Friday, 9 September 2011

On the 'This Is Abuse' campaign.

Over the last couple of years I've been updating this much-neglected blog with my thoughts on news stories, music and film from a feminist perspective. I haven't felt the need to share much about myself. I hadn't thought it necessary.

This changed when I heard about the government's, 'This Is Abuse' campaign, which aims to tackle the problem of violence within teen relationships. Unfortunately, I don't have the privilege of 'professional' (ha!) distance when it comes to this subject.

I'm 23 now, but between the ages of 18 and 19, for just over a year, I was in an abusive relationship with a man who was 4 years older than me. It started slowly, but, when I look back, the warning signs were all there. I was always a shy, awkward girl. I was bullied a lot at school and suffered from extremely low self-esteem and anxiety. I was easy pickings for somebody like Sam*. He was good-looking, and when we got together at my 18th birthday party, my more popular friends were jealous.

Soon after, he was asking me to see him every day and lie to my Mum about where I was. He would make me feel guilty if I said I had homework to do, or that I wasn't comfortable with this dishonesty. This guilt-tripping became anger. Slamming doors, using his height to intimidate me, shouting into my face. He criticised my family and friends, trying to isolate me from people who cared about me.

And then the inevitable happened, and it turned violent. He pushed me down the stairs because he didn't like the fact that I had a crush on the bassist in my favourite band. His Mum and Dad saw it happen and did nothing. After that, he'd regularly hit and shove me. When I moved to London for university, he'd come and visit every weekend, and call several times a day. I didn't dare go out because if I did, there'd be hell to pay when he came down to see me that weekend.

One weekend, we were both out at the Scala in King's Cross. He hit me in front of a crowd of people, and tried to push me down the stairs of the venue. I don't know what it was that made that time different, but I knew that was going to be the last time he came anywhere near me. I broke up with him over the phone later that week.

It didn't end there, though. He called me 60 times or more a day, and sent death threats. He'd taken photos of me getting changed without me knowing, put them on a fake Facebook page, and invited people I knew to 'friend' it. I was afraid and devastated so I called the police.

I showed them the number of missed calls, the text messages containing death threats, and detailed the numerous assaults I had endured over the course of that year. Their response? He's just heartbroken. They said there was nothing they could do, and it wasn't their job to get involved in teenagers' relationships.

So I left it there. Angry, but tired and defeated. Over the last few years, I've been learning to cope better with what happened. I still have flash-backs, and I find it very difficult to trust people. I'm extremely touchy about being bossed about by anybody. But I'm ok.

The scariest thing about all of this, is the fact that my story is incredibly common. According to Women's Aid, 1 in 4 girls experience relationship abuse. This is the same rate at which adult women experience it. It may not look the same, because teenagers tend not be married to their abusers, have children with them, or even live with them. But to dismiss their experiences as petty drama, or to say, 'why didn't you just dump him?' is to fundamentally misunderstand what makes women of all ages stay with an abusive partner. Many women who are abused suffer from low self-esteem even before they experience abuse, and abusers systematically grind down any confidence and independence their victims have left. It's easy to believe you don't deserve any better when that's the message that is, sometimes literally, beaten into you.

If publicised widely enough, the 'This Is Abuse' campaign could have a positive impact. Teaching young people to recognise the signs of abuse, on both sides, and providing them with resources to help themselves out of dangerous situations is undoubtedly important. I hope that if I had been aware of the prevalence and early warning signs of teen relationship violence, I might have been able to end things earlier on. One thing I know I would have felt off-putting about the site is the number of comments from men and boys saying that the initiative is 'bigoted' because it focusses on girls as the most common victims, and boys as perpetrators. The 'Have You Your Say' message board is swamped with such comments despite the fact that throughout the website, there are references to teenage boys being victims too, and resources to help both them, and girls who perpetrate violence against their partners. However, the site could do more to address the diversity of relationship violence. There are few references to violence outside of relationships between 2 straight, cis people.

This campaign won't have the necessary impact on its own. We live in a society that fosters feeling of low self-worth in women and girls. That becomes dangerous when coupled with the sense of entitlement that many cis men are brought up with. Education about the intricacies of consent and respect in relationships should form an important part of sex education in schools. In the Guardian Women's Blog post about the site, they quoted a statistic that I found particularly uncomfortable:

When the Boston Public Health Commission did a 2009 survey of 200 young people aged 12 to 19, they found that 46% of respondents blamed pop star Rihanna for the brutal attack by her then boyfriend, Chris Brown.

It's awful to think that there is a percentage of teenage girls who think that if they get a bit gobby with their boyfriends, they deserve to be punched in the face. We need to be teaching them to expect more for themselves, and ensuring that the police take allegations of this sort seriously when they are made. However, as a fan of patriarchy-smashing and capitalism-destruction, I think there's a limit to how much this sort of education can do to end violence against women in all its forms. As a short-term measure to make things a little easier, it's fine. But as long as we live in a society that relies on oppression and violence to function, violence against women will occur.

(If anybody reading this needs some help, here's a pretty comprehensive list of organisations who can provide support and advice.)

*Name changed.