Susan R. Madsen: The high cost of ignoring domestic violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, when we as a society have become much more open and adamant about what kind of physical contact is and isn’t okay, one might assume the same type of support and awareness would be extended to those who suffer domestic violence. They also have a hashtag, #SurvivorsSpeak, but my guess is most of us have never encountered it. Why is there no communal reckoning for these victims?

It’s not because this abuse is rare. Our research at the Utah Women & Leadership Project reports that one in three Utah women will experience some form of domestic violence in her lifetime, and 40% of adult homicides in Utah are domestic violence related. Every year, around 80 Utah children witness either the murder or attempted murder of their mothers.

The statistics show that those most likely to be abused are those with less social and economic capital. Divorced and separated women in Utah report rates of abuse four times what their married and single counterparts do. And women with less than a high school education report abuse twice as often as a college graduate.

But these statistics also show who is reporting. It is not necessarily the case that only underprivileged women experience domestic violence, but that they are more likely to report it. Experts agree that this is a highly underreported crime that affects women from all backgrounds, races, and religions.

Part of the problem may be the way we traditionally envision abuse as strictly physical, when it actually takes many forms—emotional, verbal, financial, spiritual, digital/online, and sexual. One woman I met has a spouse who never hits her but uses financial abuse as control: all their assets are in his name, all their debt in hers. She feels trapped.

And while we all agree it’s tragic and we are eager to support those who turn to the authorities or flee to battered women’s shelters, sometimes it’s harder to extend our compassion and understanding to those who don’t leave the situation. On the surface, it seems a simple equation. If you are abused, get out; if you stay, it’s your choice. But is there truly “consent” when one person uses their power to hurt and intimidate another person? More often what appears to be a conscious choice to remain with an abuser is actually fear mingled with a belief that it is safer to stay than to leave. Tragically, sometimes it is.

So what can we do to help? Organizations like Center for Women and Children in Crisis and Utah Domestic Violence Coalition are great places to start. In addition to being a resource for those experiencing abuse, they provide education and volunteer opportunities for those who want to get involved.

The cost of ignoring this problem is steep. The US spends approximately $5.8 billion yearly on medical and mental health services, excluding social services and criminal justice. Yet, what is the cost of safety? It’s priceless.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the Founding Director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.