Resisting violence and control is feminist

Two heart-felt blog posts have appeared in the feminist blogosphere this week, addressing the topic of the shame some feminists feel when they fall victim to violence and abuse from intimate partners. The first, by Lila, describes how perplexed she felt when she realised she was in a relationship with an abusive man, as she hadn’t seen any “red flags” and had thought that she would because she is a feminist. The second, by Meghan Murphy, echoes Lila’s piece and goes on to say that there is an expectation that feminists “must be flawless”, and “should be able to avoid… less-than-feminist relationships”.

Both writers conclude that this expectation is wrong and that feminists are human beings who make mistakes like anyone else, and that anyway (and quite rightly), the domestic violence was not their fault. They talk though of both being told by so-called friends and other feminists that they were not real feminists because they “allowed themselves to be abused.” They rightly identify this attitude as victim-blaming, and they rightly do not accept it. But I think the argument can be taken further.

Even though both writers come to the conclusion that the victim-blaming is wrong, they don’t seem to quite get to the point where they can really let it go themselves. Lila states that it was feminism that helped her “get out at warp speed” (of the abusive relationship). This emphasis on leaving the abusive relationship seems to suggest a focus on the dichotomy of staying/leaving; that a woman is a victim if she stays and a survivor if she leaves. Murphy states that even though she is a feminist, she will still make mistakes, make bad choices, and be weak sometimes. This is absolutely fine, except it sounds like she is saying that it was her mistakes, bad choices or weakness that caused her to experience abuse. I’m sure she doesn’t believe this, but to me this is what her argument sounds like.

What these two pieces somewhat lacked theoretically for me, and what I notice in many feminist pieces that don’t come from a specialised domestic violence perspective, is an understanding of current feminist domestic violence theory. Such theory has moved on from the survivor/victim dichotomy to a more complex, nuanced understanding of women as resisting violence and control, albeit constrained by certain factors[1]. Furthermore, as they are resisting they are risk-assessing, decision-making and safety planning around the violence and abuse[2]. So in Lila’s case it was the “gut instinct” that she didn’t ignore but weighed up against other evidence she had to hand, like any reasonable person would do. It was also her instinct to protect her face and to keep away from him when he became abusive. Her risk-assessing, decision-making and safety-planning were informed by his violence (and his minimising of it: “I hit walls so I don’t hit you”) and also other constraints such as societal beliefs about what type of red flags to look for in a violent man. Meghan doesn’t give as much specific detail about the abuse she experienced, but she talks about being “unsure about how to cope”, suggesting a process of risk-assessing and decision-making, and falling into a “long depression”, which is very common in women experiencing DV.

For me it was extremely similar, except it lasted for eight years. By about the fourth year I suspected I was experiencing domestic violence, but I thought he had to hit me for it to be that. All the verbal abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, stalking and property damage seemed wrong to me, but it was so hard to escape the cycle of violence. If I complained to him about his treatment of me, he would minimise it as well. “What do you mean?” he would say, “I don’t hit you.” But I knew that I deserved more from a relationship than just not being hit. Throughout the eight years I now see I was risk-assessing, decision-making and safety planning. I was resisting, but my resistance was constrained by an onslaught of factors. For me, like Lila, I was confused because he was never jealous or possessive, like it is often thought DV perpetrators are supposed to be. Half the time he acted like he didn’t care where I was or what I did. But when I tried to leave he threatened to kill himself and harassed and stalked me until I gave in.

Both writers seem to place importance on the idea of leaving an abusive relationship quickly. For Lila, she places importance on getting out “at warp speed”, and Meghan laments “not being able to quickly move on”. Again I feel that current feminist DV theory can shed some light here. No longer does it focus on the dichotomy of staying or leaving, victim or survivor, but on achieving safety in whatever choice is made. This change in focus is based on a number of things. Firstly, the fact that DV often escalates on separation, making separation the most dangerous time for women and the time during which many women are killed. This means that separation is not always the safest option at any given point, and it may be that a period of further safety planning is required before the woman can safely escape. Secondly, due to the situation in the Family Court of Australia and possibly elsewhere around the world, it is no longer simple and straightforward for a woman with children to leave an abusive partner. Quite often the woman and children are required to have ongoing contact with the abuser. So this needs to be considered when safety planning, and can often be a factor in women’s decisions not to leave.

What I did find interesting though in these two pieces, was hearing the thoughts and feelings of two women who were feminists first, and then experienced abuse. I very much respect their experiences. For me, it was the other way around. As I have written elsewhere in my blog, I had some feminist sympathies before but I did not become a “fully-fledged” feminist until I realised I was experiencing domestic violence. Feminist DV theory (which I was privileged to be inhaling at university) then assisted me (along with other supports) to safely extricate myself from the situation. So I did not experience the sense of shame felt by Lila and Meghan Murphy at being a feminist abused (though I did experience a shitload of other shame), and I still don’t feel the same pressure to be the perfect feminist. To me, guided by feminist DV theory, it is part of being a feminist that we are resisting violence and control, and I can’t rule out that I will experience it again in the future.

[1] Laing, L. (2008). ‘Violence’, Criminal Justice, The Law, Policy and Practice in B. Fawcett & F. Waugh (eds). Addressing violence, abuse and oppression: Debates and challenges, London: Routledge

[2] Davies, J. Lyon, E. & Monti-Catania, D. (1998). Safety planning with battered women: Complex lives/difficult choices, Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Domestic assault: The stuff of Shakespeare

Yesterday an article appeared in the SMH detailing the sentencing hearing of Joel Betts, who pleaded guilty in February of wounding with intent to murder his ex-girlfriend Samantha Holland. Betts, who stabbed Holland 30 times, will be sentenced at a later date. His guilt did not stop Alan Jones from weighing in on the case, saying that he has known Betts “for years” and that Betts is “unbelievably emotional and regretful”, most probably about the fact that he got caught rather than the fact that he actually did it. Jones goes on to say that this type of domestic assault “just happens”, and likens it to what he has seen in Shakespearean plays.

This deplorable excusing of extreme violence and failure to hold Betts accountable perpetuates myths about domestic violence as a “crime of passion” for which perpetrators cannot be held accountable. Evidence shows that domestic violence doesn’t “just happen”, but is a deliberate and repeated use of coercive, controlling and violent tactics, usually by men against women, to control the victim and keep them in fear. This violence often escalates on separation, as in this case. A previous article about this case detailed how Ms Holland’s brother accompanied her to Betts’ apartment when she went to get her belongings, suggesting that they already had reason to fear Betts and worry for Hollands’ safety, probably based on his previous coercive, controlling and violent behaviour. Unfortunately he waited downstairs for her when Betts sent him a text message from her phone saying they were staying together.

Alan Jones needs to learn about the reality of domestic violence. And the media needs to learn how to report domestic violence properly. The second article had the headline “Love-hate romance ended in bloodshed”. Of course, headlines are designed to sell, but the term “love-hate”, along with other terms such as “tumultuous” and “tempestuous”, suggests some kind of joint responsibility or co-dependence, when we know that it is the perpetrator alone who is responsible for using coercive, controlling violence.