February 27, 2021

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Gayle King asked FKA Twigs ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ Her question is part of the problem.

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FKA Twigs refused to answer it, the dangerous question we can’t seem to stop asking survivors of domestic violence: “Why didn’t you leave?” 

When Gayle King posed the question during a CBS interview with Twigs on Thursday, her first television interview since filing a lawsuit against ex-boyfriend Shia LaBeouf alleging severe abuse, it seemed she knew it was wrong, though it ultimately did not stop her: “I often wonder if it’s even appropriate to ask,” King said.

Domestic violence experts say not only is the question inappropriate, it harms survivors by shifting attention away from their abusers. Experts say many survivors don’t leave when the abuse begins, and people are often quick to judge them which is a factor in why many survivors stay silent. 

“When we ask, ‘why didn’t you leave?’ we’re making the victim responsible for the harm that’s been done to them,” said Ruth Glenn, president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

In the interview, Twigs (born Tahliah Debrett Barnett) attempts to shift focus back to LaBeouf.

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“I think we have to stop asking that question,” she told King. “The question should really be to the abuser: ‘Why are you holding someone hostage with abuse?’ People say it can’t have been that bad, because else you would’ve left. But it’s like, no, it’s because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.”

"My second worst nightmare is being forced to share with the world that i am a survivor of domestic violence," FKA twigs wrote on Instagram in December. "My first worst nightmare is not telling anyone and knowing that i could have helped even just one person by sharing my story."

Domestic violence is a pervasive social problem that cuts across race, age, income, sexual orientation, religion and gender — in terms of both victims and perpetrators. One in 3 women has experienced intimate partner violence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mental health issues often emerge after repeated, escalating, abuses. Victims of emotional abuse are at higher risk for developing mental health disorders, including depression and PTSD. 

“This question so often comes from a place of concern, as FKA twigs pointed out in the interview with Gayle King, but it so often makes survivors feel like it is their responsibility to make the abuse stop,” said Deborah Vagins, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.  “Abuse is an intentional pattern of controlling behavior, and the only person who can make the abuse stop is the person responsible for choosing to abuse in the first place.”

Why we can’t stop asking the question

Experts say the question keeps coming up because culturally we do not understand domestic violence. We ask because we are curious, and because most perpetrators don’t admit to abuse, we can’t ask them why they harmed. 

“Abusers don’t come forward and say, ‘I abused my partner.’ We don’t have the opportunities to question them,” Glenn said. “The only person we have to question is the person who has been harmed, and so often we end up … blaming the victim. We can’t help ourselves and that’s really unfortunate.” 

Experts said King could have asked the question differently. Instead of saying “why didn’t you leave,” something more productive could have been, “Can you explain to our audience the tactics perpetrators use that make it is so difficult to get out of an abusive relationship?”

Reps for King and CBS did not immediately return USA TODAY’s request for comment. 

Why survivors stay

The reasons women choose to stay with an abusive partner are complex, domestic violence advocates say, such as fearing for their lives or believing the abuser will “go back” to the way things were. Domestic violence advocates also say abuse often does not begin right away.

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In her allegations against LaBeouf, twigs described a switch from an “intense honeymoon period” to something setting her partner off, which would then prompt LaBeouf to “start an argument with me, berate me for hours, make me feel like the worst person ever,” she said.

In 2018, actress and activist Evan Rachel Wood shared her experience with domestic violence, saying it was “toxic mental, physical and sexual abuse which started slow but escalated over time.”

Abusers are skilled at normalizing abuse, and often use gaslighting – manipulating a victim to make them question their reality – to convince victims the abuse isn’t that bad, or that they are actually the ones provoking it.

Some survivors rely on their abuser for income, housing, healthcare, and other essentials. Many worry they aren’t prepared to leave. Some hold out hope the abuse may eventually stop. No one, experts say, gets into a relationship to be harmed. 

“Many of us know what it’s like to be in a relationship we thought was healthy, only to later on ask ourselves, ‘why did I stay for so long?'” she said.

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The danger in leaving

Experts say domestic abuse is about power. When a survivor leaves an abusive relationship, the perpetrator loses power, which can cause them to retaliate in even more violent ways. When a survivor does leave, many of them fear for their lives and the lives of their children and loved ones. 

In 1992, months after Glenn left her abusive husband after 13 years of marriage, he tracked her down and shot her three times.

“Leaving often does not cause the abuse to stop. In fact, many abusive partners choose to escalate their abusive behaviors in response to what they perceive as a loss of power and control,” Vagins said. “For many survivors, leaving is not a safe or reasonable option, and in fact, can often be increasingly dangerous.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 72% of murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94% of the victims are female.

Twigs said she never thought “something like this would happen to me.” Part of the reason she said she’s speaking out is to show that even someone like herself –  successful, financially independent – can become the victim of abuse.

“My second worst nightmare is being forced to share with the world that i am a survivor of domestic violence,” Twigs wrote on Instagram in December. “My first worst nightmare is not telling anyone and knowing that i could have helped even just one person by sharing my story.”

If you are a victim of domestic violence, The National Domestic Violence Hotline allows you to speak confidentially with trained advocates online or by the phone, which they recommend for those who think their online activity is being monitored by their abuser (800-799-7233). They can help survivors develop a plan to achieve safety for themselves and their children.

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