Wednesday 8 April 2009

The hidden side of a hidden crime

I saw the anti-domestic violence campaign film CUT for the first time last night. In ways that will be familiar to many women across the country, Keira Knightley is forced to the ground and kicked repeatedly in the stomach as she lies, fetal, trying to protect herself from a senseless barrage of violence.

The two-minute film ends by informing viewers that two women a week are killed by partners and ex-partners -- the men who profess to love them. It also asks for small donations to help the fight against what is an appalling and unforgivable crime.

Whilst CUT really conveys the terrifying nature of domestic violence, I wonder if more could be done show the more ‘ordinariness’ of abusive relationships.

Having previously worked with women experiencing domestic violence, I’d say one of the biggest obstacles to addressing the problem is that in many households it's simply not recognised. The repeated blows to the stomach experienced by Knightley in the film, and the very visible black eyes worn by Fern Britton and Anna Friel for photographer Ian Rankin’s 2007 campaign, are obvious ramifications of physical abuse. Of course, this abhorrent treatment of many women, and yes, some men (before the inevitable “what about the men?” retorts begin), should be highlighted and these have been very powerful ways of doing so.

I am concerned though, that showing only these extremes will lead other women to dismiss their daily walk on eggshells as not really domestic violence.

Defined by Women’s Aid, “domestic violence is physical, sexual, psychological or financial violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship and that forms a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour”. So it's not always physical. Indeed for many women when it does become physical, it can be easier to deal with; easier to define, to prove and to get help with.

It is far more difficult for women whose partners are systematically undermining their mental health. This can be done in a number of ways: by shifting random objects round the house and then denying they’ve moved; by insisting that other women wouldn’t wear those clothes, in fact they probably wouldn’t go out at all; by secretly filming their partner when their asleep or by surreptitiously drugging them and then telling friends and family they have an alcohol problem which is why they are slurring their words, keep falling asleep and shouldn’t be looking after their children.

These types of abuse are a lot more hidden: if a woman is beginning to think she’s going mad, why would she tell anyone else?

Children are also witnessing this long-term systematic, yet sometimes very subtle torture. It sounds dramatic, and without ignoring that most households are happy ones, it is important to recognise the severity of the situation in some of the ones that are not.

On this morning's Today programme social worker Joanna Nicholas pointed out that children are seeing repeated aggression within the home and living in increasingly violent environments outside it. She made these comments as part of a discussion about the increasingly violent nature of today's children. Exposure to violence, even before birth can lead to physical changes in the brains and a lack of empathy with other children.

In order to tackle child violence, we must tackle domestic violence. In order to tackle domestic violence we must start to look at the central power dynamics involved. One person can repeatedly control another’s actions without using violence- through coercion, emotional blackmail and through withholding money for example.

A wider acknowledgment of this is needed before trying to prevent it and although visually less dramatic the subtler psychological and controlling side of domestic abuse needs to be aired.


Calix said...

I agree with your blog Katy - so often the real problems are not so clear-cut and visible. But, it's a problem that destroys lives - not only of the woman in question but also the children, and perhaps even the man who cannot control his temper (he will end up losing his family, his self-confidence, perhaps his job and will never be able to be in a fulfilling relationship). The social waste of domestic abuse spreads far beyond the individual victim.

It's easy for everyone to condemn beating women, but it's less easy to understand what domestic abuse is really about. That is why such adverts in a sense distort the real issue.

Luke said...

While all the evidence points towards the majority of serious violence being committed by men, there also seems to be a pretty strong consensus that the type of non-violent domestic abuse you are talking about here is virtually symmetric in terms of gender.*

If this is the case, then talking about this as if it was exclusively a problem for women is going to do just as much harm as any done by the ACT Campaign (and without any of the major benefits). You note, rightly, that a small number of men suffer very real and very nasty domestic violence, but then fail to say anything about the far larger number of men who suffer from non-violent domestic aggression.

*I realise all of my evidence for this comes from reading the series of back-and-forth papers between Michael Johnson and David Fergusson in the Journal of Marriage and Family, so I may well be wrong.