Every person’s perception of what constitutes abuse is different. Some victims stay and accept their predilection, whilst others fight and/or leave. Some victims succeed in leaving, whilst others are killed in the process. Domestic abuse has statutory definitions that give an objective scope which applies to everyone in the jurisdiction, whether they have insight into their realities or not. According to the Crown Prosecution Service (n.d.), domestic abuse can be defined as ‘any incident of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of their gender or sexuality’. This short definition has it within its scope that domestic abuse is something that happens in everyday life.
Domestic abuse does not always entail physical violence. Psychological abuse has been hypernormalised in our societies, and every day forms of sadism are quite common and ingrained in policies and procedures. Furthermore, domestic abuse is relevant to the police, and thinking that it should stay behind closed doors is another misconception. Domestic abuse happens all the time, everywhere, and thinking that it is rare is another misconception. Domestic abuse is not always a crime of passion, and sometimes it is slow, prolonged and premeditated. Thinking that domestic abuse is always a loss of control is a misconception. Disagreements are not equivalent to abuse. Whilst disagreements are normal, abuse is not normal. Moreover, thinking that domestic abuse is only perpetuated by strangers is another major misconception. Finally, domestic abuse happens to all groups and classes of society. Assuming that it only happens to poor people is another misconception.
Globally, the United Nations (n.d) defined domestic abuse as ‘a pattern of behaviour in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. Abuse is physical, sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure, or wound someone. Domestic abuse can happen to anyone of any race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender. It can occur within a range of relationships including couples who are married, living together or dating. Domestic violence affects people of all socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels’. Based on this definition, it can be said that domestic abuse is a form of sadism, as the latter is all about the subjugation of the victim.
Locally, the Devon & Cornwall Police (2020) define domestic abuse as ‘the misuse of power and control by one person over another. This controlling behaviour may be exerted in various ways, such as through physical violence, emotional and/or psychological manipulation, forcing sexual acts or taking over your finances. It can begin at any time, can be obvious or subtle and can happen suddenly or gradually. It can happen to anyone regardless of class, age, race, religion, culture, disability, sexual orientation or lifestyle’. Based on this definition, it can be said that those who engage in domestic abuse are also engaging in sadistic behaviour.
There are some misconceptions about victims of domestic abuse, such as believing that the victim wants to be abused because they are not able to leave the relationship, that the victim should leave the relationship if they want help from statutory services, that the victim is at fault for the criminogenic behaviours of their abuser, that only women are victims of domestic abuse, that women lie about their abuse, that some people/women are attracted to abusive people/men, and that some people like the violence in their relationship (e.g. rough sex defence). For instance, the Home Office (2022) published a policy paper explicitly stating that ‘consent to serious harm for sexual gratification’ is not a defence. Justice Minister Alex Chalk is cited saying ‘No death or other serious injury – whatever the circumstances – should be defended as ‘rough sex gone wrong’ which is why we are making it absolutely clear that this is never acceptable. Perpetrators of these crimes should be under no illusions – their actions will never be justifiable in any way, and they will be pursued rigorously through the courts to seek justice for victims and their families’. This means that even if a person consents to rough sex, if their partner abuses them to the point actual bodily harm (ABH), then this is by law a crime. This will give women more clarity on what constitutes appropriate touch, sex, and when to identify abuse and report abuse. Furthemrore, Keir Starmer (2013) published an article on The Guardian stating that false allegations of rape and domestic violence were rare. This shows the importance of taking all allegations seriously.
What’s more, there are also misconceptions about the perpetrator such as believing that alcohol and drugs excuse such behaviours, that their abusive childhoods justify their behaviours, that mental health problems excuse domestic abuse, that they only attack because they are stressed out, that it is only a loss of temper on the abuser’s part, that just because they engage in domestic abuse does not mean they are bad parents (such as a father who abuses a mother and a child witnesses it), and that all abusers are men.
The National Office for Statistics (ONS; 2021a) reported in November that domestic abuse as recorded by the police in England and Wales rose by 6%. There were 845, 734 events. There were 33 arrests per 100 cases. Yet, even though these rates increased, referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decreased by 3%. Furthermore, convictions decreased by 70%. This shocking evidence proves that even though the problem is increasing, the UK state apparatus is dealing less and less with the problem. The ONS (2021b) reports that 37.7% of offences were of violence against the person, and 18.8% of offences were of sexual nature. 72.3% of victims of violence were female whilst 27.7% were male, and 93.4% of victims of sexual offences were female, whilst only 6.6% were male. This shows that the issue of violence against women in England and Wales is far from being resolved.
Moreover, moving more locally, the ONS (2021b) reports that there were 20,905 crimes of domestic abuse reported to the Devon & Cornwall police in the year ending 2021. This accounted for a 23.1% of total recorded crime. This saw a significant longitudinal increase in domestic abuse related crime from previous years. It went from 13.8% in the year ending in 2016 to 23.1% in 2021, increasing by over 9% in the past 5 years. There were 16, 464 offences of violence against the person, accounting for 41.1% of domestic abuse related crimes. This also saw a significant increase in the past few years.
There are four aspects that influence perceptions of domestic abuse: (1) the media, which often distorts information by not always identifying incidents of domestic abuse, sensationalising the reality of more subtle abuse and only focusing on more violent crime. Furthermore, the media also downplays the role of the perpetrator and sometimes attributes responsibility to the victim suggesting that the perpetrator was triggered. Moreover, because we live in a patriarchal world, the media sometimes covers more stories of violence against men, even though violence against women is most common. Finally, the media also sensationalises class, making it look like domestic abuse only happens in poor families; (2) religion, which has sets of dysfunctional beliefs which reinforce abusive practice such as the idea that honour-based abuse or forced marriage is acceptable, that women are inferior and should be submissive to men, that men as family heads should take disciplinary action at home against the rest of the family, that divorce is wrong, and that homosexuality is a sin; (3) culture, which has social norms that directly impact on perceptions of domestic abuse such as the ideas that men should assert power over women because they are ‘superior’, that the restriction of women’s movements/activities is acceptable, that women should accept physical violence as a method for conflict resolution, that women are responsible for the marriage working, that domestic abuse should never be spoken about (i.e. making it a taboo topic), that anyone who wants divorce should be ashamed of themselves, that brides should be bought and exchanged as if they were cattle (e.g. Iraq), that honour is dependent on female sexual behaviour, and that traditions such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation are normal; and (4) personal experience which influences perceptions of relationships, especially when people have lived experience in domestic abuse. Depending on their level of insight, some may fully reject abusive behaviour whilst others might accept it as a normal part of life.
Did you know…
The Matrimonial Causes Act (1978) made it possible for women to be legally separated from their abusive husbands, and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act (1976) enabled women to apply for court orders against their abusive husbands. In 1985, there were laws against female genital mutilation. In 1994 rape became illegal within a marriage, and in 2004 common assault became an arrestable offence. Police stations created dedicated Domestic Violence Units with specialist staff in the late 80s and early 90s. Moreover, the Protection from Harassment Act (1997) implemented measures against stalking and threats of violence, and the Domestic Violence, Crime, and Victims Act (2004) made stricter sentences so couples of the same sex could also apply for injunctions. In 2002, children were allowed to be removed from the home if they were witnesses of domestic abuse. In 2014, Clare’s law (named after Clare Wood) allowed the police to give details to potential victims of their partner’s abusive history in order to prevent abuse. In 2015 coercive control and revenge porn became illegal, and finally, the Domestic Abuse Act (2021) created a statutory definition of domestic abuse.
Crown Prosecution Service (n.d.) ‘Foreword From Kate Brown, CPS Lead for Domestic Abuse’, Domestic Abuse [Online]. Available at https://www.cps.gov.uk/crime-info/domestic-abuse (accessed 7th February 2022).
Devon & Cornwall Police (2020) ‘What is domestic abuse?’, 2nd October [Online]. Available at https://www.devon-cornwall.police.uk/advice/threat-assault-abuse/domestic-abuse/what-is-domestic-abuse/ (accessed 7th February 2022).
Home Office (2022) ‘Consent to serious harm for sexual gratification not a defence’, GOV.UK, 31 January [Online]. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/domestic-abuse-bill-2020-factsheets/consent-to-serious-harm-for-sexual-gratification-not-a-defence (accessed 12 February 2022).
Office for National Statistics (2021a) ‘Domestic abuse in England and Wales Overview: November 2021’, 24 November [Online]. Available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesoverview/november2021 (accessed 12th February 2022).
Office for National Statistics (2021b) ‘Domestic abuse prevalence and victim characteristics’, 24 November [Online]. Available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/datasets/domesticabuseprevalenceandvictimcharacteristicsappendixtables (accessed 12 February 2022).
Starmer (2013) ‘False allegations of rape and domestic violence are few and far between’, The Guardian, 13 March [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/13/false-allegations-rape-domestic-violence-rare (accessed 12 Feberuary 2022).
United Nations (n.d.) ‘What is Domestic Abuse’ [Online]. Available at https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/what-is-domestic-abuse (accessed 7th February 2022).