You may feel that because intimate partner violence is against the law, and because coercive control has been criminalised, there are plenty of opportunities for women experiencing abuse to seek help.
The law does protect individuals from intimate partner abuse – be that physical, sexual or controlling. But legal processes aren’t necessarily an accurate reflection of the realities on the ground for those experiencing abuse.
Abuse, assault and the associated trauma can make reporting such crimes very different and difficult for victims. When looking at sexual assault, for example, we know that many survivors only report what has happened later on and often have a hazy recall of the events – sometimes because of trauma and sometimes because of internalised doubts regarding what has happened to them.
Widespread misconceptions about abuse and assault have conspired to leave victims unable to necessarily identify their own victimhood – and this is a huge factor in why many victims don’t come forward, especially at the time the abuse is taking place. Because of this, many victims may be reluctant to believe that their abuser is in the wrong – and because of emotional manipulation may feel guilty about saying or doing anything that could get their partner into trouble.
First and foremost, we must remember the mental and emotional effects of abuse. It is these which so often mean that victims see their situation very differently from those around them – and do not necessarily realise that what they are experiencing is wrong, or do not feel safe enough to go to police. Statistics for 2018 tell us that 41% of those killed by a current or former partner had either left that partner or were in the process of leaving. The reality of reporting violence can leave victims feeling as if they are at even greater risk of harm than they would be if they stayed quiet.
Women have endured male violence since time immemorial. The global structures which allow this violence to continue must be challenged, so that we recognise where our legal frameworks require development.
In explaining why women so often do not report male violence, this post hopes to go some way towards that recognition.
Fear of recriminations from the abusive partner
As said, women experiencing intimate partner violence are at high risk of greater physical harm when they take steps to try to end the cycle of violence that they are confronted with.
Reporting violence does not automatically lead to the victim being safe from the perpetrator. The CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) will need to have enough evidence to charge the perpetrator to remand them in custody, and even then, a perpetrator can still be granted bail. While their bail conditions may specifically prohibit the accused from contacting their partner, this doesn’t change the fact that a perpetrator can still gain access to a victim after being bailed and cause them significant harm. It is this fear which encourages many women to remain silent.
Women fear that they may report violence against them but that their abuser will walk free. A very small percentage of domestic abuse cases are actually prosecuted (under 10%) and even those which go to court may still not secure a conviction. Even when convictions are secured, the protection that (often short) time in prison may offer a victim might not seem to be enough.
If you fear that reporting a crime will actually put you at risk of further crimes against your person, you are not likely to do it. The narrative that reporting a crime stops a crime is blatantly misleading, and the idea that victims ought to report abuse for the greater good of society is patronising and fails to take into account how challenging it is to survive in an abusive situation. So while the frameworks may be there to help women address male violence, the protection that these frameworks need to offer to make them robust is not necessarily there.
The stress and technicalities of the legal process
Another major obstacle for women considering reporting domestic abuse is the stress of the process. Police typically find that domestic violence cases have a higher level of evidential difficulty than non-domestic violence cases. This means that women may find that it is harder to prove that violence (of whatever sort) has been committed against them.
The trauma of having to prove beyond reasonable doubt the abuse that has been perpetrated can be really difficult for victims. Many times, domestic abuse is carried out by perpetrators in a way that deliberately leaves no marks or scarring. If victims are reporting the abuse some time after a physically violent episode, it can be difficult for them to prove what has happened to them with ‘traditional’ forms of evidence.
Additionally, domestic violence isn’t just about physical violence. While coercive control has now been criminalised, this type of abuse is often difficult to prove and again requires a level of evidence that can be difficult for victims to provide. Additionally, coercive control cases typically require evidence through texts, emails and voice messages. Rehashing this evidence can be highly traumatic for victims and can be upsetting for them to share because of its personal or intimate nature. This is therefore a highly troubling thought for abuse victims who are considering coming forward regarding their experiences.
In addition to their own safety and comfort, many victims may be considering that of their children. They may fear that an extended legal process could put pressure on their children that will leave them with more damage and trauma than if they stayed in the relationship or kept quiet about the abuse. If the abusive partner has not seemed to be directly abusive to the children, the parent who has been victimised may feel that they do not want to spoil their children’s relationship with their partner – although their partner has spoiled it anyway by behaving abusively.
In terms of sexual violence, many women are aware of horror stories of women being harangued in court and of unbearable scrutiny. Just 1.7% of reported rapes are prosecuted in England and convictions for rape fell to a record low last year. All this information is worrying for those considering reporting violence and leaves many women unwilling to come forward.
Inability to escape the pressure of the manipulative partner
And of course, the mental pressures of being in an abusive relationship cannot be downplayed. A manipulative partner can convince their victim not to report abuse in so many different ways.
Even if the two parents have separated, abusive partners often continue to control and coerce post-separation. They use contact opportunities (typically with regards to child visitation) to continue perpetuating abuse. They can convince victims that reporting abuse will be detrimental to the children, or that it will hurt them (the abusive partner) beyond measure.
In a relationship, abusive partners can gaslight their victims into believing that the relationship is normal and ‘acceptable’ and that the abuse they are experiencing is actually a figment of their imagination. This is an especially common tactic with emotional abuse. This gaslighting can then make victims unwilling to speak out, as they feel they will be criticised for making up problems that aren’t actually there.
Also, as victims often love their abusive partner, it is really hard for them to take steps that they know will hurt that partner. While they have been repeatedly hurt by someone that is supposed to love them, it doesn’t just mean that they automatically feel able to confer hurt on the abusive partner. This is a huge mental block that can leave victims trapped.