Three years later, I’m still not sure what to say about Domestic Violence

Statistically, you know someone experiencing domestic violence.

I wrote almost three years ago about a friend, H, going through a truly fucking awful time. We chatted online about her partner, the destruction, what it did to her. H sent me photos of things that had been broken. We talked about the woman she saw at the school gates who H knew in her gut was experiencing something similar, and I received long messages about where H’s abusive partner’s problems started, where the anger, frustration, and violence came from. His difficult start, how he’d been let down.

Scrolling back through our messages and seeing a screenshot of a text conversation between H and her now-ex, including a glimpse of an injury; it’s very dark and very sobering. H very generously thought of me to tell her story and thought I could do it justice, and for a while I thought I could too. It’s a feminist issue- as well as a human one- and I like those a lot, so why wouldn’t I write about domestic violence? It’s so blunt and cruel and often so nuanced and complicated. It’s not like I haven’t been around manipulative people and I definitely know what a twisted relationship looks like. That sick feeling I get seeing a huge imbalance of power between two people. The subtle abuse, the not-quite violence: these are things I recognise. But I soon realised that I didn’t have anything original to say about spousal abuse. It’s something I care so deeply about but beyond my own feelings and paranoia, I didn’t feel the words come. It simply felt like a story that wasn’t mine to tell.

I offered to proof-read H’s words, edit and present them, but I found myself unable to write anything myself, even when she asked me to. We talked about this but the discussion petered out until H got in touch again in April.  The media hysteria surrounding the breakdown of Mel B’s marriage was peaking and the Mail Online was having a jolly good time with it.

Check out the comments, that right there is every last one of the reasons why it took me 15 years to leave.” 

They were obviously hideous.

The notion that if a woman doesn’t leave then whatever she suffers is her fault belongs in the last century, but let nobody accuse Mail Online commenters of subtlety or human empathy. It’s a website that sexualises children and then judges young people for dressing sexily. Of course it’s massively, stonkingly popular. It’s really easy for me to laugh at the online cesspit but the reality is so grim.

Because ultimately the biggest fear in breaking silence is that no one will believe you……… it’s what the abuser grooms you to believe and this sort of comment and debate reinforces that… [it's] just awful. “

All that your abuser has done, all the hope kicked out of you and the amount of self-worth lost, beautifully topped with the cherry of a society that can’t look at a woman being controlled or beaten by their partner and feel anything but disdain. And yes, obviously not everyone feels that way but we see and hear these messages so often that one has to actually question one’s own thinking on the subject. Still, at least the government is on our side, eh Philip Davies MP? H found these comments so depressing and angering that again she asked me to write something and again I was hit by the feeling that I couldn’t say anything important or new and therefore should probably not say anything at all. Understandably, H found this a shitty response. So then she sent me her story in her own words and it was brilliant. But man, I felt bad.

Here’s an edited extract (taking out some very complimentary stuff that I definitely don’t deserve):

“The top two searches on my browser history right now are ‘pity party’ and ‘Mel B’. Random combination I know, a little-known hobby blogger and a former spice girl! Pity Party is a collaboration written by my oldest friend and her sister. A friend who has always been in the background, always been the one, stable, non-judgemental voice of wisdom in my life. The person who has known what is right for me often years before I was inclined to agree, a friend that is younger than me but who I never managed to quite achieve peer status with as she was always that bit further evolved than I was…… until now. Until tonight as I write this post. If you’re reading this blog then I’ve finished it and convinced Laura to share it in one of the.. places that house her [writing]. In her writing, Laura is the perfect combination of empathy and logic, of straight talking and compassion that would make her the perfect person to give life to my thoughts. When Laura writes…… I listen and I want people to listen. I have stalked Laura’s blog daily, I asked her to make a comment on the storm that is surrounding Mel B right now, I asked her to put words to the absolute devastation that is invoked when as a survivor of domestic violence you are faced with everything that a google search of Mel B on the internet gives birth to.”

Yeah. I felt like a total fucker. The rest of the writing was so great, and H has said that she’s not ready for it to be out there yet but I hope she will be soon. But holy shit, I really, really felt that I’d let H down. I’m very aware of not making this about me as it truly isn’t; ultimately though, I’d been asked for help and not responded. Which is shitty. It was still another month before I could put any of this into words though, despite starting this draft immediately. I didn’t want to write just because I felt bad or guilty, but I did want to comment somehow.

Last week Refuge shared an incredible piece from The Guardian: ‘We didn’t recognise that he was dangerous’: our father killed our mother and sister. Terrible stories of heart-rending abuse are not that hard to find; one of the most moving accounts I’ve heard was Jahmene Douglas’ Woman’s Hour appearance with his mother. What that woman- and her children endured- is beyond my comprehension. The brilliance of the Guardian article is that there wasn’t physical violence in Luke and Ryan Hart’s childhood, but their father Lance was an emotionally abusive, controlling, and manipulative father and husband who turned to violence when he finally lost control of those he had sought to have it over. These behaviours- and the excuses we make for them- can have terrible effects.

From the piece:

Lance was not physically abusive – largely, the brothers believe, because they all worked hard to orchestrate a calm atmosphere at home, and because they gave in to his emotional demands. They didn’t think of his behaviour as domestic violence, because they had only ever considered domestic violence to be a man hitting a woman. Lance didn’t consider his actions to be abusive, either. “Yes, we bickered, but it wasn’t serious,” he wrote in his suicide note. “It was normal marriage stuff. No violence.” For some months, Claire had been keeping a diary of everything Lance said and did, but didn’t feel she could take it to the police because there had been no physical harm.”

If you’ve ever known a person who dictates the atmosphere and outcome of a situation according to their own feelings, this will resonate. It’s real behind-closed-doors stuff, it doesn’t leave a physical mark, but it’s devastating whether it ends in violence or not. And finally, I felt like I had something to say about spousal abuse and domestic violence; I couldn’t put into words anyone else’s experiences but I kept thinking about how these behaviours are so easily excused. How we allow people to be ‘grumpy’ or ‘sensitive’ or excuse their behaviour as being a foible of their personality when actually they are acting as a dictator, taking more than their share. Since I read the piece in The Guardian, I have thought about it a lot. I’ve thought about it in terms of behaviours I’ve witnessed, and in terms of how I act as a very emotional person. In terms of my own life, and in terms of seeing an interaction between a couple and having that gut feeling that something isn’t right. It’s reminded me that abusive behaviour can lead to violence but it is destructive in and of itself. I haven’t directly experienced domestic violence but there is a lot in the Harts’ story to recognise.

I’m still not sure what to say on this huge subject, but I know I want to remain vigilant.  I’ve taken some of H’s writing and used it here and I hope she doesn’t mind. I just couldn’t para-phrase what she had said and not include the actual power of it. One thing I can rely on is that she’ll tell me if she’s pissed off, but it’s my sincere hope that she will see this as my effort to say something. I’m sorry it’s a bit late.

I know H has incredible words and I hope one day I can help her to shout them.






Image credit: Jessica Lock at the Noun Project.

Category: Life
save the male CALM

Men need Feminism too…

If you buy, or spend time with someone who buys, any magazine aimed mainly at men, you will most probably have seen the ‘Save the Male’ campaign being run by CALM. Even if you haven’t registered the message, you may have seen the eye-catching image of a man’s body, mostly submerged in the sea.

I first became aware of CALM when I worked at the British London 10K this year and spotted just how many runners CALM had; they stuck out because their fundraising t-shirts are orange, the same as our runners’ were, but the sheer number struck me too and I sought out the charity to see what they were about.  CALM is ‘the campaign against living miserably, .. a charity dedicated to preventing male suicide, the biggest killer of men aged under 50 in the UK.’  Later, I started seeing the adverts on magazines, and buses, and it got me thinking.

There is some controversy around the oft-quoted statistic that claims that the biggest killer of women aged 15 to 44 is men, but there is no doubt that, while instances of crime in general continue to fall in the UK, we still see two women killed a week by a partner or ex-partner.  The TUC estimates that one in four women will have to take time off work at some point due to domestic violence, a statistic that sits uncomfortably in as rich a country as the UK. We all know, right now, a woman who is suffering from intimate partner violence. And the prejudice of “why doesn’t she just leave?” is deeply ingrained in our societal consciousness, as well as a belief that some arguments just get out of hand, some couples just wind each other up, some women could do with a slap. But what story starts to emerge if we think about CALM’s statistics on male suicide in conjunction with rates of domestic violence? What is our society saying about men if violence towards themselves and others is so prevalent? Surely both domestic violence and suicide are symptoms of not knowing how to cope, a deep unease with the world, even if they do present in very different ways.

An initiative in Hull which helps men who want to stop being violent
An initiative in Hull which helps men who want to stop being violent

I feel that it is appropriate at this point to write a few words on domestic violence experienced by men, inflicted by women. Intimate partner violence, whatever the gender of those involved and whatever the sexual orientation of the couple, is disgusting. We all feel anger with our loved ones at times, especially in romantic relationships, but to physically abuse another human being is truly immoral. And when it is an intimate partner, a husband or wife, the pain of domestic violence goes so much deeper than the physical, and the feelings of shame are well-documented. Estimates on DV experienced by men in heterosexual relationships do vary but around 1 in 4 of DV incidents seems to be an accepted statistic, and this points to it being a huge problem. My caveat on mentioning this statistic would be that the remaining 3 in 4 violent incidents are against women, who physically are more at danger from the violence, have a higher number and more serious injuries, and that around 80% of continuing violence is perpetrated by men on women. I have always said that there is room around the table to discuss all types of domestic violence, and I am not dismissive in any way of men suffering intimate partner violence; we need to support those men, but it doesn’t negate the extent of violence against women.

One of CALM’s three mission statements is “We believe that if men felt able to ask for and find help when they need it then hundreds of male suicides could be prevented.  We believe that there is a cultural barrier preventing men from seeking help as they are expected to be in control at all times, and failure to be seen as such equates to weakness and a loss of masculinity.” I would hazard a guess that a very similar statement could be made regarding domestic violence, that men feel too much shame to ask for help and feel that there is a cultural assumption working against them. Deeply-entrenched cultural assumptions are massively, indescribably harmful to men and to women; assumptions based on gender only serve to pigeon-hole, and ignore individuality and difference. The same assumptions that tell women that they’re too emotional, too bossy, can be valued only on their physical attractiveness, attack men for not being traditionally masculine enough, dissuade them from seeking help when needed, and use the word ‘mangina’ to try to nip progressive thought in the bud. Male suicide rates are another way we’re reminded that the world needs feminism, for men as well as women.

For help and information:

CALM: www.thecalmzone.net
The Samaritans: www.samaritans.org
Refuge: www.refuge.org.uk
Mankind Initiative: www.mankind.org.uk
Respect UK: www.respect.uk.net


Category: Comment
loz scampi

Feminism & Fashion pt 1 – Loz starts to muse…

Earlier this year, Elle UK was tackling feminism and the idea that it needs to be rebranded.  To be totally fair to them, this has been a very open debate, over a number of issues, and I have been impressed with the quality of the discourse and the intelligence with which Elle has engaged with the subject.  Elle UK is my favourite magazine aimed at women in this country as I happen to really enjoy the writing, and I find a lot of the fashion and style quite accessible.  But it is still a fashion magazine, and while I give it props for even opening the debate up (or, in fact, acknowledging feminism at all), I did balk at the idea of rebranding feminism.  But feminism has a number of image issues, and that’s undeniable.

I think that when we talk about the waves of feminism, that that can be the actual point when someone with a vague interest in equality and potentially in identifying as a feminist, feels crushed beneath the weight of ‘academic feminism’ and leaves the whole debate.  Of course we need to discuss what feminism means, both personally and on a global scale, and there is huge value to academic debate.  But as with any subject, and this more than most, feminism can feel inaccessible and opaque, and if you throw in the various class issues that feminism has, and its traditional exclusion of transgender women and women of colour (buzzword: intersectionality!), a woman can be faced with a concept that feels so deeply entrenched in the mire of humourlessness and worthiness and stereotypes of being robust and potentially hairy that they give up.  And if they are a person of colour or working class, they probably gave up a long time ago.  Making feminism relevant is essential.  As much as I have some quite serious issues with the pseudo-feminism of Caitlin Moran, she and others like her have opened up a debate and a conversation about feminism, womanhood, and what it means to be a feminist.  It turns out, just like any other principle or belief system, feminism is what you make it…

So why do I mention the many waves of feminism when I’m clearly going to be talking about clothes?  It is so very easy to view feminism- or any radical movement like it- through the eyes of women who can have things like jobs, or the choice under the law of whether to have sex with the man they happen to be married to.  Essentially, it’s easy to view feminism through the eyes of those who are already benefitting from it.  And modern feminism does have a lot of problems, and some of these wonderful, spirited women who had the conversations and shouted loudly about concepts most people had not ever thought of before, had some opinions that don’t sit well with a lot of modern feminists.  We should stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow women, not judge them for their clothing, their failure to be perfect feminists, their genitalia.  It’s not too hard for me to see why feminists thirty and forty years ago dismissed the struggles of transgender women, and why some still do.  You were born men, haven’t you had all the chances already?  But feminism, if it is about one thing, is about equality: we do not win our battles by forcing others down.  You are a woman if you know you are a woman!  Up to a quarter of people subjected to domestic violence are men and talking about that doesn’t sit well with many feminists, I’m sure.  Two women a week are killed in this country by their partner or ex-partner, and a WHAT ABOUT TEH MENZ mentality is tiresome and unhelpful.  But if we truly value equality, there has to be room around the table for everyone; the conversations are just too important to be exclusive.  Gender is about more than just genitalia and some problems affect us all.

So of course there have been waves of feminism; with any movement you sketch out your best guess and it evolves.  Previous versions will not be perfect.  However, my aim when I started tapping away was not to write about intersectionality or the evolution of feminism.  Others can do that much better than I.  It was to mention these things in relation to the choices that we are now entitled as women to make, and hallelujah for that.  I made no resolutions this new year but I am trying to snark at other women-people in general, really- a bit less.  And oh how I have loved to judge a woman who wears leggings as trousers!  Lo, that dress is not for the likes of you madam, you resemble a trollop!  It’s exquisite.  And fantastically bad for the soul, and for other women.  It’s wonderful, comforting, lazy thinking that requires no critical thought, no interrogation of your own views and assumptions, and it’s often just a little bit classist, for me at any rate.  There’s no spiritual nourishment in verbalising your criticism of another woman’s appearance or behaviour, just a vague realisation that my own self-esteem must be in need of a top-up because secure people don’t need to judge others, not like that.  I know that there isn’t anything positive in recognising that someone’s podge is showing in their t-shirt, even if tight does look cheap and I will never not think so.  It’s your choice to wear that t-shirt.

What a fuss was made about these bloody mannequins.... But isn't the fact they're unusual kind of weird?
What a fuss was made about these bloody mannequins…. But isn’t the fact they’re unusual kind of weird?

But if there is a word in feminism in the last five years that needs examining, it is ‘choice’.  Respecting other women’s choices: good.  Invoking choice as the excuse, reason, justification for acting any way that you want to: not cool.  Do what you want, if you must, but don’t cloak it in feminism.  A great xojane.com article from 2011 had this to say:

This got me thinking about the phenomenon of “choice feminism,” where women argue that even anti-feminist behaviors are feminist because “feminism is about choice.” If you choose to be on a Hot Chicks Tumblr — or if you decide after the fact that, having been put on a Hot Chicks Tumblr without your knowledge, you will choose to be okay with it — that means the Tumblr isn’t misogynistic, because anything you as a woman choose to do is feminist. In fact, the real misogynist is the feminist who’s trying to tell you that being a Hot Chick isn’t okay. 

 Choice feminism gets one thing right: You should be able to make the choices that are right for you. And yes, of course that should include the choice to be ogled by strangers, or have your body used as a recruitment poster to bait guys into caring about important causes. Where choice feminism falls down, though, is in assuming that any of those things are actual choices right now.

We don’t live in a vacuum.  And this is where I finally get to fashion!  In a world where women are constantly- I repeat constantly- bombarded by all the ways they aren’t good enough, aren’t thin enough, oops-not-too-thin-boys-don’t-like-that enough, how can fashion be anything except the brilliant capitalist embodiment of all of that pressure and preoccupation with appearance?  And it’s a concept I’ve struggled with, definitely.  I recently attended a talk entitled ‘Can fashion and feminism ever be friends?’ where Sali Hughes and Polly Vernon made some excellent sense: fashion is not the same as the fashion industry.  We will always create trends, and new ways of dressing ourselves, and we can do these things joyfully without ever buying Vogue.  But we can do that too, if we like. If you swap the word ‘fashion’ for ‘style’ it immediately becomes something more personal, an expression of who we are, in our outer appearance. Our appearance is important, but not because we should fit in to some sort of pre-determined category.  It’s important because it’s another form of self-expression, a way to represent who we are, be creative, feel good, as much or as little as we want to.

And just as don’t live in a patriarchy-free bubble, we also have rules within which to operate, never more clearly for me than in the world of work.  It is fair to say that, with the odd exception, my eight years in the City were marked by black bootcut trousers and an array of very bright- what some cruel people might call garish- tops.  If it had a big pattern it had Loz written all over it and if I mention, casually, that there was a big New Look across the road from my office, perhaps the true horror of all I have just described will wash over you like some sort of sewage overflow.  At this point in my life I am cultivating a delusion of Scandinavian style; boxy silhouettes, pared-down design, structural shapes.  This is not least because I have a) grown up a bit; b) lost a wee bit of weight (to be discussed, no doubt at length, another time); and c) got a job that allows me to exhale.  I can be Laura so I don’t have to scream “I’M LOZ AND I HAVE A PERSONALITY UNDER HERE” with a floral monstrosity and a cardi.  And in those barren, polyester-tinged times, I was both operating within a strict set of corporate principles and trying to subvert them at every opportunity.  Except at client meetings when I’d wear a skirt suit, so you see I was capable of occasional bouts of ‘appropriateness’.

I now have a job in the third sector and there is zero dress-code in our office, if you exclude the fact that working in an un-insulated box regularly dictates your sartorial choices. The freedom is wonderful.  And so when it comes to needing to get dressed up for conferences and events, it makes a nice change and I’m happy to go smart, albeit with a twist.  And the people I meet at these conferences rarely tire of reminding me that my seven small tattoos can often be that twist: these are some very conservative people.  So you see, as a feminist and a person, I enjoy clothes and the versatility of dressing, and I don’t now feel that these are at odds with my principles.  Most of the time….

To be continued!

Category: Comment