Abusing privacy

Domestic violence register: should the state vet your sexual partner?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

Trevor from EastEnders certainly looks like a domestic abuser. But how can you tell for sure? If only Little Mo had had access to the UK government’s proposed new Wife-beaters’ Register, her life would have been one long sunny ray of hope and opportunity, and the award for Socially Conscious Soap Storyline would have gone elsewhere.

Or not, as the case may be. Little Mo might have been a bit on the daft side, but she did know that Trevor was hitting her for some time before she attempted to kill him. Had the Albert Square authorities informed her of Trevor’s previous history of battery and general all-round bastardy, I’ll bet that it would have made not the slightest bit of difference. Which makes me highly dubious about the need for yet another official list of bad people and suspect characters.

The Times (London) broke the news that the UK government’s forthcoming consultation paper on domestic violence will contain proposals for a ‘domestic violence register’, containing the names of anybody sentenced to six months or more in prison for assaulting their partner (1). Those named on the register would have to inform the local police when they moved home, and the names would be available to various agencies, including the NHS, social services and some benefits agencies.

The attraction of this scheme for the authorities seems to be that it enables them to forewarn partners of previously convicted domestic abusers before these partners become victims themselves. Jim Gamble, the senior officer on domestic violence at the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has helped to draw up the government’s consultation document, told The Times (London) sagely: ‘Domestic violence is never a one-off.’ (2)

Getting nurses and midwives to alert women to the likelihood that their husband might smack them before he actually does so brings a whole new meaning to the notion of crime prevention. It seems ridiculous to imagine that, in practice, many medical staff would want to issue such warnings, or that such intervention would stop serious cases of domestic violence.

But whatever the practical consequence of this proposal, the idea behind it is pernicious. It is motivated less by a concern with battered wives than by an official obsession with sex, intimacy and the apparent dangers of private relationships.

Over recent years, the idea that intimate relationships should be conducted in private and subject to minimal state control has been superseded by a heightened suspicion of anything that goes on behind closed doors. Now, these private relationships are arguably subject to more attention and intervention than relationships conducted in public – precisely because they are private. And when it comes to emotive issues such as domestic violence, concerns about liberty and privacy scarcely register.

The idea of the domestic violence register is modelled on the sex offenders register, which came in under the 1997 Sex Offenders Act, and carries the names of those convicted of any sexual crime. The sex offenders’ register was brought in amid a wave of political hysteria about paedophiles, and was justified on the basis of public safety – the need to protect children from the possibility of sexual attack, however remote.

By undermining the principle that people convicted of a crime serve their sentence and are then free to go, the sex offenders’ register represented a blow to established principles of justice. It normalised the notion that sex crime is not a crime that people commit and are punished for, so much as a pathology – once a sex abuser, always a sex abuser, and therefore never deserving of liberty.

So much for rights – does this official list actually work? The kind of sex offence cases that cause public outrage are as rare as ever, but they have not gone away. Meanwhile, the register, which does not distinguish between types of sexual offences, includes the names of 12-year-old girls and 13-year-old boys, convicted under the ever-expanding definition of what makes a sex crime; and the likes of rock star Pete Townshend, because he admitted to accessing child pornography on the internet. Parental anxiety about paedophiles lurking around every corner has not abated – arguably, it increases with every high-profile measure designed to deal with sex offenders.

The impulse behind the sex offenders’ register was a political one, by a government desperate to tap into public concerns and using revulsion and fear of the lowest of the low – convicted sex offenders – to set a basic moral standard about the kind of thing that Society Will Not Tolerate. The upshot, so far as the government is concerned, was a double-edged sword, as the exaggeration of the extent of the threat posed by paedophiles gave rise to further public hysteria and calls for increasingly stringent regulation. The same impulse lurks behind notions of a domestic violence register – only it is even more debased and, from an official point of view, problematic.

As with sexual offences, domestic violence is seen not as a crime, but as a pathology. When Jim Gamble says that it is ‘never a one-off’, he means that you cannot just punish people for beating their partner – you have to assume that they will beat them again, or beat every partner in every other intimate relationship. A register, then, is not about naming criminals, so much as guarding against certain personality types being let loose into the world.

Much is made of the fact that domestic violence has high recidivism rates. But the logical consequence of the argument that all domestic abusers go on to commit the same crime, and that it is the government’s responsibility to prevent them from doing so by any means possible, is to lock them up for life. A civilised society cannot jail people on the basis of what they might potentially do sometime in the future (although the home secretary’s proposals on locking up people with ‘dangerous personality disorder’ should be noted).

In any case, if those promoting the benefits of this register were bothered about preventing individuals from being attacked, why distinguish between domestic violence and any other kind of assault? If it is important to warn us about individuals who might beat us up behind closed doors, surely the authorities should warn us about the neighbourhood muggers who might assault us on the street. As Mark Littlewood, director of the civil rights group Liberty, put it: ‘A putative partner would be informed if I had beaten up my previous wife and done six months for it – but not if I had murdered someone.’ (3)

But this register is not a practical measure. It is part of an ongoing campaign by the UK government to convince society that Domestic Violence Is Everywhere And Will Not Be Tolerated. It is part of a raft of recent measures, from official advice manuals telling health professionals to scrutinise their patients for hidden signs of domestic abuse to nationwide propaganda campaigns designed to ‘raise awareness’ of the many different types of supposed domestic abuse.

In the words of the Department of Health, ‘[t]he term “Domestic Violence” describes a continuum of behaviour ranging from verbal abuse, through threats and intimidation, manipulative behaviour, physical and sexual assault, to rape and even homicide’ (4). In other words, this crime encompasses every kind of unpleasant behaviour that happens between two people, behind closed doors. And what makes it ripe for singling out, as a type of behaviour that is worse than everything apart from a sexual offence, is precisely that it happens behind closed doors.

Ultimately, what the notion of a domestic violence register represents is a deep suspicion, by the authorities, of people’s abilities to conduct sexual relationships without intervention by the state. The concept of listing convicted domestic abusers so that officials can forewarn their partners about potential dangers implies that participants in intimate relationships need vetting in advance, in order to guard against future damage. It implies that, when it comes to knowing whether a sexual relationship is good for you, the policeman or doctor knows best.

The very idea of a domestic violence register implies that the only way to stop domestic violence is to get rid of the domestic element, by making intimate relationships subject to official scrutiny and mediation. Which leads me to wonder why the government does not just ban people from living together, full stop.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Domestic violence

Doctoring domestic violence, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Blunkett under the blanket, by Josie Appleton

A licence to indoctrinate, by Jennie Bristow

(1) ‘Wife-beaters to be named on government register’, The Times (London), 26 May 2003

(2) ‘Wife-beaters to be named on government register’, The Times (London), 26 May 2003

(3) Register will alert women to partners who are violent, Guardian, 27 May 2003

(4) Domestic violence: A resource manual for healthcare professionals, Department of Health

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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