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.


  1. Thank you for writing this - what a great post. It's horrific that the police take that sort of attitude towards cases of abuse and something needs to change. I was so angry after reading the responses on those videos this morning. It's awful that we've arrived at the stage where any initiative to combat VAW is seen as 'bigoted' and 'discriminating' against men. You can't argue with the stats about VAW and I can't bear this attitude which automatically focuses on how men are being 'wronged' rather than why thousands of women are being abused.

  2. Thank you so much for this. It's hideous experiences like this that should be taken more seriously and cries of 'what about teh manz!!!' that should be stamped out.

  3. thank you so much for writing this piece.

    hopefully these new initiatives mean the police will take violence more seriously when it involves young people.

    so furious that the comments focus on what about the men-nery on that site. the numbers are there. whether men like it or not, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence. if we ignore that, then we can't begin to tackle it.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this Lydia. I think the apathy towards victims of domestic violence sometimes reflects a general sense that relationships - especially between two straight, cis people - are necessarily violent, as if the combination of a power differential and sex is a chemical reaction that just naturally creates abuse. It's so appalling that the police fobbed you off that way, but sadly not surprising. The 'have your say' section of that website drastically underestimates the extent to which message boards attract abusive trolls - I don't see why they need to include a message board at all.

  5. A brave post, thank you for sharing it. I cannot believe the horrific experience you had - not only when experiencing the abuse itself, but when trying to report it. I work as a domestic abuse adviser in Gloucestershire and sadly hear experiences of abuse all day, each day I work - the numbers are staggering. However, what I have learned is that something *can* be done - which is why I am so disgusted at the way you were treated by the officers you dealt with. Either legally, or civilly, action can be taken. It's experiences like these that put victims/survivors off reporting, meaning the perp "gets away with it".
    I think the police have been through a lot of specialized training, meaning *many* (not all, unfortunately)of them know how to 'deal with' cases of abuse. There is also a new risk assessment that all officers HAVE to complete in every abuse case they attend. I do think though, that some kind of awareness training around young people would be hugely, hugely beneficial.

    My worry is that, young people especially, just don't report. Something definitely needs to be done in schools to address this situation, how else is it going to improve?
    How do we stop abuse? It starts with the perpetrators - yes we can put injunctions in place, non-molestation orders etc, but the hell should we?
    I'm interested in what makes a perpetrator a perpetrator - it must start somewhere, and if we can do *some* good at school level, I'm sure this would make a difference.
    How else is this situation going to improve?
    We have rising numbers of victims calling in to our service - which is good because people are reporting and asking for help, but so so bad because people are still abusing and being abused.
    Sorry for ranting on! I just hate to hear of cases that have gone 'un-dealt' with by the institutions that have the power to actually do something.
    It's a great, great post, thank you so much for sharing it.

    ps, if any one reading this needs help in Gloucestershire, our number (CARP - central allocation and referral point) is 0845 602 9035.

  6. Thank you for writing this. I'm appalled, but I'm not surprised.

    When I was 22, I was in an abusive relationship with a man who repeatedly raped me. This lasted for six months and left me with Post-Traumatic Sex Disorder and physical injuries. I was stupid enough to report him to the police afterwards. As is usual, they discounted it because I'd stayed in the relationship. They told me that it's not rape unless you say "no" just before penetration - saying it earlier doesn't count. They said, "I don't want to know," when I pointed out that he was on drugs. They were uninterested in the fact that I was severely disabled and he was twice my size. They flatly refused to look at six months of medical records showing my injuries. I had a friend whose sister became a police officer, and when she was working in the Family Protection Unit, she was formally taught that 90% of women who come in with rape allegations are lying.

    I also know that the police don't give a toss about stalking. I severed contact with my family some years ago because my mother has been physically and emotionally abusive towards me for my entire life. My mother promptly took to stalking me. The police keep claiming that they'll do something about it, but then it turns out that they tell my mother that it's OK for her to keep stalking me "as long as she has a good reason for getting in contact", and tell me, "But she's your mother!"

    If there's any kind of relationship at all between the perpetrator and the victim, even if they just happened to share a flat briefly, the police seem extremely prone to calling it a civil matter and refusing to get involved. This includes when someone is breaking your door down.