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Survivors of all forms of domestic and sexual abuse come under a lot of pressure to ‘move on’ and ‘get over it’. Sometimes this comes from family, friends and partners who are used to us being strong, and find it difficult to deal with us when we are vulnerable. When we are dealing with the effects of the abuse we are less available to provide emotional support to those around us, and this can be hard for them to get used to. Our loved ones often desperately want us to go ‘back to normal’, and find it hard to accept that we will never be able to go back to the person we were before we were abused, or before we began to speak out about the abuse. Healing takes time, but for those around us if we don’t seem to be getting ‘better’ or making progress it can feel as if they are not doing enough. Advice not to dwell on things, or to be grateful that it’s over now, is well-meaning but can cause extra distress for survivors as it makes us feel that we are being selfish in trying to express and deal with the effects of abuse or that there’s something wrong with the way we feel.

The pressure can also come from the media – for example in soaps characters will have a ‘rape’ storyline for a few episodes and then once the storyline is over this aspect of their experience is never referred to again. In other TV dramas, an episode will start with a character getting raped or having memories of childhood abuse and end with her telling her family (who of course are always supportive and believe her). She is then able to go ‘back to normal’ and again her experience is never referred to in future episodes – creating a myth that ‘telling someone’ is the end of a difficult process when in fact it is often the start. I have also read accounts of survivors’ experiences in magazines which often end with “and then I met my wonderful husband Bob, had 2.4 kids and lived happily ever after,” suggesting that all we need is a new non-abusive partner and everything will be fine.

Finally, there is pressure from ourselves. We internalise all of these messages. We have also been told by our abuser that our feelings are unimportant, we have to deal with them ourselves and not trouble others with them, that we are hysterical/needy/a burden. I don’t know how common this is, but in my relationship if I was upset about something I would confide in my abuser, and if she felt that it was something worth being upset about she would comfort me, and if not she would belittle and ignore me. This created a pattern where even now I still feel that I have to get my emotions validated by other people who will judge whether they are worthy of their time and concern, rather than my feelings being important in and of themselves. This is a problem when those other people are telling me to hurry up and move on.

Healing takes time. Once we have overcome the practical problems of getting away from an abuser – whether that’s changing the locks, closing the joint bank account, or moving into a refuge – we are still left with dealing with the consequences of months or years of having our self-esteem destroyed, our independence eaten away, and we are also left dealing with painful and traumatic memories of rape and violence which we often had to suppress during the relationship. I remember the first time I phoned the national domestic violence helpline:

“I’m sorry to bother you, I should be over it by now.”

“Recovering from abuse takes time – how long ago did you leave your partner?” 

“Four hours ago – I can’t understand why I’m not over it yet!”

There are so many everyday incidents which make me realise how bad things were, or how much abusive behaviour has become normal to me. Like the other week when a friend stayed over  – it took me an hour to prepare her breakfast (my sausage-frying skills leave something to be desired), and to my astonishment instead of sulking or ranting at me for taking so long, she said “Thanks, this looks great.” Or last week when I had to tell the person I live with that our electricity bill was going up – again, I’d prepared myself for a sulking and ranting session and instead she said “That’s annoying, but thanks for calling the electricity company and sorting out the direct debit.” Little moments like these make me realise retrospectively how unacceptable and shitty my ex’s behaviour was, and can be quite shocking and upsetting.

While dealing with any kind of emotional trauma takes time, I do think there are good reasons why sexual and domestic violence survivors in particular often find themselves still angry and banging on about it years later, many of which are listed in this powerful article. Our abuse is not understood. It is not accepted. We have to choose between not telling people, or telling them and dealing with ignorant reactions. We have to read every day in the papers about rapists and abusers being found not guilty, of women being accused of ‘crying rape’ and disbelieved, of pathetically short sentences. We have to hear our friends making rape jokes in the pub, and watch as everyone laughs. We have to stay silent. Many of us never meet other survivors and never have the chance to share our experiences, and feel as if we are the only person this has ever happened to, that we will never be over it, we will never be normal. But we ARE normal, if by ‘normal’ we mean ‘common’. 1 in 4 women in the UK experience domestic violence. There are millions of survivors, but still our experiences are ignored, disbelieved, over-simplified or reduced to unhelpful stereotypes by the media. I feel ready now to move on from my abuse, but I can’t until the society I live in and the people around me move on in their attitudes to sexual and domestic violence and their treatment of survivors.

One of the many reasons why it took me so long to realise that my relationship was abusive was that I had just never heard of the idea that women could be perpetrators of domestic and sexual abuse. The idea of an abusive woman is one that makes a lot of us feel uncomfortable as it completely goes against our society’s portrayal of women as caring, motherly, docile and passive.

This means that when there are high-profile cases of women perpetrating or facilitating violence or abuse, the media rushes to portray them as utter monsters, extreme aberrations who have violated the rules of femininity in the most horrifying way possible. They are vilified to a far greater extent than the men who perpetrated the violence – Maxine Carr, Myra Hindley and Vanessa George attracted far more vitriol than Ian Huntley, Ian Brady and Colin Blanchard. This is not helpful for survivors as it portrays female abusers as rare, grotesque extremes when the reality is that as with male abusers, they are not easy to spot – they aren’t obviously different from other people on a day-to-day level and often lead conventional lives with partners and children. Abusers are not ‘other’, they are ‘our’ partners, parents or friends.

Because of the way female abusers are demonised in the media while male domestic and sexual violence is minimised, excused or most often not reported on at all, sometimes feminists will react against this by saying that female abusers are ‘often controlled by a man’, ‘usually have been abused themselves’ or are ‘different’ to male abusers. Again this is not helpful for survivors. We need to place full responsibility for abuse with abusers. Every individual abuser, male or female, makes a choice to do what they do, to cross a line morally. It is also important not to perpetuate the myth that abusers have often been abused themselves – survivors have enough to deal with without being told that we’re likely to go on to become abusers, and this simply isn’t true – if it was, there would be far more female perpetrators than male as more women and girls experience sexual and domestic abuse. ‘I only do it because I was abused as a child’ is just another excuse from perpetrators which we must not buy into – the vast majority of survivors do not choose to later become perpetrators.

Most domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women, because we live in a society where being male continues to be associated with being powerful and in control, where our view of sexuality is not yet woman-centred, where science tells us that men are ‘naturally’ violent, where women are encouraged to put the needs of others before their own while men are not, where men in straight relationship are likely to earn more and so are more able to perpetrate financial abuse….. and so on…. However, when speaking or writing about domestic abuse, we do need to acknowledge that it takes place in same-sex relationships and that women can be perpetrators. This fact needs to be more commonly known if we are to raise awareness and prevent abuse in lesbian relationships. 

The fact that some abusers are women does not contradict the concept of services for survivors being women-only. I would like to see a refuge specifically for women who have experienced same-sex domestic abuse. I didn’t turn to my local refuge for help because I was afraid of being the only lesbian, that I would experience homophobia from the other women there or from staff, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and that as a woman my partner would find it easier to track me down, make phone calls pretending to be me, gain entry to the refuge etc.  A specialist refuge could deal with a lot of these problems. Similarly, a men-only refuge could help gay and bi men who have experienced domestic abuse. But these fantasy (for now) LGBT refuges compliment and build on the incredible work done by the women’s refuge movement in the last 40 years, and women-only refuges provide amazing support to thousands of women and children escaping male violence every year.

Nor does the existence of female abusers contradict the idea that we can use feminism and the concept of gender inequality to understand domestic abuse. Abusers in same-sex relationships appropriate concepts of gender and power to perpetrate their abuse. For example, my partner used the idea that sex is about power, and requires a dominant/active and submissive/passive role, to justify raping me. She appropriated male power to perpetrate abuse. When we have created a society which does not condone abuse, control and violence, which does not celebrate power, which does not minimise and excuse abuse, which does not associate sex with domination and eroticise power dynamics… when we have created this feminist society, there will be no more abusers, male or female. There will be no more domestic or sexual abuse. This will not happen without feminism, and it will not happen until we as feminists develop our understanding of domestic abuse in lesbian relationships and incorporate it into what we already know about gender and violence.

1.1.12 – Edit: I just came across a really good blog post from 2008 addressing women who are abusive/violent. I am so pleased to see another blogger writing about the need for us to not make excuses for abusers because they happen to be women or waste any understanding or empathy on abusers which should be going to survivors!

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