It’s time to flip the sexist script
Tuesday 20th July 2021: Today, Women’s Aid and the University of Bristol publish new research, “Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse. Evidence for Policy and Practice”. Lizzie McCarthy and Sarah Davidge explain why it is vital that we recognise the role sexism and misogyny play in setting the scene for domestic abuse.
At Women’s Aid we often get asked, ‘why do you say domestic abuse is gendered?’
Our answer would be that even though anyone can experience domestic abuse and should have access to appropriate support, the evidence shows us that there is a disproportionate impact on women. We know that women are more likely to experience domestic abuse, are more likely to be subjected to coercive control (those abusive actions that restrict personal freedom and instil fear) and are more likely to be seriously physically and mentally harmed or killed. The kinds of support they need also tend to be very different. See the Safe blog from November 2020, Why data matters when talking about domestic abuse.
The question we ask is, why are women so much more likely to experience abuse and why is this experience so different to men?
The answer is because domestic abuse perpetrated by men against women is part of wider sexism and misogyny. It is rooted in women’s unequal status in society and is part of the wider social problem of male violence against women and girls. The root causes of domestic abuse are different for women and so the responses to tackling that abuse in policy and practice have to be different too. Similarly, it is important to consider how other experiences of inequality shape survivors’ experiences of abuse- including the barriers and discrimination faced by Black and minoritised survivors, LGBT+ survivors, disabled survivors and older and teen survivors.
We know from our work with survivors that sexism and misogyny permeate their experiences of domestic abuse.
Feminist writers and activists have been speaking out about harmful gendered stereotypes and their link to male violence against women and girls for decades. Women’s Aid and the University of Bristol have come together to take a fresh look at this. Together, we analysed the interview transcripts of 37 survivors who had taken part in the recent ESRC* funded Justice, Inequality and Gender-based Violence Project. We looked for ‘gendering discourses’ to see where sexism and misogyny had played a part in survivors’ experiences of abuse.
Today (20th July 2021) we’ve published a report on the findings, Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse. Evidence for policy and practice.
We found that sexist myths which are part of everyday society had enabled and shaped the survivors’ experiences of abuse. Here are three common sexist scripts that featured in survivors’ experiences of abuse, with quotes from the survivors we interviewed:
1. Sexist script: Women and men should play traditional roles in the household
Flipped script: Patriarchal roles in the home can enable domestic abuse
“Just to be subservient and just do everything that he said and not to have a voice or an opinion,…”
“…[he] didn’t lift a finger round the house but expected me to do it. I’d be called to account if things weren’t done.”
“…kind of everything revolved around him…”
Survivors spoke about a hierarchy of roles in their homes or intimate relationships. For the survivors we interviewed, the man was in charge as the ‘head of the household’, and the woman had the unchosen role of the ‘homemaker’. The survivors were tasked with household chores or running the home efficiently, without having any say in how this work was carried out. They spoke of how their male intimate partners often dictated exacting rules about how household work had to be performed, even though the men usually refused to participate in this work themselves. Male authority in the household or relationship was both underpinned and reinforced by male violence and abuse. Evan Stark in his 2007 book on Coercive Control argues that it is easier for men to coerce women through household work (rather than vice versa) because this is already socially accepted as ‘women’s work’ (i.e. these are household roles that women are already socially expected to perform).
2. Sexist script: Women are sexual objects
Flipped script: The sexual objectification of women underpins domestic abuse
“And I think just sort of like the society that we live in at the moment it very much pushes that idea … women are objects and they’re very much sexualised and … like yeah, they’re there for men, like yeah there for the use of … which is … yeah that’s really bad.”
The female survivors we interviewed often described themselves, and how they perceived others saw them, in terms of sexual objects. They were seen as existing for the pleasure of men and expected to engage in sexual activity that was controlled and defined by their abusive male intimate partners. The interview transcripts included reports of many offensive sexualised terms used against women (“dirty bitch”, “slag”, “slut”, “nympho”) that were never applied to men. Women were seen as possessions, aggressively and jealously guarded by their male partners or ‘owners’. The survivors commonly described being routinely subjected to rape and sexual coercion and harassment in their intimate relationships. It was this most intimate part of a relationship that abusive men used to cement their power and control over women.
3. Sexist script: Woman are crazy and over-emotional
Flipped script: Women are silenced with the labels of ‘crazy’ or ‘over-emotional’ when they try to talk about domestic abuse
“The courts are extremely sexist places, and there is still very much a thing about an angry loud woman is crazy, you know, and abusive men are charming … and charming with professionals.”
“…they’re painting me as this crazy woman…”
The survivors we interviewed told us how labels of mental illness had long-lasting negative implications for them. Survivors themselves were seen as problematic rather than the abuse and violence committed against them being identified as the problem. This label of ‘crazy’ was a tool perpetrators could use to threaten survivors or call their credibility into question. Being mentally ill, or showing mental or emotional distress, seemed to be all too easily linked into wider stereotypes about women as a group being supposedly unstable, over-emotional or hysterical. Labels of being mentally unwell overshadowed many of the survivors’ experiences of external responses to domestic abuse (including in court, in interactions with the police and responses from friends and family) and formed a significant barrier to accessing justice and support.
How can we flip the sexist script?
Along with our new report “Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse”, we have today launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #FlipTheSexistScript. It is impossible to disentangle women’s experiences of domestic abuse from the violence, abuse and harassment that they are subject to elsewhere in their lives. Here‘s what we think needs to happen to #FlipTheSexistScript:
- Specialist domestic abuse services that are run by women, for women, understand how women’s experiences of abuse have been shaped by lifelong experiences of sexism and misogyny, and only they can help women truly recover from abuse. Similarly, those services that are led by and for women from minoritised groups, such as services for Black and minoritised survivors, disabled survivors and LGBT+ survivors are often best placed to support survivors who have been subject to multiple forms of violence and oppression. They all desperately need sufficient, sustainable and long-term funding.
- The root causes of domestic abuse by men against women lie in the disempowerment, objectification and silencing of women. The response must be building empowering spaces for women, challenging inequality and giving all women a voice, including women from minoritised groups. But these are under severe threat from dangerous ‘gender neutral’ funding approaches. You can take action to flip the sexist script by signing our petition to require local authorities to fund specific domestic abuse services for women.
- Policy-makers and legislators must consistently recognise domestic abuse as a form of violence against women and girls. Unless we address inequality, we will never end domestic abuse. The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 has brought many positive changes for survivors, but in its statutory definition (the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse) the government missed the opportunity to recognise the gendered nature of domestic abuse in law. We are also very concerned that the government is currently proposing to fragment domestic abuse from the violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategy. We strongly believe that domestic abuse must be part of single comprehensive, holistic and integrated framework to address VAWG.
- Structural inequalities create power imbalances in everyday life which enable violence, abuse and harassment. To end this we all must challenge all forms of discrimination and inequality. We all need to work together to call out the sexism and misogyny that enable and entitle men to demean, objectify, abuse and control women. We need to unlearn gender stereotypes, unpick power imbalances, and unteach misogyny.
Feminist writers and activists around the time when Women’s Aid began in the 1970s (and even earlier than this) warned of the harm caused by social norms about masculinity and femininity. Our research shows that these warnings remain as pertinent today as ever. It is time (in fact, it is long overdue) to recognise that until we challenge sexism and misogyny and their prominence in our society, we cannot effectively tackle domestic abuse. In other words, it’s time to flip the sexist script.
Want to join us in challenging sexism and misogyny?
- Read our new report, Gendered experiences of justice and domestic abuse. Evidence for policy and practice here
- Follow our social media campaign #FlipTheSexistScript
- Sign our petition to require local authorities to fund specific domestic abuse services for women.
- Join the Women’s Aid Campaign Champions and support our national campaigns on a local level, give survivors of domestic abuse a voice and help to ensure that politicians and other key decision makers are listening.
- Women’s Aid is working in partnership with Yves Saint Laurent Beauty to educate children and young people about intimate partner violence and challenge assumptions about gender, power and equality. If you work with children and young people, sign up to become an Expect Respect Advocate.
*Economic and Social Research Council