Gender, Language, and Domestic Abuse

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The political arena of domestic violence is one that is filled with debate. Simply naming the act, it turns out, is not simple at all.  There are many who dislike the term “domestic violence”, believing that the word “domestic” makes it too cosy and creates the notion of this being private rather than public problem. Some believe “Intimate Partner Violence” would be better – extending the problems of abuse beyond the home and attempting to raise awareness of the abusive dynamics of those who do not live together.  Others prefer “Inter-personal Violence”.

And with a query over the name, is the definition of abuse also queryable? What constitutes domestic violence/intimate partner violence? While the Home Office recognises psychological abuse – defining domestic violence to include “any incident or patterns of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour” – there is a gap in the law and such abuse can currently fall outside judicial reach.  The work of the Domestic Violence Law Reform Campaign has not only caused the Government to reconsider the legal framework, but has prompted a wider discussion of varying facets of domestic violence.  This debate and analysis has often not only focused on the type and quality of support offered to survivors, but who these survivors are.

The statistics and ratios of domestic violence according to gender vary depend on who you ask.  Women’s Aid’s Polly Neate states that 89% of victims are women, while the Mankind Initiative argue that 38% of victims are male.   The statistical disparity could be due to the fact that each person is using different measures of violence.  The Mankind Initiative’s data reflects a wider variety of inter-personal acts of violence (extending the documentation of abuse to other relationships, such as parents), while Women’s Aid’s uses the statistics provided by the British Crime Survey, referring to the split gender percentages of those who have suffered four or more acts of violence from one person.  Regardless, when everyone’s providing different numbers, we must become suspicious about whether people are cherry-picking the “best” statistics for their argument.

Every study I’ve ready has agreed that there are more women than men suffering under domestic violence, but there is some disagreement on where the emphasis in funding and awareness is placed – and whether legal language or academic study should be gendered.

Most campaigners agree that both women and men need gender-specific services.  For women, the notion of a safe space is vital, and there are worries that a gender-neutral service would give rise to opportunities for their abuser to follow them into what is meant to be a sanctuary.  Glen Poole (the director of Helping Men) argues that men also need a gender-specific approach, and that simply converting current women’s support to be offered to men would not work because “One of the important roles that the women’s movement has played in helping female victims is that they have been loud and unapologetic advocates for women. With the best will in the world, it is unrealistic to expect the self-same campaigners to be strident advocates for men.”

Polly Neate said in a Guardian article shared with Poole, “At Women’s Aid we are often asked ‘what about the men?’” With already too few resources to help women, the idea of stretching women’s support services to try to cater to male victims of abuse – when even men’s right’s activists agree it would not be the appropriate method of helping – is not something many charities and women’s shelters are willing to do.  I think part of the problem is this notion that there is only a limited amount of funding to spend on support for victims and survivors of domestic abuse, and that to fund aid for men, we must take away from women.  If domestic violence is as prevalent and pervasive across both genders as campaigners suggest, shouldn’t we be looking to fund both more?  The erasure of male suffering is unquestionably awful and a problem, but is it one that is fixed by trying to silence the voices of female victims?

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