Eventually you get to a point in mid-adulthood, having digested a few newspapers and muted a few politicians, when you start to wonder: do cities actually want their women to die? Otherwise, why take these backward steps, cutting services so that more and more women’s refuges are forced to close? Backward steps – no, it’s more like being dragged through shrubland into a dimmer, darker place.
Sunderland is about to become the first UK city without a single domestic violence refuge. The bleakness of this is exhausting. The knowledge that even if a woman in Sunderland finds the courage, cash and energy to leave the partner that hits her, soon there will be nowhere for her to go. The chances are she will end up on the streets (St Mungo’s reports a third of the women they work with say domestic violence contributed to their homelessness) or in a B&B, floundering with no support, no advice on how to begin a life alone, and of course that itch, that feeling that she will always be listening for steps behind her, that she is never safe. Or else, of course, like the two women murdered by their partners in England and Wales every week, she’ll return to a man that kills her.
And the irony is that – apart from at this very sharpest end of the issue, where hundreds of women are being turned away from refuges, due in part to almost a fifth closing since 2010 – elsewhere hard work is paying off. Police now know how to talk to victims of abuse, how to deal with the shadowy cases, the crimes that happen in family homes. Schools now teach pupils the acceptable boundaries of relationships, due to charities working tirelessly to research and fight dating abuse, and expose the horrors of being 14 and terrified. Yet still, if a woman runs, cuts in funding mean she’ll have nowhere to go.
It took a long time to get here, to a place where we could talk about domestic violence, and then acknowledge the many forms it can take, and then the difficulties of escaping it. It took a long time before refuges opened across the country, offering beds and safety to women whose black eyes had been politely ignored by their bosses, at home their children silently watching the ads.
A couple of years ago, Jenny Smith wrote The Refuge, a book about finding sanctuary in the world’s first safe house for women. It was May 1973, when women weren’t allowed to apply for a mortgage without a man, and there was no such thing as marital rape. After two years of being kicked around, people turning away when her husband hit her on the street, she happened upon a piece in the Daily Mirror which read: “Victims of domestic violence? Need help?”
She hid the article under the carpet so he wouldn’t find it. He had beaten her, stabbed her, burned and bitten her – once he tried to drown her. When Smith arrived at the refuge – a terraced house on the other side of London – with her two babies, they welcomed her in, telling her she was safe.
Forty-four years later, two out of every three women that approach a refuge for help are being turned away. When we hear about Sunderland losing its last refuge, it’s as if another brick has been removed from that first safe house in London – it’s not safe. At it’s foundation, it’s not safe. It sounds flippant to wonder whether cities care about the lives of their vulnerable women, whether they want them to die, but all evidence points in that direction. The places those women go to stay alive are disappearing. It’s dreadful to revisit Smith’s book – those 1970s campaigners feeling they had achieved so much, only for the 2000s government to dismantle their efforts with shrugs and cuts.
QotD: “Men often kill wives after lengthy periods of prolonged physical violence accompanied by other forms of abuse and coercion”
Men often kill wives after lengthy periods of prolonged physical violence accompanied by other forms of abuse and coercion; the roles in such cases are seldom if ever reversed. Men perpetrate familial massacres, killing spouse and children together; women do not. Men commonly hunt down and kill wives who have left them; women hardly ever behave similarly. Men kill wives as part of planned murder-suicides; analogous acts by women are almost unheard of. Men kill in response to revelations of wifely infidelity; women almost never respond similarly, though their mates are more often adulterous.
R. Emerson and Russell Dobash, quoted in Angry White Men by Michael Kimmel
QotD: “I have to ask you to resist, not to comply, to destroy the power men have over women, to refuse to accept it, to abhor it and to do whatever is necessary despite its cost to you to change it”
We need to put women first. We need to do anything that will interrupt the colonizing of the female body. We need to refuse to accept the givens. We need to ask ourselves what political rights we need as women. What laws do we need? What would freedom be for us? What principles are necessary for our well-being? Why are women being sold on street corners and tortured in their homes, in societies that claim to be based on freedom and justice? What actions must be taken? What will it cost us and why are we too afraid to pay and are the women who have gotten a little from the women’s movement afraid that resistance or rebellion or even political inquiry will cost them the little they have gotten? Why are we still making deals with men one by one instead of collectively demanding what we need? I am going to ask you to remember that as long as a woman is being bought and sold anywhere in the world, you are not free, nor are you safe. You too have a number; some day your turn will come. I’m going to ask you to remember the prostituted, the homeless, the battered, the raped, the tortured, the murdered, the raped-then-murdered, the murdered-then-raped; and I am going to ask you to remember the photographed, the ones that any or all of the above happened to and it was photographed and now the photographs are for sale in our free countries. I want you to think about those who have been hurt for the fun, the entertainment, the so-called speech of others; those who have been hurt for profit, for the financial benefit of pimps and entrepreneurs. I want you to remember the perpetrator and I am going to ask you to remember the victims: not just tonight but tomorrow and the next day. I want you to find a way to include them – the perpetrators and the victims – in what you do, how you think, how you act, what you care about, what your life means to you.
Now, I know, in this room, some of you are the women I have been talking about. I know that. People around you may not. I am going to ask you to use every single thing you can remember about what was done to you – how it was done, where, by whom, when, and, if you know, why – to begin to tear male dominance to pieces, to pull it apart, to vandalize it, to destabilize it, to mess it up, to get in its way, to fuck it up. I have to ask you to resist, not to comply, to destroy the power men have over women, to refuse to accept it, to abhor it and to do whatever is necessary despite its cost to you to change it.
Women’s rights groups, lawyers and doctorshave condemned Turkey’s decision to introduce a mandatory chemical castration programme for convicted sex offenders, arguing the treatment does not address the underlying reasons for widespread violence against women, and that bodily punishment will instead lead to increased abuse.
Özgül Kaptan, director of the Women’s Solidarity Foundation (Kadav), has condemned the law – which came into effect on 26 July, at a time of extended legislative powers – as misguided.
“It’s a very bad and dangerous decision,” she said. “The law reduces crimes related to sexual abuse and rape to the one offending individual and to that individual’s body, which disregards the systemic problem of why so many men in Turkey commit these crimes or are violent against women.
“Men are taught to think that they have a right over women. We need to change ideas about gender equality and masculinity. What we really need is a change of attitude, of education. That cannot be done by passing such a law, or overnight.”
Reliable data on violence against women in Turkey is hard to come by, and many cases go entirely unreported. According to the independent Turkish press organisation Bianet, 284 women were killed in Turkey in 2015. In 77% of cases, the murderer was the victim’s husband or partner, or a male relative. At least 133 women were raped, and 42% of the victims were under the age of 18.
“Crimes related to sex offending have much more to do with power and domination than with sex and the sexual drive of the offender. And there are many different ways of physical and psychological abuse,” Kaptan said.
Chemical castration involves the administration of libido-reducing drugs and, unlike physical castration, the effects are reversible. However, health experts have pointed out that the long-term use of some drugs used in chemical castration may lead to serious and permanent side-effects, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
Turkey joins a small group of countries that have legalised the punishment, including most recently Indonesia, as well as Poland, Russia and some states in the US. Germany, France, Sweden and Denmark have introduced voluntary use of the measure. According to research from Scandinavia, reoffending rates have dropped from 40% to between zero and 5%.
However, the new Turkish law does not seek the consent of the offender. Instead, the decision to administer treatment will be made by a court. An offender risks greater punishment should he fail to continue the treatment.
Kaptan argued that mandatory chemical castration was an inhumane punishment comparable to the death penalty.
“Violence will create only more violence. In that sense it should be talked about in the same way as we talk about the death penalty,” she said. “We oppose all corporal punishment, because it violates the bodily integrity and the human rights of a person.”
The controversial move came during Turkey’s three-month state of emergency, which allows the government to bypass parliament and pass laws and regulations virtually unopposed. Regulations introduced during the state of emergency, imposed after the attempted coup of 15 July, cannot be appealed.
“The AKP [the ruling Justice and Development party] profited from the current chaos in the country flowing the coup attempt,” Kaptan said. “They seized the opportunity to introduce this law, which under normal circumstances would have been opposed very strongly.”
Mandatory drug treatment for sex offenders has been discussed before in Turkey. In 2011, female AKP deputies suggested chemical castration after a 17-year-old girl was murdered by her boyfriend. The discussion regained momentum in 2015 following the killing and attempted rape of Özgecan Aslan, a 20-year-old university student. Each time, the idea was harshly criticised and subsequently dropped.
“Chemical castration is a punishment that will merely assuage the victim’s immediate wish for revenge,” warned lawyer Canan Arin. “It will not address the underlying problems. Sexual abuse is not only committed because of a man’s genitals. Sexuality and male-female relationships in Turkey are not healthy.”
Referring to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 2014 comments that men and women could not be equal because such a notion would “go against the laws of nature”, Arin asked: “If the government propagates such views, how are things supposed to change for the better?”
Both Kaptan and Arin underlined that Turkey’s existing laws were sufficient to deal with violence against women. In 2012, after the government enacted new legislation to prevent domestic violence, Turkey became the first country to ratify a Council of Europe treaty on violence against women, and the AKP government has promised to intensify its fight against rape and sexual assault.
But so far, little has changed. Women’s rights groups point out that legal measures have repeatedly fallen short, and that convicted sex offenders and those guilty of abuse and violence against women still benefit from courts reducing sentences for “good behaviour”, encouraging the public to see their offences as trivial. Arin also said that women who flagged up potential offenders to the police often did not receive the necessary protection.
“It would be enough if the police and the courts would do their jobs properly,” the lawyer said. “The existing legislation would be enough to deal with offenders, but these laws are often simply not being applied.”
There have not yet been any convictions on the basis of the new regulation, but Kaptan feared that once it happens, women will again be the ones to suffer.
“We fear that the victims will be blamed as being responsible for such an “attempt” on masculinity. Instead of bringing a solution, this new law will only further increase violence against women.”
Getting savvy itself has to do with paying close attention to proponents of patriarchy, keeping two things in mind: (1) since patriarchy is founded on a lie (the lie of women’s natural inferiority), patriarchal logic usually is the reverse of the truth, and we therefore can get at the truth by reversing patriarchal messages; and (2) when proponents of patriarchy get mad, we should get interested, not get afraid (for their anger indicates we’ve touched a hot button or in some way gotten too close to the truth for their comfort).
Dee L. Graham with Edna I. Rawlings and Roberta. K. Rigsby, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men’s Violence, and Women’s Lives (1995), p.260.
(found at The Colour of Pomegranates)
The Argentine President, Mauricio Macri, has announced a national plan to fight violence against women.
Mr Macri said every 37 hours a woman was attacked in Argentina and that education was the key to ending deeply rooted cultural patterns of violence.
The plan, due to start next year, includes creating a network of women’s refuges, and money for the electronic tagging of violent men.
Last year 235 women were killed in gender violence incidents in Argentina.
The government’s National Plan for the Eradication of Violence against Women is putting into force a 2009 law.
Presenting the plan President Macri said: “We all need to commit ourselves. This is not only the job of government it is for society too.”
Maria Fabiana Tunez, the president of the National Council of Women, a government agency, said the plan would last three years and include introducing gender violence awareness into the school curriculum. Staffing at a telephone helpline for women will also be increased.
The national plan comes after a series of rallies and demonstrations in several cities last year.
The initial demonstration last year followed the murder of a 14-year-old pregnant schoolgirl, Chiara Paez, who was found buried in her boyfriend’s garden three days after being reported missing in the town of Rufino in central Santa Fe province.
In the past year there have been protests elsewhere in Latin America against gender violence, in countries including Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia and Brazil.
QotD: “It is not considered unnatural for men to pose a threat; it is considered unnatural for women to do nothing to counteract it”
On Tuesday Ben Butler was sentenced to a minimum of 23 years in prison for the murder of his six-year-old daughter Ellie. It’s a death that is particularly tragic because not only was it predictable, but it was predicted, again and again.
Ben Butler was a violent man, with prior convictions for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and two strangers. He was jailed for attacking Ellie when she was six weeks old, but this conviction was later quashed. He and Ellie’s mother, Jennie Gray, won back custody of Ellie in 2012, despite Gray’s grandfather protesting that this would lead to the little girl’s death. It took just eleven months for this prediction to come true.
Gray was not present when her daughter died, but she later helped Butler in his attempt to make the death appear to have been an accident. She has been sentenced to 42 months’ imprisonment for child cruelty. The Daily Mail describes her as “the twisted mother who sooner saw [Ellie] die than turn against the savage thug who beat her to death,” while according to the Mirror she is “evil” and “scheming”. But Gray was also a victim of Ben Butler. Despite her own protestations to the contrary, the physical suffering and mental torment endured by Gray – who wrote secret “letters of prayer” begging for Butler to “stop being angry, hateful and violent” – should not be in any doubt.
Gray was gaslighted by Butler, who told her to “please try harder with your mouth as it’s a trigger for me”. The judge who awarded custody of Ellie to her parents ignored the concerns of a junior doctor, who said he had seen Butler pushing and poking his partner. A police officer involved in the case described Butler’s treatment of Gray as “completely abnormal”: “And for her to tolerate it in the way that she does is not normal either.”
But Gray was an adult, Ellie a child. Gray is still alive, but Ellie is not. And I am aware that just by mentioning Butler’s abuse of Gray I may be accused of making excuses for her, of indulging in a kind of “victim feminism” which denies women agency and assumes they can do no wrong. Romantic love is, after all, a selfish indulgence compared to its mundane, frequently unrewarding maternal counterpart. Gray will be seen by some to have chosen the former over the latter, even if it happened to be with a man who treated her and their children appallingly.
I am suspicious of this urge to present the female partners of men who kill children as sharing in their guilt. While both Jennie Gray and Mareid Phillpot, sentenced to 17 years in prison for the deaths of her children in the fire orchestrated by her husband Mick, are more deserving of condemnation than Carr, I think something else is going on when we decide these women are morally no different to the men who abused them. It stops us having to consider the way in which male violence is not just tolerated, but seen as a necessary price to pay for order.
We may hate the harm male violence does but far from challenging it, our response is to look for ways of accommodating it. In particular, the responsibility of mitigating its worst effects– either by tending to the wounded or taking on the role of punch bag – falls on the women closest to violent men. Men create the shocks, women absorb them. Hence if male violence gets out of hand, it is not the fault of men alone. Some woman, somewhere, has not been doing her job.
We know that women are not held to the same standards as men. Our economies and social structures are absolutely reliant on the belief that women, as “natural” carers, will not only do the work of nurturing, but that of neutralising the most unwelcome aspects of male aggression, which is also “natural” and hence cannot be eradicated. There will, we tell ourselves, always be another Ben Butler out there, just as there will always be “some nutter” who’s intending to rape you, or “some bigot” who wants to beat you up for wearing the wrong clothes. It is the role of women to prevent this from happening: why don’t you leave him? why don’t you stay in? why don’t you provide a safe space for those more marginalised than you? It is not considered unnatural for men to pose a threat; it is considered unnatural for women to do nothing to counteract it.
Yet as most victims of abuse know, there is no safe way of responding to male violence. Women are most at risk from a violent partner when attempting to leave the relationship. In a 2014 report for Buzzfeed, Alex Campbell identified 28 mothers in the US who had been sentenced to more than 10 years’ imprisonment for failing to prevent their partners from harming their children: “In every one of these cases, there was evidence the mother herself had been battered by the man.” Moreover, as Campbell explains, what outsiders may see as tolerance or complicity is frequently a woman trying her hardest not to provoke further attacks. “Any time I interfered,” says Victoria, currently serving 20 years for “permitting” the abuse and murder of her daughter Aubriana, “it would just make the situation worse.”
One could argue that Gray was not attempting to protect Ellie by staying with Butler, and I would agree. However, she had bought into the narrative that it is down to women to limit male violence. She thought she could make him stop, not least because Butler himself was reading from the same script, suggesting that as long as Gray did not “trigger” him all would be well.
Both Ben Butler and Victoria’s husband, Daniel Pedraza, physically abused the women in their lives. It strange how often beating girlfriends and wives, so often the precursor to violence further afield, is not seen as a red flag. Perhaps it is assumed that as long as men stick to hitting the women they sleep with, male aggression has been managed and order maintained. Perhaps in some not-too-distant dystopian future, as well as being able to pay for women to penetrate and women to gestate their offspring, men will be able to pay for women to beat. Why don’t we make it all legal and see if we have offered men sufficient outlets for their natural male rage? If all else fails, we can blame the women for failing to be accommodating enough.
I know that at times like these one is expected to do the whole “as a mother” routine. And yes, as a mother I cannot tolerate the idea of anyone hurting my children. But when I say I wish to protect them from the big bad world, I do not mean from wolves or monsters, nor even from people. I mean men. The biggest threat to my children’s safety comes from the violence of men.
The world does not have to be like this. As Joan Smith once pointed out, it doesn’t even matter if one believes there is a natural, biological basis for male violence. The pertinent question is “are you happy with this state of affairs?” I am not and nor should you be. The best of all possible worlds is not a world in which Ellie Butler would have suffered and died the way she did. But to see Jennie Gray as just as guilty as Ben Butler is to treat abuse as a relationship to be managed, not something one person does to another. It is to accept the abuser’s own logic. For the sake of the women and children still out there, absorbing the blows we don’t see, we need to do better than this.
Six years ago, Rebekah Wells Googled her name to see what turned up. The results horrified her: nude photos of herself taken by her ex-boyfriend, along with her name and address, on commercial porn sites such as ImageFlea, ImageEarn and PinkMeth.
She went to the police in her home town of Naples, Florida, and a sheriff’s deputy was assigned to her case. One year later she became romantically involved with the deputy, and after the relationship fizzled, Wells claims the police officer threatened to upload a new batch of her nudes.
She felt nauseated, embarrassed and angry. Wells managed to get her photos removed and filed suit against her ex and the sites, but the lawsuit fizzled. She also launched a site, Women Against Revenge Porn, to help other victims of abuse, though it is closed for now. But the sites that posted her photos weren’t just trying to satisfy her ex’s pathological desire for revenge – they were there to make money.
According to the Pew Research Center, four out of 10 people have been insulted, shamed, stalked, bullied or harassed online. Revenge porn is just one of the ways sites are profiting from internet abuse. And even sites that don’t profit directly may benefit in other ways from the attention online abuse can bring.
Revenge porn sites such as SeenMyGF or MyEx charge $100 a year to access private photos and videos of non-porn stars, almost invariably women, usually posted by spurned ex-lovers. But it doesn’t end there. As with every adult site, there’s an entire ecosystem supporting them – from domain registrars and web hosting services to upstream bandwidth providers and online payment systems. Everybody gets their cut.
Is this even legal? It depends. At present, 27 US states and the District of Columbia have laws barring nonconsensual (ie, revenge) porn, but penalties vary and prosecutions are rare. One problem is that most law enforcement agencies are ill-equipped to handle crimes of cyber exploitation, says attorney Bennet Kelley, founder of the Internet Law Center.
“I have had clients tell me the cops confessed to them they don’t do this cyber stuff,” he says. “Another barrier to prosecution is the ‘blame the victim’ mentality, which is still fairly prevalent.”
A handful of victims have also won high-profile civil lawsuits. Last December, a Texas court awarded Bindu Pariyar $7.25m after her ex-husband posted thousands of nude photos and videos of her online. (She also claims that he forced her to work in a strip club and as a prostitute.) But Pariyar told a Nepali news site she doesn’t expect to collect much from her ex, and the damage is probably irreparable: her nude photos have spread to mainstream porn sites.
Kevin Bollaert thought up an even better money-making revenge porn scheme: extortion. First, the 28-year-old from San Diego published more than 10,000 nude photos on his site YouGotPosted and linked them to the women’s social media accounts. When victims demanded their photos be removed, Bollaert directed them toward another site he owned, ChangeMyReputation, where he charged $300 or more to have images expunged.
Last February, Bollaert was convicted on 27 felony counts of identity theft and extortion and sentenced to 18 years in prison. But the business model he helped foster continues in less illegal but no less unsavory forms.
Scores of businesses routinely scrape law enforcement sites for mugshots of recent arrestees, republish them, then charge $400 or more to remove them. A handful of US states now prohibit the release of mugshots to commercial sites or have outlawed the practice of charging to remove a mugshot; in most cases, though, the practice is perfectly legal because mugshots are considered part of the public record.
Then there are advertising-sponsored gossip sites such as TheDirty, as well as tell-all sites such as ShesAHomewrecker, DatingPsychos, DeadbeatDirectory and BadBoyReport, where readers share often defamatory material about others.
These sites are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes them from legal responsibility for material posted by their users. (Reader comments on US sites are also protected under Section 230.) And because scandalous material drives readership, sites are usually loathe to remove anything unless it violates copyrights or involves a minor.
For the vast majority of online harassers, however, the benefit is not monetary but psychological, says Danielle Citron, professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.
“You think of a site like 4chan, where people actually proclaim themselves trolls,” she says. “They derive pleasure from other people’s pain. They’re doing it for the lulz.”
Perversely, while the internet has given a voice to vast numbers of people who might not otherwise be heard, unfettered free speech can have a chilling effect, whether it’s Gamergaters ganging up on female writers or Donald Trump using Twitter to attack his enemies, notes Stephen Balkam, CEO and founder of the Family Online Safety Institute.
“I think the people who profit most from online harassment are those who use it to suppress other people’s thoughts, suggestions, comments, and criticisms,” he says. “We are often so focused on making sure governments don’t chill speech, and here are anonymous stalkers and harassers doing just that.”
When Helen Titchener stabbed her domineering husband in an episode of The Archers last weekend, it seemed as though everyone wanted to talk about domestic abuse. People who had never heard of “coercive control”, the kind of behaviour Helen has been subjected to in the long-running Radio 4 series, suddenly wanted to know what it was. Some listeners may even have realised, with a mixed sense of horror and relief, that it was an apt description of their own relationships.
The BBC has done a public service in kicking off this conversation even though the scenario it highlighted – a woman snapping and trying to kill her abuser – has more in common with melodrama than real life. Domestic abuse causes fear, anxiety, depression, injury and death in the most extreme cases, but the victim is more likely to die than her abuser. What is extraordinary is not that we are talking about it, but that it hasn’t happened long before now.
According to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data, an estimated 1.4 million women in Britain suffered domestic abuse in the year 2013-14. (Men are targeted as well, but female victims outnumber them by two-to-one in ONS estimates and three-to-one in cases recorded by big police forces.) The figures are shocking, but they do not surprise me at all.
Ever since I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young journalist, I have been horrified not just by the kinds of extreme violence perpetrated against women but less widely reported forms of abuse. Serial killings, such as the murders of prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, deservedly get the public’s attention. So, latterly, does the kind of sexual exploitation carried out by Jimmy Savile and other well-known men in the entertainment industry. But “everyday” abuse, which stops short of the kind of extreme violence catalogued in a BBC documentary last month, is a different matter.
Three years ago, when I became co-chair of the mayor of London’s violence against women and girls board, I began to get hair-raising insights into the extent of the problem. The London figures tend to be worse – though not that much worse – than the rest of the country. One is that a third of violent crime resulting in injury in the capital is domestic in nature. Another is that the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls for domestic violence in London each month than they do for residential burglary.
Starting to get the picture now? I have plenty more figures where those came from. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London last year, each of them involving a victim, a perpetrator and in many cases children. Factor in the victims’ parents, siblings and friends, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of people affected by the problem. If half a million people are struggling to deal with the effects of domestic abuse in London, what is the figure for the whole country? More to the point, where is the outrage and the political will to do something about it?
The last Labour government, to its credit, took the issue of violence against women more seriously than any previous administration. A group of ministers, including Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Vera Baird, made significant changes in the law to tackle sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry. In opposition, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband made a groundbreaking appointment, naming Seema Malhotra shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. The case for having such a post in government, going beyond the brief of an equalities minister, seems to me urgent and unarguable.
Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the election for a new mayor of London less than a month away, domestic abuse has barely featured in the campaign to date. The winner will be in charge of a city where the police recorded a staggering 72,443 notifiable domestic offences – ones that are so serious that they have to be reported to the Home Office – last year. That total included 28 domestic murders. So why aren’t the candidates talking about domestic abuse as often as affordable rents or a third runway at Heathrow?
Both local and national politicians need to realise that we are at a turning point, which brings as many risks as it does opportunities. The exposure of Savile has encouraged many more women to come forward and report both rape and domestic abuse, defying national trends which suggest that crime overall is falling. But victims are putting their trust in a struggling criminal justice system: police and local authority budgets have been slashed, there is a chronic shortage of refuge places, and specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending.
Women fleeing abusive relationships are often forced to stay with relatives or move into refuges a long way from home, if they are lucky enough to find a place. Research carried out by Women’s Aid last year suggested that almost two-thirds of the women referred to a refuge in the capital didn’t manage to get a place; outside London, the situation is reported to be even worse. A report published last month by another women’s organisation, Solace Women’s Aid, exposed the extent of this hidden housing crisis: more than 60% of women who have a secure tenancy lose it when they enter a refuge, while almost 90% find themselves in another type of temporary accommodation when they leave. Housing officers frequently treat victims of domestic abuse as voluntarily homeless, sending them to the back of the queue for social housing. “Why did she go back to him?” people sometimes ask. The answer may be that she had nowhere else to live, especially if she is poor.
According to the ONS, women who live in the poorest households are three times more likely to become victims of domestic abuse. There is a debate about whether levels of violence really are higher in poorer areas – affluent women may have more choices – but the disparity in reported crime figures is striking. In London, you are much more likely to become a victim in Croydon or Tower Hamlets than in more prosperous Merton or Richmond-upon-Thames.
Discussion prompted by the Helen Titchener storyline is already moving from the wider subject of domestic abuse to the charges and sentence she might face. That is not the question facing most real-life victims, who have to deal with a toxic combination of housing problems, long-term psychological damage and inadequate provision by the state and local authorities. Prosecutions are failing, leaving perpetrators free to target other women, because of a lack of support for victims.
I don’t know whether the concern generated by a soap opera is enough to move this subject to the top of the political agenda. But the result, if women who report domestic abuse are failed by the public services they depend on, will be bitter and justified disillusionment.
The nation was both shocked and relieved on Sunday when The Archers domestic violence storyline reached a dramatic climax. Having attempted to walk out on her husband Rob, Helen cracked, stabbing the man who has been systematically eroding her sense of self for over two years.
The psychological coercion Helen experienced is a particular type of manipulation known as “gaslighting”, after the 1944 film Gaslight. In the film, Charles Boyer’s Gregory Anton sets out to convince Ingrid Bergman’s Paula that she has gone mad. One of his many tactics is to secretly dim the gaslights in their home and tell Bergman she is insane when she comments that the lights are flickering. As a result, gaslighting is now used to describe a particular type of mental abuse that makes the victim doubt her – and it is often a her – own sanity, memory and perception.
Setting up bizarre events and then denying them is one tactic, but so is the kind of behavioural and thought control Rob exerts over Helen, from controlling her money to forcing her to eat a sticky toffee pudding after his wife, who is bulimic, has just thrown up her meal.
Most victims of domestic abuse, narcissistic relationships or abusive childhoods see gaslighting as often as damaging as physical abuse. Gaslighting is so dangerous because it skewers the individual’s capacity to explain and realise what is wrong. It occurs in romantic relationships, like Rob and Helen’s marriage, but also in friendships, families, the military and at work. Gaslighting tends to start gradually, and can often appear ridiculous and everyday at first, for example being accused of overreacting because you are premenstrual.
However, as the lever is pressed more and more firmly, victims start to question themselves, trying to argue their way back to reality. This capacity to doubt – a healthy sign in comparison to the certitude of the sadist – is then pathologised by the perpetrator who often uses psychiatric discourse to tell the individual they are too emotional and disturbed, too irrational.
Attempts to keep a grip on reality are mocked and blocked, as the perpetrator works to cut the victim off from friends and a community that can provide a reality check, as in Helen’s case. The victim may know something is wrong, that reality is slipping away, but the undivided attention becomes more and more addictive, and is often fuelled by problematic experiences of childhood relationships.
As gaslighting makes people feel mad, and as labelling someone as insane is a classic form of abuse, people often turn to their GP. When Helen did this a few weeks ago, she was offered antidepressants and a talking therapy called CBT. Her surface complaints of feeling low, angry and erratic were taken at face value. She was not able to articulate her actual experiences, an excellent representation of the gaslighting experience where victims are coerced into believing that if they could just be less emotional, have more positive thoughts and be less troublesome, all would be well. These dubious goals being force-fed to Helen by Rob coincide with the therapy world’s preoccupations at this moment in history, with often devastating results.
I wish it were possible to have faith that the psychiatric system would have spotted why Helen was so distressed. However, not only are domestic violence charities closing, but also most victims of gaslighting don’t present at specialist services because they have been trained to believe they, not the relationship, are the problem. Like Helen, they present at GP surgeries, or via services where they will most likely receive a telephone assessment. With emphasis on placing people in diagnostic boxes as soon as possible, and huge managerial pressures to move on to the next person, surface complaints are often taken too literally in order to complete an assessment.
What is missing for many is a detailed understanding of how language and the toxic environments we experience can colonise our minds, and drive us into mental illness as Helen’s relationship with Rob did. Many listeners of The Archers would argue that Helen is not ill, but drowning in toxic environmental quicksand. Those of us who are lucky enough to spend our days listening to psychiatric patients’ stories often think similarly. But the time and space needed to allow a real story to emerge – always a brave act of untangling latent from manifest meaning – is increasingly under attack in the NHS.
The failure to understand gaslighting is not just dangerous to victims of adult domestic abuse, but to many psychiatric populations. A classic example is voice-hearing. Voice-hearing can be a way of trying to ward off an oppressor’s voice from completely taking over one’s subjectivity – a way to try to insert a minimal space between addresser and addressee, an attempted solution. But voice-hearing is often ticked off simply as an obvious symptom of schizophrenia. In this case, psychiatry can inadvertently work in the interests of the initial manipulator; this diagnosis would reinforce the classic taunt of “no one will believe you”. Sadly, mental health practitioners do not always see beyond surface communications that may look like someone is ill, to see how violent backgrounds can create mental illness.
While Archers fans are to be lauded for empathising with Helen’s plight, and donating to specialist domestic abuse agencies, deaths – both fictional and real – will continue to occur unless mental health practitioners listen in detail to the backstory behind each and every psychiatric presentation. Radio 4 listeners will attest that this has been a painful process. But it is an essential one if we are to stop psychiatric discourse being used as a gaslighting technique to discredit the lived experiences of those too readily seen as mentally ill.