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After XXXTentacion’s Death, We Need to Talk About How We Talk About Abusive Men

An expert says abuse can’t be explained away by a tragic past

If you’ve been online in the past few days, you’ve probably noted that Florida rapper XXXTentacion (real name Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy) — whose latest album premiered at No. 1 when it was released last March — is dead. There’s been an outpouring of grief and praise for the 20-year-old’s music despite his disturbing history of abuse: “aggravated battery on a pregnant victim, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment and witness tampering,” for which he was still awaiting trial at the time of his death.

This led us to ask ourselves some tough questions: What makes an abuser? Is it always true that “hurt people hurt people”? And can domestic abusers ever really change?

It’s more complicated than you might think, and many experts have argued that the conversation around domestic violence lacks nuance. To parse the issue, I spoke with domestic violence expert Julie Owens, a survivor of abuse who has 30 years of experience in the field of anti-violence against women. Owens works as an expert consultant for the Department of Justice, among other organizations. “When we talk about domestic violence, we’re talking about coercive control — not just physical violence, not just offenses that are criminal,” she says. “But until we stop raising boys who believe that they’re superior to girls and have the right—and maybe responsibility—to keep them in line in a relationship, we’re never going to stop domestic violence, no matter how many laws we pass.”

Here’s what else I took away from my conversation with her…

Celebrity Status Matters

“Celebrity is an important factor here to some degree,” Owens explains. “It’s been glorified to some extent in rap, so there’s been a lot of confusing love with possessiveness. A lot of victims have said to me, ‘He hits me because he loves me,’ which is a sad indictment of our society, because we haven’t taught our children what love is.”

XXXTentacion’s Allegations Are Extreme

Onfroy’s alleged victim was pregnant, which Owens says is generally an extraordinarily dangerous type of abuser. According to the police report, on October 6, 2016, Onfroy’s then-girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time, accused him of punching and kicking her, then transporting her to a location to hide her so no one could see evidence of the abuse. Her testimony about the larger relationship (and his timeline of abuse) revealed an unconscionable display of terrorizing, intimidation, physical violence, control and threats, and prosecutors collected photographic evidence of the abuse, and sworn statements from the victim and other witnesses.

An investigative look into the abuse by Miami New Times reporter Tarpley Hitt found this:

So when Onfroy moved to Orlando in late June 2016, Ayala went with him. The depositions detail a pattern of regular, torturous abuse that summer, with daily verbal attacks and physical incidents every three or four days. According to Ayala’s statement, he beat her at times, choked her, broke clothes hangers on her legs, threatened to chop off her hair or cut out her tongue, pressed knives or scissors to her face and held her head under water in their bathroom while promising to drown her.

“We know that men who batter pregnant women are some of the very most dangerous of all abusers,” Owens says. “When they batter pregnant women that hikes up the lethality. The likelihood of homicide really increases.”

Domestic Violence Isn’t All About Hitting

Owens cautions that when we read about cases like this, we have to remember that the only domestic abusers we know about are the ones who were caught or who agree to be studied, which means that we’re dealing with a very limited understanding. “Those are the only ones we can study,” she says. “And they’re the tip of the iceberg.”

But this means we may have the impression that domestic abuse is largely hitting, when it’s not. It’s about power and control, which can be exacted in multiple ways. “Most abusers don’t abuse pregnant women,” Owens says. And many don’t even commit physical violence. “When we talk about ‘domestic violence,’ we’re really talking about coercive control, not just physical violence,” she continues. “Most of it isn’t even physical; it’s not against the law. It’s coercive control. It’s removing freedoms. It’s not just the man who beats his wife, but the man who doesn’t let her work, or has alienated all her friends.”

XXXTentacion’s Fame Reveals How We Glorify Toxic Masculinity

Owens says Onfroy’s popularity in relation to his abuse is in part due to the way we glorify toxic masculinity. “It makes them in some way seem manly,” Owens says. “We have reached this point where toxic masculinity has been glorified. Abusing women is looked on as being a man, a real man. Taking control is admired. And the culture just caters to men. Women are objectified and fetishized, and it’s designed to glorify and protect them and silence their victims.”

For his part, Onfroy always denied the charges and even scoffed at them, letting women know, “If you want your pussy domestically abused, hit my line,” while others accused his girlfriend of deserving it. But Owens says this denial and blaming fits the pattern. “He’s denying, minimizing and blaming, which are the hallmarks of a batterer,” she says. “She’s going to be demonized as a gold digger, a liar and someone seeking attention.”

Does a Tragic Life Explain His Abusive Behavior?

It was a factor, but not the cause. According to Hitt’s piece in the Miami New Times, Onfroy was born impoverished, to a teenage mother who was rarely around, and was mostly raised by his grandmother. He admitted to hitting girls he liked and beating up other kids from a young age simply to get his mother’s attention, and he got into a lot of trouble. What followed was a pattern of bouncing around, criminal behavior, drug possession, homophobia and misogyny.

But his victim was also black and poor. Her mother was indifferent to her, and her father had 13 other children. She, too, was sent to live with her grandmother at a young age, and then bounced around to multiple homes.

While these factors can contribute to future violence, they don’t explain it or justify it. Owens says the only thing all the abusers they’ve studied have in common is a set of beliefs. “The reason they abuse isn’t because of how they were raised, it’s because of what they believe,” Owens says. “And what they believe does come from their family, but we know that there are many men who are raised in families who are violent and don’t grow up to be violent.

“Violence against women happens because of the entitlement and privilege that men have always had. And when that’s incorporated into a person’s belief system, and they have violence modeled for them in various ways — at home or in the media and elsewhere — and they embrace it, it’s easy to see that they would become violent themselves.”

What Makes One Guy From a Violent Home an Abuser — But Not Another Guy?

Owens says it’s simple: choice. “We know there are different types of abusers, and aspects of their backgrounds, their culture, how they’re raised, whether in a violent home or violent community, if they’ve witnessed their mother be battered, many factors,” she says. “Many factors influence their choice to abuse, but ultimately, it’s a choice to abuse, each and every time, because they don’t do it to everybody. A lot of times there are these myths about the fact that, ‘Well, it’s only when he drinks or uses drugs, this is what causes it.’ But we know they can get just as high or drunk with friends and they don’t beat them up. It’s the same thing as the myth about anger, stress and mental illness causing the abuse. These are correlated, but not causative. They always have the choice to walk out the door. Some choose to, some don’t.”

What If It’s True XXXTentacion Was Trying to Better Himself?

Owens says the type of men who can be rehabilitated from abuse have to first acknowledge they’ve done it. “Well, he was 100 percent unlikely to if he didn’t take responsibility,” she says. That said, she’s worked with batterers who have turned it all around. “The only ones who stop decided it’s not okay, and work on it every day the rest of their lives.”

Is XXXTentacion a Misunderstood, Tragic Figure?

“It’s easy to demonize men who abuse women, and while what they do is completely evil, not all abusers are completely evil,” Owens says. “Certainly how they’re raised influences their violence against women. It’s one of the factors that many, if not most abusers, have in common. But there are also many men who abuse women who were raised in homes that weren’t violent. There are many who were raised in homes that are privileged. I think what happens when we see someone who may have come up the hard way, or someone who isn’t white, or someone who’s involved in other kinds of crime, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yeah, well of course,’” and to stereotype what an abuser looks like and is. The fact is, abusers are usually the guy next door.”

What Should We Say About Him?

Owens says that, in the same way we can acknowledge the talents of men who abuse, we can also refuse to excuse their behaviors. “There’s not a thing wrong with admiring his talent, and in fact, we should, just like the NFL players [arrested for domestic violence]. They’re very talented. But when it comes to the violence against women, there should be zero tolerance and excuse or explanation. It’s off the table.”

So What Do We Do?

“Here’s the challenge,” Owens says. “When we know domestic violence has occurred, we have a choice: We can believe one person or the other. Her or him. If we believe her, we have to do something differently, don’t we? We have to act. If we believe him, what do we have to do? Nothing. That’s why most people will choose to believe him. It requires nothing of them. It’s much easier, much lazier.”

We also have to take a stand, she says, citing the work of Jackson Katz, whose popular TEDx Talk advises that violence against women is a men’s issue, too. “We have to take a stand and intervene and hold abusers accountable instead of making excuses for them because they’re talented, or nice outside the home,” she says. In XXXTentacion’s case, in spite of knowledge of the abuse against his girlfriend and multiple witnesses, no one stepped in to stop it.

“We need to stop being bystanders,” she continues. “We need to grow some balls and some ovaries and take a stand. Silence is the voice of complicity. I don’t think most people are defending him. Most aren’t saying anything at all, which is just as bad. That he could do it and do it again shows he was never accountable. It’s not surprising he died by violence, he had a very high risk for dying himself. His whole life was tragic.”

But it’s crucial to remember that his life isn’t the only tragic one. “We should really be thinking about his victim,” Owens says. “It’s a miracle she’s not dead.”