For the bulk of my career as a journalist, I have focused on women and their stories, including reporting extensively on the violence women experience in their homes, on the streets, or under the state. I have also written personally about growing up in an abusive home and how that would color my perception of romantic relationships, as evidenced by the abusive relationship I entered into as a young person.
But even as a survivor of domestic violence who’s written about the experience, I still sometimes struggle with the right words to describe it. When I read on November 6 that Devin Patrick Kelley, who is accused of carrying out the deadliest mass shooting in Texas history, previously committed violence against his wife and child, I tweeted: “Even those of you who don’t give a shit about women. Domestic violence is a precursor to mass shootings.” But according to Lauren Chief Elk, an anti-violence activist who engaged me on Twitter, that’s a problematic frame that minimizes intimate partner violence against women as merely the prelude to something bigger.
“There has been a renewed push to label gender violence as a warning or precursor to mass shootings,” Chief Elk explained to me. “I’m uncomfortable with violence against women being seen as a secondary problem or something we should only pay attention to because of the ‘more important’ or ‘bigger’ atrocities. Domestic violence is catastrophic existing all on its own, not because women should be serving as alarms or distress signals for something else.”
As writer Dara Mathis explained on Twitter, the mass shooting in Texas itself was an act of domestic violence, a continuation—or perhaps, an extension—of the violence to which Kelley’s wife Danielle Shields was being subjected even after reportedly leaving Kelley. Shields’ family was targeted when Kelley opened fire at a church in New Braunfels, Texas, killing 26 people, according to news reports.
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Other similar stories will no doubt pour in following future mass shootings, and chances are the national conversation will turn to gun control and mental health, but rarely to domestic violence and toxic masculinity. So I decided to interview Chief Elk about why this is, and why she believes it’s tremendously harmful to talk about domestic violence only as a symptom of mass shootings and not as a standalone issue. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our email conversation.
Tina Vasquez: We spoke about this on Twitter, but can you tell readers more about why you disagree with the framing I used in a tweet and how it poorly situates the conversation we need to have about domestic violence?
Lauren Chief Elk: One of my first thoughts was about how quickly this turns into victim-blaming. I think it not only encourages a dismissal of the severity of domestic violence, but also the desire and need to punish victims for the other acts of their abusers. I think about the Pulse nightclub shooting [last year] and how despite the killer’s history of domestic violence almost instantaneously people jumped to put responsibility on his wife for not preventing what happened (and then subsequently called for her criminalization). We punish women for not leaving, not reporting, not stopping their own abuse, and in the current narrative, not stopping killing sprees. “Not giving a shit” (so to speak) about domestic violence is the direct pathway to justifying punishing women even more than we already do.
TV: Reports suggest that domestic violence is a precursor to other forms of violence for abusers. In your opinion, how does this affect both how the violence women experience is framed and how the media covers/the public consumes or views this violence?
LCE: I think it’s important to look at how domestic violence is related to other forms of violence without saying other acts that follow are more important. Especially when the majority of mass shootings are domestic incidents. There’s a separation between the two that happens when labeling domestic violence simply as the precursor, and not the biggest, most common occurrence—and that alone is doing a disservice to everyone. What the media also likes to do is turn women’s experiences into a circus and use graphic stories as a means of page clicks and entertainment. This backfires on women in that they’re opened up to more harassment and retaliation for having assault details made so public. Everyone loves to consume women’s violent “stories” for personal thrills, and this very seldom leads to material, helpful change.
TV: In reference to the above question, is there a way to have that conversation with women and their experiences at the forefront? Is that conversation even useful/helpful?
LCE: It’s imperative for women to have the space and support to talk about abuse, if we so choose. In my opinion, the mainstream feminist movement demanding that women “speak out” as a means of ending gender-based violence has been wildly unsuccessful and even harmful. Never sharing your experiences, naming your assailant, or even reporting are completely valid choices that women also get to make. “Sharing your story” has been about nonprofit campaigns, tech companies, media, and politicians all capitalizing on women’s pain and suffering without supporting victims or creating consequential change.
TV: On Twitter, you wrote that not centering women and the violence they experience in conversations like the one we were having is “still pleading to men.” Tell me more about that and how to avoid doing this.
LCE: The idea that we should put our issues aside for the wider picture is the status quo response that women receive for any and everything. Not centering the initial violence is asking men nicely to maybe throw a cookie our way in stopping domestic violence. Women need to understand that we’re trying to appeal to a moral sense and consciousness that doesn’t exist, and that trying to have rational arguments with people who would like us dead is at the very least a waste of time.
TV: The night we were having our Twitter conversation, I also saw this tweet from s.e. smith, calling for the use of more specific language when we talk about violence that women experience at the hands of their male romantic partners. What are your thoughts on the phrase “domestic violence”? Is the language we’re using to talk about gender-based violence misleading?
LCE: There has been some debates throughout the feminist movement as to what the label should be—intimate partner violence, dating violence, or relationship violence. To me, domestic violence refers to patterns of abusive behavior and specifically under a patriarchal society.
TV: I first became acquainted with you because of your rape kit advocacy, expanding on the conversation led by People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws (PERL). I learned there is no “rape kit backlog,” but rather a system that does not seem to care about women and does not prioritize rape as a crime. As I’ve thought about our Twitter conversation and my tweets, I’m wondering why our society isn’t more deeply invested in addressing gender-based violence, including how it’s handled by law enforcement and how it’s treated by the public. Why do you think that is?
LCE: I would like to give credit to PERL and all of the victims suing their cities and police departments for leading the way in disrupting the “backlog” narrative. The state is first and foremost invested in making the appearance of violence against women disappear. Whether that’s sexual assault, domestic violence, cases of missing women, stalking, or murder. So there is an intentional ignoring of cases and evidence, refusing to investigate, take reports, and keep databases. There is also a manipulation of official causes of death and statistics, as well as intentional downgrading of complaints. This is all why domestic violence gun laws have generally been meaningless and unenforceable; if the state is primarily invested in hiding this violence, banning gun access to men with histories of domestic violence becomes a physical impossibility.
This happens because of how predatory law enforcement is (as law enforcement officials have higher than average rates of domestic and sexual abuse), because of how expensive gender violence is (there is no monetary incentive to fully address it—that’s not how the prison industrial complex works), and because the United States would like to keep up the façade of being the human rights defenders of the world. Most important, most of this works to punish and surveil victims as we’ve never moved past punitive attitudes toward women who are victims; the state has just maneuvered in more advanced ways to do so.
TV: To address the link between domestic violence and domestic terrorism, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) recently announced legislation that removes firearms from those “who commit any domestic violence crimes.” Is this sort of policy helpful?
LCE: This isn’t the first time legislation has been proposed (or passed) attempting to disarm those with a history of domestic violence. It has been done at the federal and state levels, and we can see what the impact has been: virtually nothing. As we discussed earlier in the interview, the state’s primary goal is covering up this violence, so you can’t legislate a solution to something that’s not being criminalized to begin with.
In his announcement, Cuomo related this effort to recent mass shootings, citing these men’s own domestic violence histories. But have any of them (even from the past few years) been convicted of any criminal offense, misdemeanor, or felony? How would these types of laws even have remotely prevented any of them? And when talking about taking guns away from abusers, are we also talking about law enforcement who have some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country? Who we mostly see suffer the worst criminal punishment for domestic violence is women, and that is for self-defense and retaliation. A lot of these feel good, “get tough” measures proposed are nothing more than grandstanding because at the end of the day they’re unenforceable—and at their very worst [yet again], they backfire on victims.
TV: As I expressed to you privately, I was really disappointed to see the framing I had been using on Twitter was problematic. Are there questions people should ask themselves when trying to address oversights related to writing/talking about abuse and violence against women?
LCE: I’m grateful to have this conversation with you as I know we as women internalize a lot. Conversing with each other on this topic has been productive and healing. I think everyone should check in with themselves about why women are only rhetorical points in these narratives about gun violence, and why we should stop asking [to be victim-centered] nicely.
TV How do you want conversations about domestic violence and mass gun violence to go? What’s often missing in the conversations?
LCE: Mainstream feminism (carceral feminism) continues to do a great disservice to women in clinging on to the state as our savior against violence. It would behoove all women to start seeing the state as violence and moving to a politics that goes beyond harsher sentencing and reform. It’s necessary to come up with ways to describe domestic violence outside of state-supportive language. Conversations about violence against women should also think about what it means to be victim-centered: how much this violence destroys women’s lives and how we need to materially and financially support victims directly (à la #GiveYourMoneyToWomen).