Co-written with guest blogger Not Leon Jackson, with thanks to everyone who contributed thoughts
Content/Trigger Warning: discussion of domestic abuse and language that can be considered apologism for perpetrators
Since an article by Glasgow rapper-turned-blogger Loki titled “You can’t stop domestic violence unless you help men to change” was published by STV on Friday, it’s fair to say a shitstorm has ensued. Despite a desire to ‘push boundaries’ for a positive outcome, the piece ends up reinforcing dangerous and widely-held myths about what abuse is, who perpetrates it and how survivors should deal with it.
Before I get in to it, I want to share a few resources I think are important, and please feel free to leave more in the comments.
Murdered By My Boyfriend (BBC Three dramatisation of the real story of Casey Brittle)
Everyday Terrorism: How Fear Works in Domestic Abuse (Scottish Women’s Aid research)
Trauma: Information for Survivors of Sexual Violence (Rape Crisis Scotland resource)
A Woman’s Story: My Personal Experience of Going Through the Policing and Judicial System after being Raped (Edinburgh Rape Crisis report)
I want to acknowledge Loki’s disclosure since the original article was published that he has survived domestic abuse as a child and in a previous relationship with a woman. Loki is of course entitled to speak to his own experiences and no one should ever question a survivor’s story or their right to tell it. In his piece, he makes a choice instead to speak mainly and in general terms to the issue of men’s coercive control and violence against women, which we know constitutes the majority of domestic abuse happening in Scotland right now. In doing so, he has been given a pretty huge platform, one that women who have survived abuse are rarely provided. The piece aims to ‘debunk’ a narrative that he suggests is prevalent in society – boiled down, that abusers largely know what they are doing and make a choice to do it. Loki’s article describes abusers and their behaviour using all of the following terms: “delusional”, “self deception”, “unaware”, “failed coping strategies”, “insecurity”, “paranoia”, “irrationality”, “fear based impulses” and “poor emotional literacy”. Words that don’t feature include “accountable”, “culpable” and “choice”.
In reality he is not speaking about what society at large thinks about abuse, he is challenging the women-centred and women-led narrative that organisations such as Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis have been working on for decades. He misrepresents this narrative – suggesting that a “soap opera caricature” of abusers is present, despite those organisations being at the forefront of challenging the stereotype of the abuser as a scary monster somewhere else who doesn’t live normally among our families and friends. We do need to humanise our perception of abusers so that we can recognise the signs and take action to protect survivors. But that doesn’t need to take the form of prioritising empathy for perpetrators and making this paramount in our approach.
So what is domestic abuse? Let’s start here: it’s a system of behaviours, words and actions designed to create the intended outcome of control over your partner. As a system of control, it’s completely rational – it makes perfect sense to behave in the seemingly “irrational” (to outsiders) ways that abusers do when your goal is to control how someone else behaves, thinks and relates to you and others. That’s not to say that abusers deliberately pre-plan every action or are some kind of one dimensional Disney villain, but that every abusive action – whether they are conscious of it or not – serves a functional purpose, to exert control and destabilise the person on the receiving end. Whether they’re improvising tactics in a chaotic and unpredictable manner, or they spend hours obsessively and calculatedly monitoring, gaslighting and negging their partners, it all works towards the same end goal, more control. Abusers come to quickly understand their audiences – what will or won’t be enabled and explained away in certain company – and adjust their tactics accordingly. This is what we mean when we say their behaviour is controlled.
There is an assumption in Loki’s article that lots of, if not most, domestic abuse is ‘situational’. This is absolutely at odds with what organisations who work with survivors and also those who work with perpetrators know to be true. It is far more common to find perpetrators – both young and old – with extensive patterns of abusive behaviours and a trail of abused partners in their wake. The Disclosure Scheme for Domestic Violence (Clare’s Law) now allows anyone with a concern that their partner or the partner of someone close to them may have a recorded history of domestic abuse to ask for the relevant police records. Of course, this can’t account for the majority of abusers who haven’t had police involvement. But the need for the new law illustrates the scale of the problem.
Further pseudoscientific bollocks continues as Loki repeats the harmful myth that most perpetrators are themselves survivors of abuse in childhood or beyond. This is simply not borne out in fact and if surviving abuse was the root cause of becoming a perpetrator, the majority of perpetrators would be women. It’s a myth in much the same vein as “homophobes are actually just closeted” – taking blame out of the hands of people who make choices to oppress and abuse and passing the buck on to survivors. In the context of domestic abuse, only one person is being routinely traumatised by the deliberate action of the other. Yet the trauma we’re directed to and asked to understand is trauma that mibby, probably, surely, must’ve taken place somewhere within the perpetrator’s past. The weight and significance given to trauma when it’s the mibby-mibby-not-but-probably trauma of the perpetrator is big enough and heavy enough to eclipse the trauma a perpetrator’s partner is currently surviving day-to-day.
“All it takes is a communication breakdown between two people and the gloves can come off pretty quickly in a game of psychological tug-of-war where there’s always a subtext to everything that happens … In these unhealthy relationships problems are rarely addressed openly and honestly. People don’t express themselves clearly or state their needs and so the relationship becomes a minefield fraught with anxiety and resentment where the true nature of the problem is always obscured.”
In domestic abuse there is a distinct and unwavering power imbalance in the perpetrator’s favour. That does not change no matter how “anxious” an abuser is. To call it a “minefield” implies both victim and perpetrator are endangered, equally at the mercy of their environment and ill-equipped to navigate their way through it. It’s a minefield that the perpetrator has designed, maintains and then gets to sit outside of and watch while their partner must try to survive it – and let’s be very clear that there is no way for survivors to make their way through. The mines move and new mines appear underfoot where they’ve never been before, even if you’re standing still.
Describing domestic abuse as a “psychological tug of war” makes it sound like a fight. A back and forth, tit-for-tat where power is regularly shifting from one side to another and it really depends on the strength of your pull or the validity of your argument. When abuse is reframed as an “unhealthy relationship” it conveys a sense of equality that isn’t there – and dresses up systematic and deliberate control of partners by perpetrators as more of an unfortunate pairing: that wild couple you know who can’t seem to stop fighting.
Assigning power to survivors where there is none not only undermines and dismisses lived experiences of survivors, it’s one actual ginger baw hair away from saying survivors aren’t to be trusted, are probably lying, and are definitely exaggerating. Distributing power and fault evenly in retrospect (like Oprah giving out cars) is old school. Don’t join in.
Surviving domestic abuse means exactly that – doing what you can to survive your abuser and the environment they control. You are not at war, you’re under siege. And there’s no battle for power because power isn’t up for grabs. So aye, Loki, it’s dead like a tug of war except one person hasn’t got a grip of any rope, couldn’t pull it if they did, and actually, the rope isn’t even fucking there. This narrative gives arms and legs to the already relentless self-blame that makes survivors ask themselves was some of it my fault?
“It’s in these emotionally stilted conditions that abusive relationships are often cultivated.”
In tweets, Loki insists he is not talking about when people are living in fear but rather the time prior to abusive behaviour beginning. But in very few cases does this “prior” period exist in any meaningful way, rather there is a time when the abuser conceals their true nature. The Manic Pixie Dream Abuser of Loki’s telling who finds themselves brought to a point where they ‘snap’ and fundamentally change as a person is very rare – and betrays a misunderstanding of abuse as being somehow, somewhere rooted in the abused partner’s behaviour. In the most widely criticised line of the article, Loki says “indeed, there may be a genuine issue at play for which the female has to take responsibility”. The most worrying thing about this is knowing the large number of women who are currently being abused by their partners in Scotland, who are likely to see this on a mainstream news source like STV, and may feel they have to take it on board. I can’t say strongly enough that there is nothing you ever have or haven’t done that makes being abused even partly your responsibility.
This wasn’t presented as Loki’s personal account based on experience – this was his all singing (all rapping) all dancing, ‘how we solve a problem like domestic abuse’. When it comes to trauma you don’t get to be careless when you’re trying to be general. If the shit you’re spouting is being spouted loud enough to make one thread of self-doubt in a survivor’s mind stronger, it’s dangerous. It’s hard enough when you’ve got everyone and their da telling you that you really probably played a part in traumatising yourself. There’s no space here for misreadings or lazy language or ‘not meaning it like that’.
“Acknowledging this, however, is still relatively taboo. In the public mind the perpetrator is a binary villain who oscillates between pure evil and self-serving remorse; a calculated tyranny orchestrating and executing a devious master plan. But, controversial as it is, many abusers don’t see themselves as the villain of the piece. In fact, they often feel persecuted and misunderstood — not only by their partners but by a system conspiring against them.”
Possibly the most dangerous part of Loki’s article is the assertion there’s something “taboo” about what he’s saying. In fact his words reflect and regurgitate already mainstream ideas. I don’t recognise the world Loki’s presenting – I see a world where common opinion holds that perpetrators must have been provoked in some way or another and survivors are liars and slags. Again and again we are asked to consider – what pushed them too far? They may have acted badly but what ‘made’ them do it? This is illustrated in the staggeringly low conviction rates for rape and domestic abuse, the aggressive and misogynist questioning of survivors in court, the trial by media of survivors such as Amber Heard and the reporting of the murder of Clodagh Hawe and her sons in Cavan last month. Rather than pondering why abusers erroneously believe a system that is entirely stacked in their favour is actually “conspiring against them”, we should focus on how we can fix the system that REALLY IS conspiring against survivors. What we should be asking first is – what can we do to let survivors know that they shouldn’t and don’t have to live with this, and how can we make our society a safer space to speak out against abuse?
The mental health of survivors is always sidelined in this rush to pathologise and empathise with what ‘makes’ someone abuse. There is woeful underfunding for mental health, addiction and survivors support services, limiting the help available for those living with abuse or dealing with the aftermath of trauma. Services are disjointed and not holistic and even if you manage to get access to help it can take years of working with multiple services to even start to untangle and see with clarity incidents that occurred.
Survivors should not be treated as a footnote, collateral damage collected along the way in an abuser’s path to becoming a better person who doesn’t abuse so much because they talk about their feelings a bit more now or something. I can think of three things that need to be prioritised well above coddling a perpetrator towards some realisation of wrongdoing: 1) supporting survivors to get out alive and heal from trauma – if you think the hard bit stops once you get out you’re sorely mistaken, 2) preventative education in schools, colleges, unis, workplaces on challenging power dynamics including gendered inequality that enable abuse to thrive, 3) challenging widely held views about abuse, women and gender roles within society. All of these things are likely to have a much bigger positive long term impact than demanding even more centring of the perpetrator.
OF COURSE that is not to say that I think there is no place for resources to assist abusers to make positive changes in their lives. Contrary to what Loki implies, resources which aim to facilitate this already exist. They can phone the Respect helpline for advice on making changes. Scottish Government’s Caledonian programme works with convicted offenders on all of the areas of reducing their risk of reoffending that Loki implies aren’t being considered by society. But it’s very difficult to get a perpetrator to accept responsibility, not because no one is listening to and understanding them but because they feel entitled to control and society remains structured in a way that enables them to carry on without culpability. Sacro’s Positive Intervention Programme offered a voluntary opportunity for perpetrators not yet involved with the criminal justice system to learn about the dynamics of abuse and make changes to their behaviour. The programme no longer exists due to lack of funding – which suggests they weren’t able to get the numbers to justify the service. There is support is out there for abusers that they don’t want. Survivors do want support, but organisations are underfunded, subject to annual funding reviews and waiting lists are long. Do you see the connective thread between Loki’s focus on ‘fixing’ abusers over centring survivors, and how this plays out in the wider context?
The idea that we don’t try enough to understand the abuser’s perspective particularly rankles when the same people lauding Loki’s article on twitter consistently argue against creating environments in which it is safe and possible for abuse survivors to put their head above the parapet and speak freely about their experiences. If you don’t support the concept of safe spaces and you think content/trigger warnings are for mollycoddled anti-free speech students then you don’t want survivors voices to be heard, full stop. A good ally would privilege voices of experience over imagined retellings of the mindset of an abuser like Loki’s recent single ‘Gaslight’. I don’t really care that men might want to listen more to what Loki has to say than what a woman might tell them about her own experience. Instead of resigning ourselves to that, we should be challenging why no one wants to listen to women’s stories and do what we can to share and make sure their voices are heard louder. That starts with men like Loki giving up a bit of airtime.
Ultimately, if you truly care about positive outcomes for perpetrators and especially for survivors of their abuse, the only thing you can advocate is sustained and consistent accountability. Stop trying to crack the code of how we can arrange it so that abusers don’t have to be pariahs – and if you really believe that they already are then I think you wilfully haven’t been listening.