If you want to take the first steps towards eradicating violence against women, you really have to understand it.
A few years ago, I wrote my final year undergraduate dissertation on presentations of violence against women in literature and popular culture across time. Since the time of writing, I’ve spent a lot of time looking into incidences of violence against women – and how this kind of violence is talked about and depicted in our media and society more widely.
One thing I found is that when people discuss violence against women, stereotypes and myths are far too often presented as fact – and too few people seem to be aware of the realities behind domestic abuse. And these myths hurt – they prevent us from effectively tackling the roots of gender-based violence, and allow such violence to flourish unchecked.
Don’t believe me? Here are some of the things I hear regularly – and you’ve probably heard them too.
‘Violence against women is not ‘normal’’
No-one really talks about violence against women as if it’s ‘normal’ – largely because we (rightly) spend a lot of time and energy as a society presenting it as abhorrent. It is abhorrent, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t normal, or normalised.
On average, police in England and Wales receive more than 100 calls every hour relating to domestic abuse. Yet just 18% of women who had experienced partner abuse in the 12 months to March 2018 reported it to the police. This indicates that the issue is a lot bigger than police statistics might suggest. Almost one in three women in England and Wales aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetimes. These figures tell us that violence against women is widespread across society – to the extent where it is statistically highly likely to affect you or someone you care about
In 2018, Tracy Stonehouse was murdered by her partner of 25 years Arthur Stonehouse. In a victim impact statement, Tracy’s sister Alison O’Connell said “We are numb – we are just a normal family. This has been like a horror film for us.”
These are totally understandable words from a grieving woman, but they betray a belief that domestic violence does not happen to ordinary women, or occur in ordinary families. And this belief prevents us from realising that it could be happening to the people we care about right now.
This seriously harms victims of abuse, creating a them and us dichotomy between those who have and have not experienced abuse. Inadvertently, the belief that domestic violence is not normal makes those who have never experienced it subconsciously believe that there is some fundamental difference between them and those who have. This belief also stops us from looking out for the signs of an abusive relationship, simply because we don’t expect to find them. And any of us could at any time.
‘She’s too clever/independent/educated to be a victim’
I hear this one a lot – the idea that a woman is unable to be a victim of domestic abuse because of who she is. This myth puts the burden on the victim for the abuse they are experiencing and unfortunately fails to take into account the pervasiveness of violence against women in all societies.
This myth is so powerful that it blinds people (including our key decision makers) to the realities of abuse.
In 2017 Judge Richard Mansell handed out an 18 month suspended sentence to Mustafa Bashir, despite the fact that he admitted hitting his wife over the head with a cricket bat. Bashir had also forced his wife, Fakhara Karim, to drink bleach.
It may seem bizarre, but Mansell, a senior QC with a lot of influence in society, stated that he did not believe Fakhara Karim to be vulnerable:
“she is plainly an intelligent woman with a network of friends and did go on to graduate university with a 2:1 and a masters – although this has had an ongoing effect on her.”
Simply because he believed Fakhara Karim to not be vulnerable (and because he initially believed specious claims by Bashir about signing a contract to play professional cricket), Mansell failed to see the evidence in front of his eyes.
Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence – but if we don’t believe this then we won’t believe victims when they are plainly asking us for justice.
‘But he’s such a nice man!’
This is perhaps the most dangerous myth about violence against women. I’ve often heard people simply rule out the idea that their friend or someone they know could be capable of abuse – but just as anyone can be a victim, anyone has the capacity to become an abuser. It is normal people who walk among us, living perfectly ordinary lives and holding down perfectly ordinary jobs who are also perpetrators of abuse.
A very famous instance of this was when Lance Hart killed his wife and daughter in Spalding, Lincolnshire in 2016. Initially, after the murders, neighbours expressed shock and described Hart as a ‘very, very nice guy’.
However, this portrayal of Hart as a nice man who had one day snapped and gone from devoted husband and father to murderer was countered by Hart’s sons. Luke Hart explained that his father had always ‘had no cause but to frighten his family and to generate his own esteem from trampling and bullying us.’
Abusers are often charming and ‘nice’ on the face of it – how else would they draw their victims in in the first place?
The front an abuser presents externally can often be deceptive, so no matter how ‘nice’ you think someone is, don’t assume that they are not capable of abusive behaviour – because ultimately you just make it harder for their victim(s) to seek help.
‘He hasn’t hit her so he’s not an abuser’
Fortunately, the power of this myth seems to be fading somewhat, but it still really affects our understandings of how abuse takes root.
In 2015 in the UK, coercive and controlling behaviour was finally criminalised. This was a great step forward but it came far too late, and means that everyone who is an adult in the UK today has spent most of their lives in a society where abusive behaviour has only been defined by whether physical force is involved.
The issue with this is that pretty much every relationship that involves physical abuse starts off with and is heavily underpinned by emotional abuse, and many victims actually report that the psychological elements of abuse are far more difficult to endure than physical abuse in and of itself.
When Australian Hannah Clarke and her three children were killed by Clarke’s estranged husband Rowan Baxter in February 2020, the killing itself was the first time Baxter had ever been physically violent towards his partner. Clarke herself had been unable to identify whether she was in an abusive relationship – she felt fearful and terrified of Baxter, but he had never hit her so she wasn’t sure.
Not all coercive relationships end like Hannah Clarke’s, but they lead to lifelong trauma that often scars more deeply than physical wounds.
So just because someone isn’t experiencing physical abuse, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t being abused. They need to be listened to and given spaces to talk just like victims of physical and sexual abuse. Because until society at large recognises emotional abuse for the crime it is, victims will not realise that they need to seek help – and that means more lives at risk.