*Warning: Sarcasm used for impact.
Provocation. It’s a nasty word. Let’s get rid of it.
It’s always harrowing listening to the coverage and statistics about domestic violence cases—particularly those that culminate in murder. There always seems to be that man who strangled his wife—having threatened to kill her on more than one occasion—pleading manslaughter, not murder. Or the guy who, in a fit of jealous rage, lost control because he just couldn’t bear the pain of losing her to another. Poor fella.
What should be equally alarming is that these men (or their defense counsel of whatever gender) say they were “provoked.” This provocation myth is a huge part of what keeps abuse active, secret, and shameful for the victim. Abuse cannot exist without shame and secrecy.
When we say that a woman provoked a man into strangling her so violently and for so long that he actually kills her, we are saying that it’s not really the man’s fault. Gawd love him. He’s a good guy, holds down a job, goes to church. She made him do it. She did something to irritate him.
Maybe she put too little butter on his sandwich or, worse, asked him to make his own. Maybe she asked him to take responsibility for something he did. Perhaps she met a friend he didn’t like for coffee, wore something he didn’t approve of in public, or refused to wear something she didn’t feel comfortable in at home. Maybe she didn’t want to watch porn with him—the aggressive, non-consensual kind all about the sexual gratification of men. I mean, what woman wouldn’t enjoy that? Clearly all of that is unreasonable. She deliberately provoked him.
These are things I and my colleagues have heard both men and women say in the sanctity of the therapeutic space; they are things I have read about in psychological journals; or in narratives shared on Twitter.
This “provocation” happens every day in a home near you. Maybe it happens in your home. I hope not, but considering that spousal abuse is so common, its undeniable that many reading this have had (or are currently having) an intimate experience with it. And yes, let’s acknowledge: men aren’t always the aggressors.
So, when I hear someone say they were provoked into (choosing) a violent behaviour of any kind, I understand that rage is a real thing. I really do. But we are all responsible for our own choices. We alone choose to roar or shout, or manipulate or abuse. If someone’s behaviour triggers a painful emotion and we feel anger as a result, we alone decide what to do next.
There is no plausible excuse for abuse. It is never okay.
Abusers are not provoked. Just as rapists are not enticed, or teased into their actions. To say otherwise is victim blaming, and that needs to stop. We need to call people on it. We like to explain things away. We like to think there is a reason other than some human beings can behave monstrously. And so some of us still look to victim and wonder, what did they do to make this happen?
What we should be asking is this: How is it that abusers choose their victims? Why is it they don’t beat everyone they know?
There is a split moment when an abuser assesses whether or not he or she will get away with this action. And if the target is vulnerable (usually a woman or child), not the big guy at the gym, then yes, they’ll likely get away with it. There is always a moment when a choice is made.
This is exactly why so many violent crimes go unreported. Vulnerable people fear judgement and not being believed. They fear the isolation that reporting abuse means. And they know that the more isolated they are, the more dangerous it is for them.
And so I am appealing to you to not take the blame for another’s actions, ever. Investigate those moments when you feel that you have “provoked” someone. If you are promised that behaviour will change and it doesn’t, please know that it’s okay to mind yourself by exiting that relationship, be it a sexual one or a friendship.
And if you find that you, yourself, have behaved badly, be it by being controlling, aggressive, manipulative, or even ignoring someone as a means to get what you want, take genuine responsibility and make amends. That’s more than apology. It’s understanding that your behaviour has consequences, and making a choice and commitment to change that behaviour knowing that your current partner has the right to choose to not be with you.
This is not giving in or being less than, it’s being respectful and honest. People like that, people need that, people deserve that.