This week at Manchester Crown Court, Sharon Edwards was convicted of the murder of her husband David. His death was the end of a short but horribly violent relationship. Pathologists found sixty different wounds at the post mortem, including older stabbing injuries all over his body. Friends and colleagues told the trial how he had regularly used make up and a litany of lies and excuses to cover up his injuries. After the jury’s verdict, it emerged that the murderer had a series of previous arrests and convictions for domestic violence against her ex-partners.
The verdict sparked a flurry of media commentary and discussion of varying levels of accuracy and insight. The most depressing exchange of the week came on BBC Woman’s Hour which invited Mark Brooks from the Mankind Initiative to explain that men being murdered by their female partners was a bad thing, and radical feminist violence researcher Marianne Hester, apparently to argue the opposite. Hester responded to questions about female-perpetrated domestic homicide by saying it happens because women need to use weapons because they aren’t as big and strong as men, and suggesting repeatedly (and without a hint of a shred of evidence), that women who perpetrate deadly violence against male partners are usually doing so out of self-defence – in effect slandering the victims of domestic homicide and blaming them for their own deaths. (For the record, the only UK research to have investigated women’s motives in intimate partner homicides found that a fewer of a quarter of offenders cited self-defence as their motive. Most killed out of anger or jealousy.)
Despite the tragic circumstances, it is at least welcome that the issue of male victimisation is garnering some attention again. That said, maybe it is just because I have been round the block on this myself so many times in the past, but I’m beginning to get a sense of déjà vu about the debate. It feels a little like we have become a fly against a window pane, repeatedly drumming out a rhythm but not really getting anywhere. The very first feature I wrote about “battered husbands,” as they were still called in about 1996, was headlined with a reference to “the last taboo.” Two decades on, the same cliché is still leaned on heavily. We should probably now acknowledge that female-on-male domestic abuse is not really a taboo any longer, it has become a staple of talk radio phone-in shows, opinion pages, even soap opera plotlines. I think we are now at the stage where it is acknowledged, it is talked about, it’s just that nobody really knows what to do about it.
In that light, it was refreshing to read this piece on News Hub which makes a concrete proposal. Stephen Blanchard highlighted the positioning of domestic violence policy as a gendered crime, part of the broader policy platform of violence against women and girls, suggesting that removing this definition would remedy the unfairness.
It is a constructive suggestion, but I’m not convinced it is the best idea. Until a few years ago, I would have easily agreed with calls to make domestic violence policies gender-neutral. As time has gone by I have moved away from there. What we need are not gender-neutral policies, but gender-inclusive policies.
What do I mean by that?
Firstly, it is simply wrong to think that the diverse phenomena we cluster together as ‘domestic violence’ are not steeped in gender issues. Female victims of abuse have specific and unique issues that relate directly to their gender-specific social position, their economic status, their family commitments and much, much else. The way in which their situation is considered and addressed by everyone from the police to the courts to their employers will be significantly impacted by their gender. Furthermore, the motivations and behaviour of the abusive man are very largely informed by his gender, the social expectations of male dominance, his socialisation into cultures of violence etc, etc. Any attempt to support female victims of male domestic abuse, any attempts to reduce male offending which do not take into account the gendered social context are doomed to failure.
But here’s the twist. Exactly the same is true of male victims of female violence. Any model which does not recognise that their situation and circumstances are profoundly affected by their gender is similarly doomed to fail. Male victims might well have profoundly different support needs, society will view their victimisation entirely differently, just as it will consider their abusers profoundly differently. To imagine we can simply wish away all our gender roles and traits is fanciful.
Crucially, this logic applies to the gender of both victim and perpetrator. Gender inclusive policies would acknowledge and incorporate same-sex domestic violence. We have to note that some of those least well served by our current approach to partner violence are LGBT people, who tend to be excluded from both traditional, ideological feminist approaches to domestic violence and the ‘last taboo’ narrative around male victims of female abusers.
To spell it out, I am proposing that advocates for male victims should accept and embrace the ideological and practical structures in place around violence against women and girls while demanding a parallel, complementary policy for other victims. The problem for male victims and survivors of domestic violence (the same applies to sexual abuse) is not that there exists a policy on preventing violence against women and girls – the problem is that they find themselves squeezed into the same box where they manifestly do not belong. (To revisit a familiar example, this is how we end up in the surreal situation of having crimes committed against men and boys included and quantified in a CPS report into Violence Against Women and Girls.)
What might this look like n practice? It might mean a national policy within the Department of Education to prevent violence against men and boys. It might mean demanding a minister for men’s health within the Department of Health. It means supporting and joining the struggles against ongoing cuts to domestic violence charities, campaigns and services whether they are primarily helping women, men or LGBT communities. It means we resist the temptation to object to policies aimed specifically at helping women and girls, and instead demand policies of our own.
Outside the bigoted minds of a few domestic violence denialists, it is now established and accepted that significant numbers of men are at risk of abuse in their homes and relationships. It is time to move on from insisting that male victims are out there and start demanding something be done about it.