Power and control over a partner can be something far more subtle than muscle, writes Suzanne Harrington
When we think about domestic abuse, we think bruised women, terrified children, violent men. That’s the formula.
The statistics backed this up: in Britain, it’s two dead women a week, murdered by current or former partners. Two dead women, every week, and hundreds more assaulted, controlled, terrorised. There are fewer deaths in Ireland — 216 femicides since 1996 — yet domestic violence has the highest rate of repeat offending of any crime.
Men bash women once, twice, three times, until he loses count and she loses consciousness.
The traditional domestic violence dynamic is male aggressor, female victim. Yet the violence and coercive control documented in a recent BBC film, Abused By My Girlfriend, was cited as one of the most extreme cases the police had seen.
The victim — a 23-year-old man, Alex Skeel, from Bedfordshire — was told by doctors that he was 10 days from death when police intervened. His former partner, a physically slight 22-year-old graduate, is in prison, the first woman in Britain jailed for coercive control, as well as GBH.
Why didn’t he just leave her? Why did he allow her to assault him with hammers, knives, boiling water? How did she isolate him from friends and family, controlling his social media, his choice of clothing, his food, his every move?
We no longer ask women why they remained in abusive relationships, because our understanding of coercive control has evolved: Emotional abuse as another form of violence, without black eyes or bruises. We understand the layered intricacies of control, threat, fear, terror, disempowerment. We know that women are most in danger from men they know intimately.
But men being abused by female partners? Seriously? Yet the shattered young man in the BBC documentary challenges our assumptions about power and control over a partner; that it can be something far more subtle than muscle.
According to UK male domestic violence charity Mankind, for every three victims of domestic violence, two are female, one is male.
Amen, the Irish charity that supports domestically abused men, says such men are isolated, stigmatised, ridiculed, not taken seriously culturally or legally: “We believe that domestic abuse against men should be a crime, and is often overlooked and ignored in our society.”
It’s not all hammers, knives, boiling water. Abuse can be walking on eggshells at home, being afraid of your partner, constantly placating them, worrying about their reaction, avoiding conflict, ignoring your own needs in deference to theirs, being isolated from loved-ones, having your privacy patrolled, your finances controlled, your voice unheard.
When this happens to women, we are outraged, and have systems in place to help. We don’t have the same safeguards for men, because we are so used to women being on the receiving end of abuse, rather than perpetrating it.
Just because abused men are a minority doesn’t make it OK. Abusive behaviour is not exclusively male.