Today a female blogger has posted a detailed and disturbing account of her experience in an abusive relationship. The piece resonated with me strongly, as I too, (along with many millions more women in Australia and around the world) was in a relationship with a violent, abusive and controlling man, in my case for 8 years.
I have noticed occasionally a piece is published detailing a woman’s experience of domestic violence (and I do call it domestic violence, more of that later) and I’m sure many more can be found online if one looks for them. It is terribly important that these stories are written and read and promoted and heard. This is how the women’s movement in Australia in the 1970’s, and how the domestic violence movement, started and gained momentum, through women sharing their own stories of abuse in “consciousness-raising” groups. This burning need to tell our story, whether verbally, through the written word, or some other way, is what drove me to write about my experience, and I guess it is what drives other women.
Experience of abuse often also drives women to work in the domestic violence field; again this is how the DV movement evolved in Australia in the 70’s, through women fleeing domestic violence together and staying in the early refuges, often squatting. I am now privileged to work supporting other women to manage their situation in relationships with violent, abusive and controlling men. We work from a feminist perspective and focus on the safety of women and children and the accountability of perpetrators.
Most people these days have some awareness that domestic violence is most often perpetrated by men against women. What they aren’t always aware of is the complexity of domestic violence and that it is so much more than just physical violence. In our work we know that some of the most sophisticated DV perpetrators will never lay a hand on a woman; they are too smart. Instead they utilise a range of other non-physical tactics in a pattern that serves very well to control the woman and keep her in fear, which is the crux of domestic violence. These include emotional abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment and most insidiously, a systematic undermining of a woman’s parenting and of her bond with her children.
Most people also have some awareness of the scale of domestic violence in Australia, let alone the world. Statistics are bandied around but I’m not sure anyone truly understands the pandemic of violence against women in our society until they have sat in a local court on a DV mention day, or spoken to a police officer who is totally exasperated by the DV incidents they see every day, or listened to the story of a social worker who fears for the safety of her clients every night. Or been that social worker, or that police officer, or that intensive care nurse who worked on a woman beaten to death by her partner. Or been the woman in the relationship.
People think, why doesn’t she just leave? (No one thinks, why doesn’t he stop being violent?) But we know that it is not that simple, for myriad reasons, most importantly that domestic violence escalates on separation, and during this period is when a woman is most likely to be killed by her partner. And most people probably don’t know the situation in the Family Courts in Australia at the moment, where children are being ordered to have contact with violent fathers, and mothers are forced to send their children to these perpetrators. Mothers stay in violent relationships because they know about this system and they know their children are safer if their mother is there with them.
As a domestic violence worker I get extremely frustrated with the system that lets women down, but I take heart in the strength and resilience of the women I work with who are managing violence from their partner or ex-partner. As is widely understood in the DV sector and in the DV literature, these women are not victims and are not without agency. They are risk assessing, decision-making and safety planning every day of their lives in order to protect their children and themselves. Our role as workers is to support them with their safety plans, enhance them if possible, and facilitate access to further support.
The female blogger identifies her relationship as emotionally abusive. I don’t know if she classes it as domestic violence, all I know is I have clients who tell me stories similar to hers every day. And it is clear from her post that she is safety planning, though it may look to the untrained eye like indecision, inaction, or as she herself puts it “weakness”.
The difference to me between other accounts I have read and the one I read today is that the women in the other accounts are now safe(r). They are no longer in the relationship with the abusive person. They are recounting their experience from a position of greater safety, and are no longer under the control of the perpetrator.
This got me thinking about the implications and complexities of publishing an account of experiencing an abusive relationship when you are still in it. In this day and age of the Internet, the modus operandi of DV perpetrators is evolving and growing ever more sophisticated. Too often I have seen in my work women being stalked and harassed on Facebook, and it is not unknown these days for police to serve restraining orders on perpetrators online. Only this week an app was taken down after outrage about the way it facilitated stalking and harassment and placed women in grave danger. Then there are the cases I have heard of where Facebook accounts and other online material become evidence in hearings for domestic violence and Family Court matters. For these reasons and others I have not named the blogger here, nor provided a link to her blog, nor simply added a reply to her blog telling her I’m concerned for her safety.
But what really concerns me here is the thought that if a woman publicly publishes information about an abusive relationship that she is still in, it is not only supportive and understanding fellow women who are going to read her story. It is not even the unsupportive and even antagonistic doubters of domestic violence that I am worried about. It is the thought that the person who is trying to control her, her abuser, will be reading her story (and you can bet they will be). Often clients tell me that they used to be in an abusive relationship and now their new partner has just started being abusive. But they were so caring and wonderful at the beginning, so much so that the woman told them all about her previous experiences of abuse, only to find that the new partner then uses their story against them when he needs to exert control over them. One that stands out, and which I’m sure is not uncommon, is the woman whose new partner would bring up her past rape as a way of humiliating, abusing, re-traumatising and controlling her whenever he felt the need.
Another way of looking at this is when women try (very reasonably) to reason with their abusive partners. I remember trying this. If I can just explain myself properly, I thought, he will understand what I mean and he will treat me better. It took me a long time to realise that it was impossible to reason with this man and that by attempting to, I was virtually giving him a map of my vulnerabilities around which he could hone his abusive tactics. Is publishing an account of an abusive relationship that you are still in a similar risk as this? It’s baring your soul, your thought process, indeed, your safety plan, to everyone, including, potentially, the very person against whom you are trying to protect yourself.