My experience of becoming aware of domestic violence was much like Baroness Scotland QC’s. At the inaugural meeting of the Global Foundation for the Elimination of Domestic Violence Youth Council two months ago, she spoke passionately about what a loving family she’d grown up in, with a kind and caring father and several wonderful brothers, and that when she discovered that this wasn’t every woman’s experience of men, she was utterly shocked. And when I was younger, I felt much the same – being male myself, I couldn’t understand how any man could possibly abuse a woman, or another man. I had no desire to do so, so why should they?
My father, too, was never violent. And my mother was so loving and self-sacrificing that I went through much of my childhood oblivious to the possibility that some women could be abusive to their closest family members. It wasn’t until I began to read more on the topic, and until several of my friends opened up about personal experiences they’d previously kept quiet about out of misguided shame and fear, that I began to realise just how endemic domestic violence is in our society.
I’m quite aware that a lot needs to be done to educate young people about the realities of domestic abuse, in all its forms – there are so many pernicious myths out there, so many blinkered mind-sets that need changing. One of my most striking school memories is being told while in the sixth form that a class a few years below me had been shown the Home Office’s anti-rape campaign video in their PSHE class.
A large number of the class - including many girls – had disagreed that it was rape, or even that it was abuse. Because the girl had kissed him first, they reasoned, he had the right to do what he wanted. And because she didn’t manage to overpower him, this must have meant that she ‘wanted it all along’. To me, this was clearly wrong – just the same as arguing that a woman invites rape if she wears a short skirt – but to so many others, it had become a truism.
And even among those who seemed to be more understanding, common myths and prejudices still reared their ugly heads. I remember being told that men could not suffer domestic violence, and that if they did, they’d brought it on themselves, and then that even if they hadn’t, it couldn’t possibly, ever be as severe or as dangerous as abuse inflicted on a woman. I remember being told that men could never suffer sexual assault from a woman, because they ‘must have enjoyed themselves’.
Rarely, either, have I ever heard people acknowledge how domestic violence affects children – who, as Baroness Scotland rightly pointed out, are the silent victims of domestic violence. Far too many people still see domestic violence as an issue which takes place exclusively between two people in a heterosexual relationship, from a low socio-economic background, perpetrated by the man against the woman. They fail to see the bigger picture – to realise that people around the couple get hurt too, including, in many cases, their own children (and other people’s children too), but also other family members, or even unrelated friends and lodgers. No man is an island, after all, and no woman either – what beings as one-on-one partner violence can often spill outward, affecting more lives that you’d think possible.
Furthermore, too many people still fail to grasp that everybody is at risk from domestic violence. Being rich won’t protect you. Being white, Asian, or black won’t protect you. Being male might make you less likely to suffer domestic violence, but it’s no safety net. Being LGBT won’t protect you – in fact, there are less services for LGBT sufferers. There is no section of the population which is safe, no section which can rule itself out from risk.
So that, in a nutshell, is why I joined the council – because I’m aware that domestic violence is far more complex and pervasive than many believe. And because I know that if you don’t challenge falsehoods, they fester, and by festering they damage the lives and life chances of others. I’m no wide-eyed idealist. These issues can’t be dealt with overnight, and there really aren’t any easy answers. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done, or that nothing should be done. The elimination of domestic violence is a massive task – but I wouldn’t be part of this council if I didn’t think it was doable. If we just shrug our shoulders and let abuse carry on because it’s ‘how the world works’, who are we helping? Nobody.
And helping nobody isn’t a choice I’m prepared to make.