The myths around domestic abuse we still see

Violence against women is often in the newspapers, on the radio and on our TV screens. Its prevalence in society and complex nature makes it an interesting issue for writers and good representation can increase awareness and understanding about domestic abuse.

However, myths and misconceptions around domestic abuse persist. The fact that the issue is so complex can mean that even journalists with the best of intentions can misrepresent some of the issues and perpetuate ideas that are harmful to women.

These myths stop us from addressing the root causes of domestic abuse and are ultimately damaging to sufferers and survivors of domestic abuse. So ahead of our Write to End Violence Against Women Awards (closing date for submissions is 30 September) we have taken this opportunity to address these myths with the research that disproves them.

There is some fantastic writing happening in Scotland, with many journalists working to  confront gender inequality. By celebrating the writing that does not fall in to these traps, we can continue to raise the standard for media in Scotland.

Further advice for journalists can be found in our booklet Handle With Care – please contact Lydia House on lydia.house (at) zerotolerance.org.uk for more information.

Myth: Men suffer domestic abuse equally

Domestic abuse is a crime that is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women and is an abuse of male power and privilege. Women are far more likely to be victims than men, with incidents involving a female victim and a male perpetrator representing 82% of reported incidents.

The pattern of victimisation is different for men and women in domestic abuse cases – women are considerably more likely to experience repeated and severe forms of violence. For example, one study found that 32% of women who had ever experienced domestic violence did so four or five (or more) times, compared with 11% of the (smaller number) of men who had ever experienced domestic violence.

Research in Scotland, re-tracing men who were counted as victims of domestic abuse in the Scottish Crime Survey, found that a majority of the men who said that they were victims of domestic violence, were also perpetrators of violence (13 of 22). A significant number of the men re-interviewed (13 out of 46) later said they had actually never experienced any form of domestic abuse.

Men can and do experience domestic abuse but they do not experience it in the same way as women. Economic disadvantage, cultural and religious expectations, caring responsibilities and attitudes of institutions (enshrined in laws and procedures) combine to limit women’s options for leaving and stopping their abuse.

It’s vital to see violence against women as a cause and consequence of gender inequality; while women and men remain unequal we will continue to see domestic abuse.

Myth: Abusers suffer from anger management problems.

A very common way to report acts of domestic abuse is to frame it as a loss of control, with a perpetrator ‘snapping’ or ‘losing it’.

In reality abuse is about exerting control, rather than losing it. The perpetrator will seek to dominate and control every aspect of their partner’s life by restricting their movement and ability to engage with others, keeping them under surveillance, setting rules which must be obeyed and using a range of threats including those relating to children.  This is not a one off incident, but a pattern of behaviour that seeks to take away the victim’s liberty or freedom. This behaviour is called ‘coercive control’ and you can read the Scottish Women’s Aid briefing on this here.

Most abusers have no problem resolving disputes with their colleagues or other friends without resorting to abuse. They choose to use abuse against their partner as a means of maintaining control over them.

Myth: Abusers suffer from mental illness

The vast majority of people with mental health problems do not commit acts of violence or abuse. Furthermore, the mental health of the victims of domestic abuse is rarely given the same attention by the media – in reality between 50% and 60% of women who access mental health services have experienced domestic abuse.

We often see the press tie itself in knots to ascribe men’s abusive behaviour to anything other than a systematic problem caused by gender inequality. We particularly see mental health problems used as a reason for abuse. The recent murder of Clodagh Hawe and her children by her husband was an example of this.

Mental health does not excuse domestic abuse, nor is it the root cause.

Myth: Alcohol, football and other external factors all contribute to men becoming violent

External factors (such as alcohol, football, even the time of year) are often cited as reasons behind men’s violence against women.

Alcohol is probably the most commonly cited in the media as a cause of domestic abuse. While substance use may lower inhibitions and increase the severity of physical acts of violence, it is not the root cause of abuse. 1/3 of incidents of domestic abuse reported to the police involve alcohol and a report into women’s own understandings revealed that the majority of women believed that their partners had a choice about how much they drank and how they behaved under its influence (read this briefing from Scottish Women’s Aid for more information).  Addressing alcohol addiction would not wipe out domestic abuse.

Attributing domestic abuse to external factors like alcohol excuses the abuser from taking responsibility and does not address the root cause: gender inequality.

Myth: Domestic abuse occurs when a relationship breaks down

Often domestic abuse is portrayed as the result of a breakdown in a relationship. In reality, domestic abuse is much more than a symptom of an unhealthy relationship. Jealousy and poor communication issues may contribute to unhealthy relationships but they do not excuse domestic abuse which is a form of violence against women rooted in gender inequality. This Everyday Victim Blaming post explains this further.

Plenty of relationships which are unhealthy do not necessarily demonstrate the hallmarks of coercive control. To conflate the two is inaccurate and misleading.

Myth: Domestic abusers are ‘beasts’ and ‘monsters’

It’s common in news reports about domestic abusers for journalists to use words like ‘brute’, a ‘monster’ or a ‘sicko’. You might be tempted to agree, after all the idea of abusing your partner is horrific to most of us. However, this framing turns an abuser into a one dimensional cartoon villain. Domestic abusers are skilled at presenting a ‘normal’ façade to friends, relatives and co-workers – unfortunately the men who commit these crimes are ordinary men, usually someone’s dad, brother, uncle or friend, who have behaved in a way that is abhorrent.

Myth: Abusers are likely to have been abused themselves

It is often suggested that adults who behave violently do so because they themselves were raised in violent households. In fact, there is no known research tracking a large and representative cross-section of child witnesses of domestic abuse into adulthood to see what proportions of child witnesses do grow up to use or experience abuse. Instead, much of the research is carried out with adults who are known to be violent. Even if all of them (say that they) have witnessed violence as children, this only demonstrates a correlation, not a causal link.

Myth: Women always have the option of leaving their abuser

There are multiple factors that prevent women leaving abusive relationships, including:

  • The way the abuser has isolated them from family and friends
  • Financial dependence – controlling finances is one form of abuse
  • Lack of self-esteem and other mental and emotional health issues, often caused by the abuse.
  • Perhaps most chillingly she may fear escalation of violence – and with good reason. Around half of women killed by their partners are in the process of leaving. They may also fear retribution taken against children or pets.

Ultimately we need to stop asking victims to prevent violence by leaving their homes; we need to examine the motivations of abusers and how their behaviour can be stopped.

Myth: Men and women are equal in Scotland and domestic abuse is a problem that only affects a few people

Statistics about domestic abuse in Scotland (all figures from Scottish Government website)

  • There were 51,926 incidents of domestic abuse in Scotland recorded by the police in 2009-10.
  • A Scottish study involving 1,395 young people aged between 14 and 18 found that a third of young men and a sixth of young women thought that using violence in an intimate relationship was acceptable under certain circumstances. The same study found that 17% of young women had experienced violence or abuse in their own relationship with a boyfriend.
  • In 2009-10, there were 884 recorded cases of rape (of women); 112 assaults with intent to rape (of women).

Statistics about gender inequality in Scotland (all figures from Engender website)

  • Women earn 13% less than men as full time workers and 32% less than men part-time. Female sectors are low-paid and undervalued.
  • Only 15% of senior police, 15% High of Court judges, 10% of newspaper editors and 8% of Directors of FTSE 250 firms are women.
  • Only 35% of MSPs, 17% of MEPs, 23% of councillors, 10% of council leaders, and 26% of Trade Union leaders are women.
  • 62% of unpaid carers are women. Twice as many female carers rely on benefits than male carers, at a rate of £1.55 per hour.
  • Twice as many women rely on benefits and tax credits as men. Women are 95% of lone parents dependent on income support.
  • Every 13 minutes a Scottish woman experiences violence.

These statistics are just a few of many that paint a picture where women are still seen and treated as less than men. Women have less power than men in almost every sphere, women are still objectified and sexualised from a young age and by the media, women face discrimination at work and in education. This unequal environment allows domestic abuse to occur, domestic abuse in turn perpetuates the gender imbalance.

Gender inequality directly contributes to gender based violence. It is vital to challenge it in every sector.

There is no excuse for rape, domestic abuse or any forms of violence against women. Men are responsible for their own actions. The root cause of all violence against women is gender inequality and a small minority of men feeling entitled to perpetrate such violence because they see women as less valuable and worthy than men.

24 hour support for those suffering from domestic abuse or a forced marriage can be found by calling Scottish Women’s Aid on 0800 027 1234

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