Domestic Abuse: a gendered issue, but not a binary one

Many years ago, when staff from Oasis would speak at men’s community events, usually things like Rotary Club meetings, we might joke and say, ‘You may have heard that we don’t like men, that’s not true, we love men – we just couldn’t eat a whole one’. A corny, well-used number which could well have some feminists sharply drawing air between their lips in disapproving ways; but, we broke the ice in these men’s groups, we used that humour as a route to then explain the awful consequences of violence and abuse upon women and children. And over the years many of those men have become committed supporters of our work because they understand that this is not about men versus women but about society ensuring it supports those who are harmed.

Back then the only major service we provided was a refuge. It was for women and children then, and so it remains today. Now we offer a range of services that are gender-responsive but not always gender specific. That is an important differentiation. Women’s refuges are, for example, places of safe haven. They allow a woman, with or without children to find space to think, breathe and regroup. Women who have been at significant risk of harm, mentally or physically, and for whom having safe space and community is often pivotal in transforming their lives. Many of those women now work and volunteer with the organisation, or go off to do other wonderful things. Lots of whom just get the chance to start again, sometimes when they are already elderly, they have found the courage to take back control of their lives.

Saturday the 25th November was the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, a day in which domestic and sexual violence services up and down the country participated. This day allows us to raise awareness of the issues faced by women and girls in this country. The weekend prior to that saw International Men’s Day, which was supported by Kent’s PCC, Matthew Scott, with a conference. Again, an opportunity to raise awareness of issues which affect men. Being aware of issues, celebrating positive outcomes and coming together to think are all incredibly important things, and we were proud to contribute our learning to this event.

I feel struck by the way in which these two dates sit at opposite ends of the week this year. Marking a space between them which we feel it is important to bridge. Part of the ethos of the feminist movement was the drive to have gender as an equal matter, and today we see that, in law at least, it is. These days serve as a visual representation of the importance and value of not allowing binary divisions between man and woman to become something which separates us in our shared humanity. Binary divisions can carry the prospect of arguing about good & bad or right & wrong and this type of black and white thinking is unlikely to feed progress. Domestic abuse is an issue for humankind, it affects girl and boy children equally, and those girl and boy children grow up to be men and women. I do not mean they will grow up to live lives with domestic abuse as a feature, but rather that as a society we must be able to see the dynamics of the issues within which they have grown and will live.

Domestic abuse is a gendered issue, because the likelihood of being victimised in a dangerous relationship is significantly higher for women, and I think that as a sector and within communities we have to be able to deal with that knowledge. This week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has released its triennial data report on domestic abuse which shows a small decrease in the prevalence of domestic abuse since 2012 and, the proportion of those willing to contact the police having gone up – both of these bode positively for the future. We hope to see reporting increase, especially from hidden victims. But, it still tells us that women are more likely to be killed. Of 454 domestic homicides in the U.K. between 2013-16 70% were the deaths of women. So, we know that women are at a higher risk of death in their intimate relationships. Womanhood becomes a high-risk indicator. It also tells us clearly that men are killed in their intimate relationships. The data also verifies what we know through research into coercion and control. Because it shows us that of the 454 homicides 394 (86.78%) were perpetrated by male suspects (there were 135 male victims, with 40 of these being killed by women).

This data correlates very clearly with the respected work of Evan Stark who defines it thus, ‘The coercive control model was developed to encompass the ongoing and multifaceted nature of the abuse which research shows is experienced by 60% to 80% of victimized women who seek outside assistance….’’ Coercive control is an ongoing pattern of domination in a relationship. The remaining 20-40% of women in the research he cites would have been found to have been experiencing different typologies of abuse. Coercive control is the main concern in our work, it is that type which most often leads to serious harm or death. Evan Stark also finds in his research that in 90% of cases the perpetrator of this specific type of abuse are male, which correlates with the ONS data.

The data also shows us that self-reports of abuse have nearly doubled for teens which I hope means that teenage young people are feeling less inclined to tolerate these behaviours.  Just so you kNOw, a programme run by Oasis, tells us that many young women and men feel unhealthy pressure to have sexual relationships or to behave unacceptably within them. We can see how this is informed by the culture in which they live, and by the more toxic types of femininity and masculinity our culture perpetuates. This for us really evidences the need to work fully, and across society, with all young people to challenge the culture, the thinking and the behaviours which inform and create these problems. In this way perhaps, we will avoid or avert some of the adult issues, which in turn avoids some of the harms to children. Perhaps this is a simplification, but there are multiple opportunities to chip away at such a vast and complex problem.

We aim for a virtuous rather than a vicious circle, and as an organisation, we aim for services that are tailored to those who need them, because it would be wrong to only help the majority. We believe at Oasis that this should be okay to say, that men and women should be happy to acknowledge the stark reality of the data. Because, it is also okay to say that women can harm too, and by no stretch of the imagination are all men harmful.  Remember, we don’t want to pursue binary divisions, every man was once a little boy, and every woman was once a little girl.  Domestic abuse is a problem for a diverse range of people, predominantly women, but also men, and men and women from a range of backgrounds, who have different types of relationships. We would like to know of and support as many of them as possible, for all women and men in our community who find themselves victimised to know that there is no shame, it is not your fault. Because minority or not, the act of abuse in an intimate relationship is wrong.