Behind closed doors

The latest campaign against domestic violence turns reality upside down. UPDATE, 26 September: Dawn raids and publicity stunts.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

UPDATE, 26 September: Since this article was first published, more than 100 men (and two women) have been arrested for domestic violence in dawn raids across London. This comes in a week of coordinated campaigns against domestic violence, including: Scotland Yard posters and ads in newspapers, football programmes and men’s toilets; cinema adverts by the charity Refuge; and a name-and-shame campaign by the Sun.

The latest arrests involved more than 300 officers. London Chief Superintendent Rod Jarman was on hand to drum home the message: ‘We are and will take action if you physically and emotionally abuse your partner. Violence of this kind is not acceptable.’ Individuals should be arrested when there is enough evidence against them, not rounded up as part of a politically-motivated publicity stunt.

See: Arrests in domestic violence raids, BBC News, 25 September 2003

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A new government-backed campaign against domestic violence has hit the UK media. The UK Sun yesterday launched a campaign to expose what it describes as ‘Britain’s hidden shame’ – featuring shocking tales of six women who were beaten at the hands of their partners (1).

Meanwhile, a new cinema advert, launched by the domestic violence campaign group Refuge and backed by media-donated creative costs and advertising space, shows a man slapping his partner in a restaurant while fellow diners look away (2).

Yet the idea that domestic violence lurks behind many of the nation’s bedroom doors, tacitly accepted or quietly ignored, is a myth. The brutal actions of the men highlighted in the Sun‘s campaign are so shocking precisely because they are so rare.

We read of a woman kicked in the head 40 times and left with brain damage. Another woman was beaten with an iron bar until she passed out, her skull fractured, and required 20 stitches. According to Refuge’s chief executive Sandra Horley, ‘such is the hidden shame of domestic violence in our society that there are still people who do not realise that it is a crime’.

Nobody needs a campaign to tell them that such actions are crimes. Couples, along with their friends and neighbours, know that hitting somebody with a bar is both morally wrong and against the law. The men were all charged and punished for what they did, and rightfully so. But these cases are not run-of-the-mill.

‘[L]ook what goes on inside homes up and down the land’, says the Sun editorial: ‘One woman in four has suffered domestic violence and two thirds of children have seen their mums being attacked.’

This ‘one in four’ statistic has become widely accepted, but it is misleading. One in four women has not been hit over the head with an iron bar. In 1999 Home Office research found that one in four women had suffered from ‘some form of violence’ at the hands of her partner, but this included a broad range of incidents (3).

The most common kind of assault counted in this study was ‘pushing, shoving and grabbing’. Forty-one per cent of victims were injured, and this injury was in most cases restricted to bruising. Indeed, only 17 per cent of incidents recorded in the survey were considered to be crimes by their victims, while only a third of women victims agreed that their experience made them ‘a victim of domestic violence’.

Other studies used even broader notions of ‘domestic violence’, including ’emotional and financial abuse’, such as forcing your partner to do domestic tasks or give you money.

Publicising statistics that blur the distinction between ‘grabbing’ and violent assault does nobody any favours. It doesn’t help victims of violent abuse, such as those highlighted in the Sun‘s campaign. It also casts millions of British men in the role of vicious abusers – and their partners as frightened victims unable to speak out about their experiences.

In the end it is perhaps women, the supposed beneficiaries of these campaigns, who come out worst. Like children, they are seen as incapable of deciding whether an incident should be treated as a crime. It was reported today that the police will be able to prosecute a male partner for domestic violence, whether the woman likes it or not, using photographs of injuries to proceed with a case if she decides not to press charges.

In fact, there is an inversion of reality going on here. Domestic violence itself is rare, but awareness-raising campaigns about it are not. Warnings of ‘hidden abuse’ scream out at us from billboards, TV channels and newspapers – though this kind of abuse is something that we rarely recognise in our own lives. Far from being ignorant of the issue, we are overly aware of it.

Talk of the ‘hidden epidemic’ of domestic violence encourages the law to step into homes up and down the land. It causes intimate relationships to be viewed with suspicion, as potentially abusive. The Sun‘s campaign emphasised the fact that these men had seemed ‘charming’ boyfriends and husbands – implying that, however charming a man may appear, he has the potential to turn into a ‘brute’. If a brute is lurking inside every man, this invites the state to take a much broader and proactive role in policing people’s intimate lives.

However, the law is a blunt instrument for dealing with the murky world of personal relationships. When women say that they didn’t consider an incident of violence as a crime, this is not necessarily because they were suffering from ‘false consciousness’ or low self-esteem. More likely, it reflects the fact that we judge the actions of those close to us differently to those of strangers.

Of course, men who commit a violent assault against their partners are criminals. Campaigns against domestic violence elide the distinction between criminal behaviour and the often messy, blurry world behind the majority of British front doors.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Domestic violence

(1) Sun, 22 September 2003

(2) Domestic violence campaign launched, ITV, 18 September 2003

(3) Domestic Violence: findings from a new British Crime Survey self-completion questionnaire, Catriona Mirrlees-Black, Home Office Research Study, 1999

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Topics Politics


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