant by not allowing you to use birth control or saying, “I'm going to end this relationship if you don't have a baby.” Birth control sabotage: they're going to remove that condom; they're not going to allow you to take birth control pills; or throw away your birth control. And they're going to try to control pregnancy outcomes or pressure you to have an abortion or pressure you to keep the child if you don't want to carry the pregnancy to term.

Pregnancy just puts you at higher risk because, obviously, if you're pregnant, it's going to be harder to escape the violence, to protect yourself, to get security. And that's just a stressful time in relationships, when there's a pregnancy.

Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Got you. Dr. West, I wonder if there are things that you're already thinking about in terms of the increases in domestic violence that we may see on the other side of the pandemic. Like, are there things that you're already thinking about, about what's going to be happening once we're done with the pandemic?

Dr. West: Black women are living within multiple pandemics. So even when the pandemic ends, we're experiencing our violence in the context of structural violence, poverty, homelessness. We're living with community violence within our community, so many of us. We’re living with historical trauma. It's not even historical because it's ongoing when Breonna Taylor was shot in her bed by the police. This is not even back in historical; this is today.

And so we're living in multiple pandemics. Institutional violence when we seek help for our intimate partner violence from the medical system and the police… I think we're going to have to work harder to wrap our arms individually also, around victims in our community and asking them what is it they need to be safe?

Dr. Joy: Yeah, so like you mentioned earlier, making sure that we're donating to systems who may have to kind of pivot in doing some of their work digitally. But also, very directly asking like, “What is it that you need to be safe?”

Dr. West: What is it you need to be safe and how can I be a part of creating that? And asking the women and girls in our lives, “What's going on in your family? Do you feel safe? Is there something that you need to talk about?” And opening the door so we can have those conversations.

Dr. Joy: Yeah. What is leaving you hopeful in this work, Dr. West? What kinds of things are you seeing on the horizon that you feel like will make an impact in the work that you've done?

Dr. West: What's leaving me hopeful these days is for myself just working toward institutional change. I've been an expert witness for many years: talking to women who are in jail or trying to help women get out of jail after they have killed intimate partners or defended themselves. What's keeping me hopeful is that at this historical time, we're talking about Black Lives Matter. That if we can shift the narrative to not just talking about violence against our community but, like Kimberlé Crenshaw said, “Say her name,” that if we can start saying the names of victims of gender-based violence, we can really move toward making some change in this area.

Dr. Joy: Yes. Her work around intersectionality, right? You mentioned earlier the whole idea of choosing–am I going to be black now or am I going to be a woman? When really there's no way for us to choose; we are both black and women. Yeah.

Dr. West: Exactly. I guess I would say too, though, to black women out there, it reminds me of a song by Nina Simone: you’ve just got to learn to leave the table when love is no longer being served. You’re allowed to leave the table when love is no longer being served. And doing some real self-reflection and saying, “If this relationship isn't working for me, if I don't feel like I'm being honored, respected and treated well,” to know when it's time to leave the table.

Dr. Joy: Where can we find you, Dr. West? Can you share your website as well as any social media handles that you want to share with us?

Dr. West: The best way to find me is through my website, www.DrCarolynWest.com. And I have articles, videos, and other information there–free for download–for people who just want to learn more about this topic.

Dr. Joy: We will definitely be including that in the show notes. We so appreciate you sharing information with us today, Dr. West.

Dr. West: Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Joy: I'm so glad that Dr. West was able to share her expertise with us today. To learn more about her work, be sure to visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session177. And don't forget to share this episode with two sisters in your life who might appreciate the conversation. If there's a topic you'd like to have covered on the podcast, please submit it at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/mailbox. And if you're looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory.

If you want to continue digging into this topic and connect with some other sisters in your area, come on over and join us in the Yellow Couch Collective, where we take a deeper dive into the topics from the podcast and just about everything else. You can join us at TherapyForBlackGirls. com/YCC. Thank you all so much for joining me again this week. I look forward to continuing this conversation with you all real soon. Take good care.