I’ve not been publishing online much lately, I have been working on my novel, so to speak. :D But I am moved to respond to something in the Observer today.
Lauren Laverne is a fantastic radio DJ and more. Her knowledge and enthusiasm for popular music and her ability to communicate that to the masses puts her up there with some of the great musos of our time. Im not saying she’s quite a Peel but yes even I think that should she be a man she’d be more lauded than she is for her talents and expertise in the field.
But Lauren’s forays into feminist oriented journalism are not quite so laudable in my view. Her latest piece, in the Observer, calls for ‘coercive control’ in (romantic? heterosexual?) relationships to be criminalised. The title of her piece uses the term ‘emotional abuse’ and the standfirst calls it ‘psychological violence’. These slips in terminology reflect the confusion of the article and of the calls to criminalise not physical but psychological harm in relationships. If those calling for new legislation cannot specify clearly what it should cover it is not a good sign for that proposed legislation. Indeed, the term ‘coercive control’ itself is a bit of a tautology. With ‘coercion’ and ‘control’ having very similar/overlapping meanings and synonyms. I can’t help but wonder how Foucault would translate the phrase – ‘powerful power’?
Whilst Laverne acknowledges men can suffer emotional abuse in relationships her line on criminalising this abuse is part of a wider feminist campaign led by organisations such as Women’s Aid (http://www.womensaid.org) which focusses on emotional abuse by men of women in romantic /sexual relationships. When in fact there is plenty of abuse in the other direction. Laverne references a statistic of 30% of women having reported (to the national crime survey) suffering domestic abuse at some point in their lives, which further puts the emphasis on women being harmed – by men. It is not clear how this statistic was reached and what the questions were in the survey. Would men be less likely to report incidences of being hurt emotionally or physically by their women partners?
It is interesting to note in relation to women’s ‘emotional abuse’ of men in romantic relationships that the recent feminist Ban Bossy campaign seems to be saying we should not ever describe women’s behaviour in negative terms. I dont support old- fashioned stereotypes of ‘nagging wives’ but on the other hand, I do know some domineering women who ‘control’ their male partners in some ways. And I am not even arguing against this as a phenomenon per se. I would go so far as to say some men consciously or unconsciously, like some women, enjoy being dominated! But (especially heterosexual) men’s submissive tendencies are still unacknowledged to a large degree.
And there’s the rub. As I have said before, I think any understanding of, and commitment to tackle domestic violence and abuse should take into account many people’s masochism. This is not to defend non-consensual harm – like Lauren I have experienced it myself – but rather to try and understand what drives people in sexual/emotional relationships and how they might be more happy in their power relations. Because a sexual relationship without power probably wouldnt have much/any sex in either.
I also think that when it comes to domestic abuse, one of the problems is the privatised couple formation of traditional heterosexual relationships. If we were more open to our neighbours and friends about our relationships then ‘coercive control’ might not go undetected and unchallenged as it does. I am not saying nobody should be monogamous, but I don’t think monogamy, marriage and coupledom as an ideal help protect people from harm by that one ‘true love’ we are encouraged to find and keep behind closed doors.
One of the key arguments in Laverne’s piece is that people suffering domestic abuse stay in relationships due to fear and ‘self doubt’ imposed by their abuser. I agree to an extent. But I do not think the question ‘why don’t they just leave them?’ should be dismissed altogether. I have asked this question to friends telling me of the domestic abuse they suffer, and have got short shrift. And yet as Laverne herself found, leaving is the solution to the problem. In most cases except for a horrendous minority of extreme ones* the ‘coercion’ does not stretch to preventing someone physically from leaving their abusive partner. And rather than criminalising the emotional hold that abusive partner has on someone, as Laverne is suggesting we should, maybe we could focus on trying to increase people’s confidence, support networks and opportunities to leave and start a new life.
*and I know of at least a few very extreme cases where people have taken great risks/made great sacrifices to leave an abusive/violent partner and of course, have not regretted it.