Trigger warning: This article deals with issues around domestic violence, sexual violence, emotional violence and may be upsetting to survivors or witnesses of violence.
One out of four women in the UK will be affected by domestic violence in their lifetime (British Crime Survey 2011). That’s one out of your close group of girl friends, two of the girls in your rowing team, four of the women taking your bus, about twenty of the girls in a large lecture hall, and a quarter of the women you pass on the street every day.
Why then, does no one talk about domestic violence outside of feminist and charity circles? Does no one believe in the reality of its existence? Is it simply taboo? Is it, like rape, something we know happens but just don’t want to acknowledge because it makes us too uncomfortable? I think the problem is partly due to a misunderstanding of what domestic violence is.
The image that springs to mind stereotypically is of a woman who is beaten by her husband. However, although physical violence is part of domestic violence, a far larger proportion of the abuse consists of the psychological and emotional violence used by a man to control his partner on a regular basis. (Men can be victims of domestic violence from female perpetrators, and domestic violence happens in same-sex relationships, but in this article I will talk about evidence based on male perpetrators and their female partners.)
The psychological and emotional abuse commonly used by perpetrators includes the use of strategies such as: Isolation, Forced Trivial Demands, Degradation and Humiliation, Threats, Displays of Total Power, Occasional Indulgences, Exhaustion and Distorted Perspectives. (These terms and this model is one commonly used by practitioners in the field and is the one I was taught on a domestic violence awareness training day run by Tender, an excellent organisation who work with young people. These strategies parallel some of those used in concentration, torture and POW camps.)
Please feel free to skip ahead the following explanations if you are aware of what these terms mean in a domestic violence context but I thought it was important these were understood properly.
MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING ALERT: these examples can be quite upsetting
1. Isolation may include: preventing the woman from seeing or communicating with her family and friends; taking away her means to do normal daily necessities such as taking away her phone, keys, money, or means of transport; preventing her from accessing medical or professional help; not allowing her to learn English, study, work; locking her indoors, etc.
2. Forced Trivial Demands: creating unachievable and constantly changing standards in regards to food, dress, home, behavior, to the extent that the partner can never ‘do anything right’. This is then used to blame her for outbreaks of violence, for example she did ‘not make the tea right’. Repeated use of this kind of language leads women to believe that if they change their ‘wrong’ behavior they can stop the violence, but in reality there are no ‘rules’ because they are constantly changing to suit the perpetrator. I.e. a woman may wear a particular item of clothing that he likes one day but thinks is horrible the next, she never knows when her ‘standards’ may suddenly fall short.
3. Degradation and Humiliation may include: Name-calling, allowing no privacy, using children as a witness to violence, exposing secrets, embarrassing in public, highlighting flaws and weaknesses, encouraging children to disrespect mother, making partner beg for food, eat pet food or eat off floor, making partner sleep or sit on floor, forced surgery, enslavement, forced to watch pornography, use of rape and other degrading sexual abuse and exploitation, etc.
4. Threats may include: threats to children’s safety – to harm or take them away, to harm her family, to take money away, to take job away, blackmail, threats of deportation by taking VISA away, threats to report her to social services or to mental institutions, threats to take away access to friends and family, threats of rape, slavery, sexual abuse, physical harm and murder, threats to expose explicit photos/films to family/employers that may have been taken under duress.
5. Displays of Total Power: carrying out threats to isolate partner or withdraw financial means, using physical force against partner, sexual force such as rape, may also include smashing furniture or punching walls to demonstrate ‘this is what I am capable of’.
6. Occasional Indulgences: part of a strategy to mess with partner’s mind, may include occasional lavish purchases of gifts, taking partner out to dinner, using flattery and praise unexpectedly, saying ‘I love you’, indulging children, showing affection, warmth, weakness, agreeing to provide financial assistance for something, allowing family visits.
7. Exhaustion (we’re almost there!): Using 6 and others to make behavior extremely volatile so partner never knows how to act and is kept constantly on edge and in fear, constant pressure of demands, keep partner constantly pregnant or with small children so she is always tired, physically keeping her exhausted by shaking her awake in the middle of the night.
8. Distorted Perspectives: 6 can be used to present a very good ‘front’ in public and to friends as examples of a healthy relationship, telling other people how great it’s going, belittling and justifying physical, sexual abuse, ‘it wasn’t that bad’, ‘you’re overreacting’, ‘if only you hadn’t…’ ‘it’s for your own benefit’ ‘all relationships are like this’, using insults, ‘you’re fat/stupid/ugly/a bad girlfriend/mother/wife’, ‘no one else would ever love you’, or pretending abuse never happened, ‘you’re making it up’, ‘you’re crazy’, ‘you don’t remember properly’, ‘you were drunk’.
OK, so, with that out of the way, how do you feel now about the question people commonly ask when you mention domestic violence:
Well, why don’t they just leave?
Women are rarely physically hurt or attacked in the first stages of a relationship, but these other kinds of abuse may creep in subtly and become a prelude to later physical and sexual violence. At any stage, a woman may want to leave a violent relationship, but the mechanisms explained above can greatly diminish her ability to do so. The careful use of these strategies to control and intimidate create circumstances that go beyond the immediate effects of traditional forms of violence.
Psychological and emotional violence instills fear. It erodes a woman’s self-esteem, it isolates her from her friends and family, inhibits her ability to defend herself and seek help, and leaves a woman to deny to herself and others that she is being abused, even to question her own state of mind. If we describe it as domestic abuse instead of domestic violence, this helps shifts our perception of what it actually means.
These examples also highlight how important it is to take cases of domestic violence seriously and to let the affected person know that you believe her. Survivors may be too embarrassed to ever report examples of the above for fear of sounding silly or ridiculous. Taken in isolation many don’t appear to be very serious – most aren’t criminal offences, but understood as part of an over-encompassing strategy of control, they are very powerful.
It is also very important to respect a woman’s decision as to when and how to leave a relationship. Only she can know when she is ready and able to leave an abusive relationship, and when she feels safe to do so. You cannot tell someone or assume you know when this may be, not as a friend, not as a practitioner on front-line services.
Particularly if there is a very real threat from the abuser to kill her, the children or himself. The statistic you may be familiar with, that – on average two women die every week at the hands of a current or ex-partner (Department of Health 2005) – is made more telling when you find out that a vast majority of these murders happen when a woman is trying to leave an abusive relationship or just after she’s just left one. Knowing that when you’re in an abusive relationship must make it very scary to leave.
This is even before you consider the additional barriers to leaving an abusive relationship from women in minority groups. For example BME women on average access up to 19 agencies before they access the right help (compared to other women who access 12 before she reaches the right help). Perpetrators are often the ones who supply the drugs if the woman has a substance abuse problem. Disabled women may be unable to leave the house if their means to mobility or their medication is restricted or taken away from them.
The stigma of leaving an abusive relationship may be heightened in some Muslim communities, for example if you are thought to bring dishonour or shame on your family by leaving your husband, you may be at the additional risk of honour-based violence. Similarly in a close-knit community – if English is your second language, you are already at a disadvantage for seeking help, but say you require an interpreter to communicate, your translator may already know members of your extended family.
It is critical that we start to take domestic violence seriously, recognise that it happens and is a very common problem, and in particular, that we start talking about it and challenging the myths that surround it.
The Free National Helpline for Domestic Violence is 0808 2000 247
If you are interested to learn more, here are some statistics.
– A third of all cases of domestic violence start or intensify when the women is in pregnancy (Department of Health 2004)
– At least 750,000 children witness domestic violence every year (Department of Health, 2003)
– 12% of under 11s, 18% of 11-17s and 24% of 18-24s had been exposed to domestic abuse between adults in their homes during childhood. Adult males were the perpetrators in 94% of cases where one parent had physically abused another. (NSPCC 2011)
– In 90% of domestic violence incidents in family households, children were in the same or the next room (Hughes 1992)
– In over 50% of known domestic violence cases, children were also directly abused (NSPCC 1997)
– In England and Wales, one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute (Crime in England and Wales 2006-07 report)
– Domestic violence accounts for 18% of all recorded violent crime (Crime in England and Wales 2011)
– 54% of UK rapes are committed by a woman’s current or former partner (Walby and Allen 2004)
– The two women killed a week constitute one-third of all female murder victims (Department of Health 2005)
– In any one year, there are 13 million separate incidents of physical violence or threats of violence against women from partners or former partners (Walby and Allen 2004)
– Out of 48, 801 incidents of domestic abuse recorded in 2006-07 in Scotland, only half of these incidents was recorded as a criminal offence and only 11% as serious crimes (Statistical Bulletin – Criminal Justice Series 2006-07)
– The total cost of domestic abuse to services in England and Wales (the criminal justice system, health, social services, housing and civil legal) amounts to £3.8 billion per year, while the loss to the economy from women taking time off work from injuries is £1.9 billion per year. (Walby 2009)
– The human and emotional cost is thought to amount to just under £10 billion a year. Including all costs, the total cost of domestic abuse for the state, employers and victims is estimated at around £16 billion per year. (Walby 2009)
Teenage relationships (taken from this excellent NSPCC report 2009)
– 72% per cent of girls and 51% of boys reported some form of emotional partner violence
– 31% per cent of girls and 16% of boys reported some form of sexual partner violence
(On the last statistic – a little plug – I am currently planning to get involved in lobbying/awareness-raising around the effect of pornography on normalizing unhealthy sexual behaviours and sexual exploitation among young people. If you are also interested in this, or know about any organisations who work on this, I would be very interested to hear from you.)