Define the Line: let’s end domestic abuse

By Emma Alessandri

New “Define the Line” study by Avon and the national domestic violence charity Refuge has produced alarming results. 56% of 16-21 year-olds have experienced controlling behaviour from a partner. Of those who have experienced such behaviours, 49% said they had felt intimidated, humiliated or worthless. The research has also revealed that roughly 1 in 3 young people find it difficult to distinguish caring behaviours from controlling ones. Even more alarmingly, 34% of 16-21 year olds think that non-physical coercive control, criminalised in the UK in 2015, is normal and acceptable. Over a third of those interviewed said they would not even know who to ask for support.

These findings depict a disturbing reality; more than half of young people have experienced domestic violence. Many still fail to recognise themselves as victims and do not seek help. Those who do seek help may struggle to find it. In order to raise awareness and reach out to as many young people as possible, Refuge has collaborated with Frances. The BRIT-nominated singer and songwriter has released a cartoon style video for her single ‘Grow,’ based on the true story of Melanie, survivor and Refuge service user. The protagonist gets through her days in complete isolation and comes home to her violent partner every night. Everything finally changes for the better when she meets a character representing Refuge, who helps her to rebuild her life. The video can be accessed here.

This heart-breaking short movie sends a powerful message, reinforced by the melancholic chords of ‘Grow’: “when the world cannot see what you are going through, Refuge can.” Frances is urging people to “share it around as much as possible, [because] you never know who you might help.” So far, the video has been viewed more than 157,000 times and truly has the potential to address those who do not know where to look for help. 

However, the research study has also brought to light another worrying aspect of abusive dynamics, that is, the failure to recognise abuse itself.  While this video will hopefully reach those who are fully aware of their condition, something must be done for those who cannot even acknowledge the gravity of their situation. This campaign aims to establish that “domestic violence is more than broken bones and bruises.” Teaching young people to unambiguously identify controlling behaviours, even when physical violence is not involved, is “the first step to access support.” “Young people must be given a clear message,” says Sandra Horley, CEO of Refuge.

How to “define the line,” then? Sticking to the definition is probably the best way to start. Non-physical coercive control, according to sociologist and award-winning researcher Evan Stark, who first formulated this concept, is any behaviour aiming to stifle the victim’s freedom. I recently happened to watch Jessica Romoff and Mila Cuda masterfully performing a poem on Def Poetry Jam, a spoken word poetry television series presented by Russell Simmons. This poem, called ‘Exes’ provides teenage girls with an accurate description of what an abusive relationship actually is. “Love is not jealousy dressed as protection” the two girls shout together at the most dramatic peak of their performance. The powerful video can be accessed here.

I remember this, paradoxically, not for the performance itself, but for a 5000+ liked comment made by an outraged user. He tried to argue that men may become controlling when they have been previously cheated on by a beloved ex girlfriend. If a man abuses a woman, in other words, it is not always his fault; it may be another woman’s fault. Enlightening.

I do agree it is not always a man’s fault. I do agree, not because of what this fine thinker said in his embarrassingly successful comment, but because men can be and are victims of abuse as well. Although both the ‘Grow’ video and ‘Exes’ poem address women, who in fact are the most common targets of domestic violence, the study by Avon collected data from both women and men. Regardless of gender, no reason will ever be a justifiable one for terrorising another human being. How can anybody not understand this?

Having to remind people that freedom is a fundamental human right is utterly exasperating. “Do people really need to hear this?” I keep asking myself whilst writing this article. “Yes, they do,” suggest the circumstances. Didn’t I just read a comment blaming women for the abuse they receive at the hands of others? Ultimately, I am only saying that criminals must be condemned for their crimes. We simply must recognise that domestic abuse is a crime.

“I was so captivated by the house he built for me I did not notice the locked door” is another evocative line from ‘Exes.’ Refuge is telling women (and men) that they have every right to escape. I would also say that this is what defines the line; they can build a house, or the thickest wall, and set the rules. What they are not allowed to do is prevent you from breaking them all.

Photograph: Refuge

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