‘As soon as the woman doesn’t leave her abuser, then it’s her fault for staying.’
‘I don’t have any pity for these girls – the first time a man hit me, I’d hit him back and he’d be out of there, end of story.’
‘Well, why doesn’t she leave? Or better yet, just kick him out?’
‘Men can’t be abused – why would he just stand there and let her hit him? that’s absurd.’
Anyone who knows the realities of abuse knows just how wrong peoples’ perceptions can be. These too-worn clichés reveal exactly what is wrong with the old, ‘violence model’ of domestic abuse; although well-meaning, the old laws, simply put, were asking the wrong questions and painting an incomplete picture of a much deeper problem.
The question isn’t: ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ It’s: ‘what is he doing to keep her too afraid to leave?’
We can reverse the genders, or make them the same. But when we’re addressing the issue correctly, the gender of the participants makes no matter. The abused partner does not choose to stay in a violent situation; the abusing partner is using something deeper than the threat of violence to keep a partner under control.
It’s not about violence, and it’s not about gender, although gender stereotypes are part of the language used. But it has never been about gender, or violence; otherwise, domestic abuse simply wouldn’t exist in same-sex couples (which it does, sadly), or appear against men by women (which it also does, and, all the more tragically, is not recognized because gender stereotypes camouflage it).
Domestic abuse, like rape, is not about sex. It is about power.
The United Kingdom’s new Coercive Control law, which came into effect in December last year, is a groundbreaking initiative which addresses the whole issue of domestic abuse, rather than isolated cases of physical attack. Moving far beyond the old ‘violence-based’ laws, this law seeks to address each case of abuse as a pattern of controlling behaviour, targeting not only the violent ‘peaks’ when (and if) the abuse moves into the realm of the physical, but more importantly, the constant atmosphere of the relationship, from limiting access to a partner’s funds, to isolating the partner from relatives or friends, to emotional blackmail and threats of violence to children, pets, or even the abuser himself.
This law has already appeared in the popular media: those reading this in the UK will be familiar with the popular Radio 4 programme, “The Archers,” which has recently highlighted some of the distinctions between the old view of domestic ‘violence,’ comprised of episodes of hitting or striking a mate, and the more realistic dominance patterns in an actual abusive relationship. In this case, the husband, Rob, has only infrequently used actual blows against his wife Helen, and, in fact, has managed to turn Helen into an “abuser” herself according to the old model: driven by the frustration she felt at Rob’s unrelenting taunting, she retaliated with implied violence, starting with a gesture of a raised fist, escalating to her shouting in a rage that she would kill him, and ending with Rob in hospital, “lucky to be alive.” To an outside observer, Helen could be seen to be the aggressor.
And yet, the events culminating in the dramatic attack were the result of a year of dominance, fear, isolation, and bullying: Rob had forbidden Helen to visit her best friend Kirstie, monitored Helen’s cell phone use, kept her away from her mother, directed Helen on which kinds of clothes to dress in, taken away her car keys, and, most disturbingly, forbidden her to comfort her own son, often putting himself in charge of the way she decided to raise him.
As an added feature of the manipulation, Rob was slowly convincing Helen, through a course of fabrications and contradictions, that she was going insane. This last technique, known as gaslighting (from the 1938 play Gas Light), is a classic method used by abusers to control their victims, by making them question their own perceptions and judgements.
The world of the coerced spouse is a nightmare of fear and shadows, where violence hovers off-stage, rarely appearing but never completely out of mind. Simply put, this means that the “violence model” system of counting the actual, verifiable attacks will never work. In the Archers, the clear dangers of that old, ineffective model are represented by an unenlightened police officer questioning Helen’s friend Kirstie and asking only: “Is he a violent man?”
Because the actual violence, in this case, was limited to two events, neither of which Kirstie had witnessed, the angry and shocked friend had to admit that no, Rob was not a “violent” man overall.
And yet, Helen was afraid for her life, so afraid that she ended up attacking Rob with a kitchen knife, and was arrested for attempted murder.
A tawdry soap-opera plot, one might say, except for one thing: the writers of The Archers, in putting together the Helen and Rob storyline, drew from the experience of a wide network of consulting mental health care and social work professionals, police and government officials, and, most importantly, the real-life stories of thousands of British women. Coercive control is very real, holding millions in its invisible grasp, and the UK government is to be commended for its foresight. It is high time that all governments follow the UK’s lead on this innovative and visionary law.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about domestic abuse you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!