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Why do women stay in abusive relationships? That’s the question Slate‘s Linda Hirshman poses in her review of the new abuse memoir Crazy Love. Hirshman thinks the question is a “terribly important one” to ask women, and that it is a “mark of respect” to do so.
And yet, Hirshman’s question remains a rhetorical in her review of Leslie Morgan Steiner‘s book—-because Hirshman never attempts to answer it. She writes:
In the press kit for Crazy Love, Steiner says it’s easy to see why she married someone who choked her on a regular basis. She was, she says, “kind, insecure and desperate for intimacy. … It is not difficult to understand why anyone … could become trapped in an intimate manipulative relationship.”
. . . Steiner is wrong: It is difficult to understand why she stayed in this awful relationship, given that she was not risking starvation and had no children with her abuser.
Hirshman’s theory isn’t an attempt at understanding why a woman would stay. In fact, Hirshman argues, it is that very attempt at understanding that is to blame for the perpetuation of abusive relationships. Hirshman calls this “the soft bigotry of low feminism”—-when we try to understand why women stay with their abusers, we stop focusing on empowering women to get out.
Hirshman has a point here. Women are not helpless. They have agency. They can make choices. There are escape routes from abusive relationships, and women can take them. Acknowledging this is not the same as blaming the victim——it is, however, often the only way to make the abuse stop.
But listen to how Hirshman now rephrases the question. It’s not “Why do women stay in abusive relationships?”—-it’s “Why do women’s self-destructive fantasies drown out the warnings that years of old-style feminism have alerted us to?”
Yep, after ticking off the only reasons Hirshman deems rational for staying—-it’s not money, and it’s not kids—-she decides to rationalize it for herself in perhaps the most offensive way possible:
The victim stays with the abuser because she likes it! She is living out her fantasy. What’s more, she just doesn’t listen to those who know better—-why, old feminists, of course. What a crazy, stupid victim.
It’s telling that Hirshman points only to physical reasons for staying with an abuser (money and children), because throughout, she fails to address that abusive relationships are rarely solely physical affairs. She doesn’t mention that abusers employ emotional manipulation and social pressure deliberately and constantly to make sure their victims don’t leave. Instead, she points to an 11-year-old girl “who got wind of her impending genital circumcision and walked 25 miles through the Kenyan bush at night to reach a Girls Rescue Center”—-a daring physical escape, to be sure.
The escape routes for emotional and psychological abuse are often more difficult to discern. And when you fail to address that, asking a woman why she stays in an abusive relationship isn’t a “mark of respect”—-it’s a mark of condescension.
So, Hirshman reads a book intimately detailing Leslie Morgan Steiner’s four-year abusive relationship, puts it down, and writes an essay asking, “What was this woman thinking?” I haven’t read Crazy Love, but I assume that’s the point—-understanding the victim’s perspective. Why don’t we listen to her?