I worked for four years for a leading domestic violence & abuse charity – despite the darkness of the subject I found that they were some of the most confidence building and empowering years of my career. The reason for this I think was that every woman who went to work in that place from the cleaners, to the finance officers to the outreach support workers or the nightworkers in the refuge knew without doubt that the darkness with which and for what they worked was never to far from affecting them. Risk and vulnerability is a great leveller, and the particular evidence that domestic abuse and violence affects 1 in 4 women in their lifetime and the analysis that identified your femaleness alone as the risk became a very humbling and powerful perspective.
There were complex confidentiality arrangements within the organisation for a number of reasons the most obvious being safety from perpetrators of violence and abuse. But more profoundly there existed an understanding between all women that what and who you saw there, stayed there because we were all potential victims, we were all vulnerable and any judgement or ‘outing’ of a woman as a victm posed a threat and a risk to any other woman who may have gone on to become the victim of intimate partner abuse and violence at any time. The organisation had a strong ethos of referring to ‘service users’ or ‘clients’ etc only ever as women in the same way as staff and colleagues were reffered to – because it helped to maintain a sense of equality and mutual justice rather than any kind of power dynamic. There were several occassions in my short time there where staff opened the door to friends and neighbours and employees needed time off to handle their own situations.
This sense of mutual risk, vulnerability and justice came to inform some of the most powerful support or encouragement I could ever give to a victim of abuse which was ‘it could happen to any woman regardless…’ and to gently challenge any self-blame or ‘why me?’ by saying ‘you did nothing wrong by trusting your intimate partner and expecting them not to abuse you’ I found the experience of trauma in all the women I supported profound in that they received a great shock and surprise and deep wound upon discovering that their partner was abusive. We don’t live in a world where women expect each partner to be abusive, although it’s hardly surprising when abused women begin to lose trust in anyone. Generally people hope for their relationships, they expect good things, desire love and company. Discovering abuse and the capability of abuse in a partner is the greatest injury and violence of all.
The images of Nigella Lawson, one of the UK’s favourite celebrity chefs, being held by the throat in a public restaurant have filled the newspapers and news discussion panels this week. Many domestic violence charities have used the story to highlight the prevalence of abuse and highlight the ‘regardlessness’ of women’s vulnerability. I worked in quite an affluent area of my city supporting victims of abuse. Many of these women were wealthy, educated and often professionally trained and working at a high level. I sat on so many occassions with women as tears rolled down their faces aking ‘how could this have happened to me?’. Of course this is a natural question when trust and hope has been dashed and you can’t get away from it. I’ve sat with confident, attractive, solvent women as they disclosed incident upon incident of regular serious and terrifying violence within their relationship; punches, kicks, black eyes, bites and rape. Physical violence isn’t lessening in any way when it comes to intimate partner abuse and the fact that Charles Saatchi sat in a public place and put his hand around his wife’s throat a couple of times and then laughed it off and minimised it in the press as a ‘playful tiff’ highlights the lack of remorse or seriousness that any perpetrator has about being caught or challenged. But I find, particularly with this news story, that there is such a prevalence of assumption, prejudice and myth about domestic abuse and violence still today, despite the 1 in 4 evidence, that domestic violence doesn’t happen to the rich and successful. I know GP’s who make the assumption that it is a problem for the working class, the alcoholics, young people leaving care and they look like they’ve been slapped in the face when I tell them about the female GP’s I’ve supported and the GP’s who perpetrate domestic violence and abuse. This works the same way similarly for teachers, police, social workers, solicitors and any other number of educated, wealthy, middle class demographic groups.
People get uncomfortable and tired of the feminist analysis of domestic abuse and violence – many policy makers have tried to neutralise the language and issue by saying ‘anyone can be a victim and anyone can be an abuser’ whilst this is not technically untrue – but I think we miss something significant if we neutralise gender away from the domestic abuse and violence conversations. Women are vulnerable to abuse and violence becauase of all kinds of beliefs, assumptions and prejudice about who they are, how strong they are and what their place and role is in the world. The evidence shows this and yet we still perpetuate myths and prejudice by minimising it ourselves and/or assuming it is happening to others who are weaker, more foolish, more vulnerable, more volatile.
This week I read Hadley Freeman ‘From domestic goddess to the face of domestic violence’:
“I’m not sure what sort of woman “we” expect to suffer domestic abuse, but those of us who spend too much of our lives reading celebrity autobiographies are not quite as shocked by proof that domestic abuse is not solely “the grubby problem of the inarticulate and poorly educated, who can’t eloquently express their frustration, who are not self-aware or emotionally intelligent enough to thrash out their differences via a civilised heart-to-heart, rather than simply with a thrashing”
and weirdly Dr Brooke Maganti on social guardianship and stepping in:
“None of us knocked on that door. None of us wanted to be the person who dealt with what was going on directly. We wanted the police to come and do what we could not: look a man in the eyes and tell him to stop terrorising whoever was in that room with him.
We weren’t as cowardly as we could have been, but we weren’t as brave either. Maybe it was the continued not-much-bravery of people like us that eventually lead abusers to believe such actions in public or semi-public are acceptable, or in any case, not taken seriously. Maybe by saying nothing we embolden them.”
Abuse acknowledges no boundaries – whether that is class, career, education, wealth, location or fame. Women are vulnerable and men and women around the world need to work with that reality in order to put and end to the attitudes and prejudice that permit violence and abuse against women.
If you or anyone you know would appreciate talking to someone call the 24 Hr Domestic Violence helpline in Northern Ireland on 0800 9171414 or the National Domestic Violence helpline in the UK on 0808 2000 247