Tackling a dark reality

01 February 2017

With reported rates of domestic abuse still disturbingly high, it’s clear we need to debunk myths and get a better understanding of the issues, writes Women’s Aid chief executive Polly Neate.

Understanding domestic abuse is not something that only specialists need to do. Domestic abuse is extremely common. Still, in 2017, two women a week, on average, are killed by a partner or former partner in England and Wales. So we all have a responsibility to understand how we can play a role in preventing this. And damaging myths still undermine the response domestic abuse survivors get from almost all agencies. This also has to change. 

I’m focusing here on the things I believe professionals across the board find hardest to ‘get’ about domestic abuse, and attract the most mythologising and controversy.

In at the deep end: domestic abuse is not gender-neutral, and unless we recognise its roots in deeply embedded sexist attitudes towards women, we have no hope of preventing it or dealing appropriately with survivors and perpetrators. This is not to say that men are not victims of intimate partner violence – of course they are. But the coercive, controlling abuse of women by their male intimate partner is part of a wider phenomenon of violence and abuse, which ranges from street harassment to sexual violence, to internet trolling, to a certain well-known figure’s ‘locker room’ grabbing. This spectrum, and the place of domestic abuse within it, is acknowledged and formalised by the government, which places domestic abuse as a key element of its strategy on violence against women and girls. 

There are so many statistics one could choose to illustrate the damage done by the normalisation of sexism. To pick a few:

  • 59% of young women aged 13 to 21 said in 2014 they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college that year
  • Almost a third (29%) of 16- to 18-year-old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school 
  • 41% of UK girls aged 14 to 17 who reported an intimate relationship experienced some form of sexual violence from their partner
  • 22% of young girls aged seven to 12 have experienced sexual jokes from boys
  • Nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16- to 18-year-olds say they hear sexual name-calling, with terms such as ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ used towards girls at school on a daily basis
  • A rape occurs in a school somewhere in the UK for every day of the school year.

The X-Y factor

We cannot afford to ignore the gender dimension of domestic abuse. Services for men are much needed, but are developed at the expense of support for women, and yet the myth that men get no support still prevails. In reality, of a sample of 361 specialist domestic abuse services in England in 2016, 170 provided support for men. 

The gender dimension pervades coercive control, and it is this – the heart of domestic abuse – that all professionals also need to understand. The report, Finding the costs of freedom, published by London Metropolitan University and Solace Women’s Aid in 2014, in which 100 women and their children were tracked for three years after first seeking support, states: ‘Across all agencies, domestic violence was still being reduced to incidents of physical assault, which led not only to an exclusion of some women from services and support when their abuse was more characterised by coercive control, but also a minimising of post-separation abuse.’ 

It goes on to say: ‘The current policy focus on short-term risk reduction contributed to this misunderstanding, and failure to recognise women’s current and persisting support needs.’

This ‘misunderstanding’ causes so many problems survivors experience, as services and even friends and family put up obstacles, preventing them from finding safety and support. It is at the root of questions like: ‘Why doesn’t she leave if it’s so bad?’ It underlies inappropriate and even dangerous referrals for family therapy, couple counselling and mediation. It leads to perpetrators being allowed to cross-examine their victim in family courts, and to dangerous decisions on child contact where domestic abuse is dismissed if the couple have separated and there has been no physical violence for a while. It leads professionals to take survivors’ denial or minimisation of abuse at face value, while expecting questions to be answered truthfully with the perpetrator next door or likely to interrogate the victim afterwards. 

Digital age

Technological advances have provided new ways for abusive men to assert their control. But a woman’s fear of the perpetrator, whether his behaviour is online, offline, or both, is usually well informed and justified, and should always be taken seriously. A Women’s Aid survey in 2015 of survivors of domestic abuse with experience of online abuse found:

  • For 85% of respondents, the abuse they received online was part of a pattern of abuse they also experienced offline
  • For half of respondents, the online abuse they experienced involved direct threats to them or to someone they knew
  • Almost a third of respondents who received threats online stated that those threats were subsequently carried out.

Again, the belief in being entitled to abuse women online is culturally engrained and is a gendered phenomenon. Research in 2016 by the think tank Demos found that in just three weeks 10,000 tweets were sent from UK accounts to aggressively attack someone as a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’. It’s unlikely many of those victims were men. The Crown Prosecution Service reports that a significant majority of victims of so-called ‘revenge pornography’ are women and girls. United States Justice Department records reveal that 70% of those stalked online are women, while more than 80% of cyber-stalking defendants are men. And when The Guardian commissioned research into the 70 million comments on its site from 2006-16, it found that of the 10 most abused writers, eight were women, and the two men were of black or minority ethnicity. 

It was the need to push back against the tide of misogyny, and the ignorance of coercive control that makes it life-threatening to women, that inspired Women’s Aid to work with BBC Radio 4’s The Archers for over two years to portray – in real-time and beautifully acted – how a coercive, controlling, abusive relationship develops, and the victim-blaming that so commonly surrounds it, including the victim blaming herself. We are very proud of this work, and there is some evidence that it has increased awareness and understanding, partly through the immense volume of media coverage it received, and partly because of an increase of nearly 20% in calls to the National Domestic Violence Helpline.

The way in which we respond to domestic abuse must change if agencies are to respond competently to coercive control, and to the severity of the trauma many women have experienced. Currently, universal and specific services addressing mental health issues, substance misuse, women’s offending, severe parenting problems and other ‘complex needs’ do not see or do not address the impact of domestic abuse. Specialist domestic abuse services are disappearing, and are increasingly commissioned and funded only to manage risk, not to support women towards long-term recovery and independence. Meanwhile, the emphasis on identifying so-called ‘high-risk’ victims has led to a complete lack of any early intervention targeted at domestic abuse. 

A systemic change is needed, which promotes a shift from a risk-led response in which agency behaviours actively hinder both disclosure and recovery, to a response that is accessible to women struggling with ‘complex needs’, a ‘chaotic lifestyle’, or ‘not engaging with support’ – experiencing coercive control, in other words. We must:

  • Provide community-based opportunities for disclosure
  • Understand and meet needs, not just manage risk
  • Give professionals in a range of settings the skills to identify domestic abuse and respond appropriately
  • Commission specialist services to provide trauma-informed support leading to long-term recovery and independence.
  • These changes are being piloted right now by Women’s Aid and our partners in several areas of the country – they are the essence of our new model, ‘Change that Lasts’.
  • Things can improve for survivors of domestic abuse. We just have to want it enough, and work together.


Lyrical insights

The coercion of women by men is embedded in our culture. Check out these lyrics:

DRAKE: Hotline Bling
You don’t need no one else
You don’t need nobody else, no
Why you never alone
Why you always touching road
Used to always stay at home, be a good girl
You was in a zone, yeah
You should just be yourself
Right now, you’re someone else

You can call me obsessed
It’s not your fault that they hover
I mean no disrespect
It’s my right to be hellish
I still get jealous

EMINEM: Love the Way You Lie
“Wait! Where you going?”
“I’m leaving you!”
“No you ain’t. Come back.”
I laid hands on her, 
I’ll never stoop so low again
I guess I don’t know my own strength

And before we blame rap or youth culture, remember John Lennon’s Jealous Guy? Run For Your Life by The Beatles? Music videos with a fully dressed, powerful man surrounded by semi-naked submissive women are hardly new. We could look further back, at Carmen, Tosca, Nancy – ‘crimes of passion’ have always been a damaging way of downplaying cases of domestic abuse murder.

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