For a long time, society saw domestic abuse as “a private matter” and “none of our business.” What happened between a husband and a wife was just that: between them. If a woman was married to a man who beat her, she had little recourse.
Things are changing, slowly but surely, but ongoing myths about violence against women have prevented us from helping survivors. A widespread lack of understanding about how and why abuse happens to women, the systemic nature of male violence against women, and how difficult it is for women to disentangle themselves from abusers has been deadly for tens of thousands of women—and devastating in other ways as well.
The documentary The Perfect Victim follows the stories of four women who were incarcerated for murdering their abusers. All received excessive sentences that ignored the fact that their lives were under threat on a daily basis, as well as the realities and complexities of abusive relationships.
Take, for example, the story of one of the featured women: Shirley Lute. In 1978, when Lute was given a sentence of fifty years to life for killing her husband, abuse was never even mentioned in court. That’s because there was a period of time during which abuse victims could not enter evidence of abuse in their murder trials under Missouri law. (Lawyers believed the abuse would be seen as motive.)
According to the documentary, Lute’s father began selling her for wine when she was 4 years old. Her husband, Melvin Lute, began beating her six months after they were married. He kicked and punched her, forced her to steal and prostitute, and chained her up and left her alone in the house for hours. He once locked her in the basement for five days with no food or water. “Why should I have to go to prison for being tortured by somebody?” she asks in the film.
Myths about domestic abuse further compound the harm—that women lie about abuse to get revenge, that seemingly “good men” in positions of authority in the community would never do such a thing, that women can somehow “provoke” male violence . . . The list goes on.
We tend, also, to not take into account the way that emotional, verbal, financial, and psychological abuse factors in. It’s easy to say, “Just leave him,” but the fear of leaving is justified for very real reasons—not least of all because women are in the most danger of injury or violence when they leave or try to leave their abusers.
When people ask, “Why didn’t she leave?” instead of “Why is he beating her?” they put the onus on the victim. And if a woman’s life is in danger—if she is being threatened regularly—and she does something about it, why on earth is she being punished in such an extreme way for saving her own life (and, in many cases, the lives of her children)?
People (and often courts and parole boards) are looking for “the perfect victim.” When women fight back, they aren’t seen as helpless, and, therefore, they aren’t seen as “victims.”
But here are some stats to remember: According to SafeHorizon.org, every year in America 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by their partners, and one out of three of all female homicide victims is killed by her current or former partner.
The Perfect Victim is available for Americans to watch for free on World Channel from April 15 to October 15 and is also available on Amazon Prime. On July 7, the documentary will be rebroadcast at 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST on the World Channel as part of the “America ReFramed” series.
Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her website is Feminist Current.