Domestic Abuse: The Betrayal of Victims
So, the UK charity Refuge recently came under fire for defending Amber Heard, a woman clearly guilty of domestic violence, and who had made false allegations against her ex-husband... How odd, you might think, that such leading organisation, purporting to help victims of domestic abuse, seemed to have found itself so clueless about what domestic abuse truly entails that they ended up defending a perpetrator! Or: was it?
Worryingly, they weren’t the only ones either. While most women who have really been victims of domestic violence supported Johnny Depp, many leading female campaigners, on the contrary, side lined with Amber Heard, victimising her while vilifying him. We ought to ask: was such complete disconnect between women victims of abuse, and the organisations supposedly representing them, a mere blunder?
To anyone knowing about domestic violence from a scientific, academic perspective, and not a self-serving, lobbying one, this parti pris was nothing but expected. It perfectly aligns with their agenda, motivated not by a concern for the science explaining what makes a relationship abusive, but, by political ideology. It’s a political ideology, in fact, which has been a complete betrayal of what the women shelters’ movement itself originally purported to be in the first place. The question shouldn't be how come they defended a domestic abuser, then, but how on earth did we get there?
For the past five decades, most of these leading organisations (in Britain: Refuge, Women’s Aid, Respect) have been drilling us that the root causes of domestic violence are to be found in the patriarchy. Women, we have been told, are politically and economically disempowered, and it’s a public disempowerment that reflects itself into their private relationships as well. The understanding, here, is therefore that men who abuse their girlfriends and wives do so, not because of individual problems specific to each and every one of them, and depending as much on their own personal histories as that of their relationships, but, on the contrary, because of one, simple, reason only: a sexist, misogynistic sense of self-entitlement. Domestic violence, in other words, is all about male authority in their households. As such, only men can be perpetrators, women can only be victims, and the patriarchy is to blame.
But is that so?
To understand how such simplistic narrative came to be accepted as the credo to abide to on the topic, one must, first, understand the history of the women shelters’ movement itself. It’s an history which has been erased by such organisations themselves, yet that we need to outline if we are to grasp why most ended up defending an abuser, and, beyond, why victims (men, but also women and children) keep being failed.
The first women shelter ever opened was in 1971, in London. The woman who opened it, Erin Pizzey (pictured below), wasn’t interested in domestic violence at the time. What she was interested in was, as a mother struggling with solitude and boredom, to create a space for women in her neighbourhood to come and gather, share their experiences, socialise. This, then, was first and foremost a community space.
It will all change when a battered woman turned up at the door, seeking refuge from the abuses melted upon her at home. Instead of turning her away and send her back to her husband (a common response back then), Erin Pizzey will, on the contrary, accommodate her. From then on, the whole demographic of women coming into her space, and, by the same token, the purpose of her ‘refuge’, shifted drastically: hers became a place where women (and their children) who were being abused at home had, for the first time ever, somewhere to go to escape the violence and abuse endured into their households.
Erin Pizzey, in fact, did more than opening the first shelter ever for women fleeing domestic violence. She would also be the first one to draw attention to the subject; back then vastly ignored, when not dismissed, or, worse, excused away and justified! Her book ‘Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear’, for example, is often credited in being the first one to tackle the topic.
Now, if you have never heard of Erin Pizzey, this is perfectly normal. Feminists have, over the past five decades, erased her name from the history books, vilified her persona, dragged her work into the mud, and, even, contributed to censor her books in Britain, where her whole shelter movement started (if you want to read them, they are available online, through a Canadian publisher…). As a matter of fact, their attacks against her were so vile that, following abuse, violence, and even bomb threats, Erin Pizzey ultimately decided to exile herself away from the UK, to go and live in the USA for a few years! Even as recently as 2021, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first women shelters ever, organisations now running the field (again: Refuge -that she founded-, Women’s Aid, and Respect, among others) made sure that she wasn’t invited to the party, and that her work and deeds remain as unrecognised and swept under the rug as she, herself, remains silenced.
You’ve read that right. And, again, if you are jumping off your seat at reading this, you shouldn’t.
Remember indeed that her shelter was started in the 1970s. The 1970s, also, were a cornerstone for the feminist movement. This is when it was, in fact, injected with radically new ideas, mostly inspired by Leftist and neo-Marxist thinking (then ‘en vogue’, especially on the university campuses of the Western world) and, according to which women, as a demographic, were being oppressed and marginalised by men, as a demographic. The purpose of this post is not to outline in detail the whole philosophy behind such highly politically orientated and motivated views. Suffice to say, here, that to this new wave of feminism, the rough understanding of women’s place in society was comparable to that of a ‘proletariat’, oppressed by a ‘bourgeoisie’ (men) acting to serve their own interests (maintain the patriarchy). These ideas were so radical, in fact, that they came to be dubbed as ‘radical feminism’, or radfem for short.
You might ask: what is the connection with domestic violence, and Erin Pizzey and her shelters’ movement?
Well, here is the thing: Erin Pizzey wasn’t content with helping abused women. She, also, wanted to understand the dynamic behind domestic abuse.
There are a lot of things we are now taking for granted when it comes to the running of women shelters. Men being excluded, since domestic violence is being accepted as mostly the product of men, is one of them; as their presence, we have been told, would supposedly be ‘triggering’. At the beginning of the shelter movement, though, this was everything but the case. As Erin Pizzey recounts, not only was there male staff, but their role was also crucial. They protected women otherwise endangered by their male partners turning up at the doors. They, also, acted as positive male role models for children, who desperately needed some after witnessing abuse at home (when not having been abused themselves) by their fathers/ stepfathers. Men, in fact, were excluded from women shelters only after Erin Pizzey herself was excluded as well.
Another feature which is taken for granted is that such shelters are in 'hidden' locations. This wasn’t the case at the time (hence why abusive men could turn up at their doors…) and, here was a crucial difference which allowed Erin Pizzey to fully understand how domestic abuse unfolded. How so?
When a domestically abusive man turned up at their door, usually angry and psyched up for a fight, she and her staff noticed two things. First, some women were absolutely terrified of the violence to come. They would move away from the situation, seek refuge further inside the shelter, take their children with them to protect them from the commotions that were about to come. Then, other women, who, on the contrary, gathered towards the incident to egg on the man, taunt him, encourage the violence while participating in it themselves. This second group of women didn’t care about the safety of their children or their own safety. They were, on the contrary, as psyched up for violence as the threatening, abusive man they would face. Getting to know them, she also noted that these women, instigating and/ or participating in violence when the opportunity presented itself, were the ones also noted by staff to abuse and hit their children too, who had been involved in physical fights with other women (both seeking refuge and staff), had criminal records or had been involved with the police, and/ or had been in other violent relationships before the one that landed them at this shelter.
Here are key behaviours that we ought to bear in mind: whereas, nowadays, women organisations accept de facto, and indiscriminately, that *all* women coming through their doors can only be ‘victims’, simply because they are women (again, a demographic accepted as so politically and economically disempowered and marginalised by the patriarchy that they cannot be abusive towards a boyfriend or husband at home) yet, at the time, the prevalence of female perpetrated violence behind closed doors was certainly not dismissed as being (in the words of Women’s Aid on their website and literature) ‘a myth’.
But, if abusive behaviours between partners weren’t interpreted as per a Neo-Marxist narrative applied to intimate relationships (oppressed females vs oppressive males, as per a patriarchal model), then how could it be explained?
To answer that, Erin Pizzey teamed up with Dr John Grayford, then a researcher of family violence from the Warlingham Hospital in England. Together, they would design a questionnaire, eight pages long, comprising 160 questions, about the women in question, their partners, their relationships, and their respective medical and family histories. The questions ‘were designed specifically to be straightforward, plain-language, and, most importantly, non-directive’. All questionnaires were also ‘completed on an entirely voluntary basis.’ The purpose was straightforward: to try and understand what the relationships of these women with violence were, and whether they had issues of their own which had led them into violent relationships and/ or being violent themselves in the first place. The results would be unequivocal.
Out of 100 women who had completed the survey, 62 qualified as what Erin Pizzey called ‘violent prone’ (‘a woman who, while complaining that she is the innocent victim of the malice and aggression of all other relationships in her life, is in fact a victim of her own violence and aggression’), the remaining 38 as what she described as ‘battered’ (‘the unwilling and innocent victim of his or her partner’s violence’). What was uncovered here, then, would make sense of the behaviours then prevalent in this shelter and described above: if some women were so traumatised by violence that they would avoid conflicts and the volatile situations were conflicts were most likely to occur (the so-called ‘battered women’), others, on the contrary, not only instigated or participated in violence, but craved it enough to fuel it even when merely witnessing it (the so-called ‘violent prone’).
Because these questionnaires delved into the personal histories of respondents, what they also revealed was that all the women who were described as ‘violent prone’ also had had a dysfunctional upbringing, either having witnessed domestic abuse between their own parents when they were children, and/ or having been victim of child abuse themselves. All. Of. Them. This, in fact, remains at the core of Erin Pizzey’s understanding of domestic abuse: not only it’s not a gendered crime, but it is, above all, an intergenerational problem.
Such study and first-hand experience, of course, could have been accepted as a landmark in our understanding of domestic and family abuse. Many other such research, in fact, have confirmed, over, and over (and over again) the finding of Erin Pizzey. For instance, the first ever comprehensive study ever made about family violence (domestic abuse and child abuse included), a massive endeavour performed by Murray A. Straus, Richard J. Gelles, and Suzanne K. Steinmetz back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which took more than a decade and had involved more than 3,000 families, had also demonstrated, very clearly, that domestic violence, contrary to what the likes of Refuge, Women’s Aid, Respect, and others, have been claiming, is not ‘a gendered crime’. Meta-analysis of every study performed ever since on the topic, in fact, have also clearly proved a consensus on domestic violence being as much the product of men as it is of women, and, outside women organisations and their self-serving studies, many leading experts, such as Nicola Graham-Kevan, have been denouncing the patriarchal model as unhelpful.
How come, then, that organisations such as Refuge have been discarding such research, preferring instead to cling on to ideological dogma, inherited from radical feminism of the 1970s, over the science?
The answer boils down to one word: ideology.
If every problem faced by women has to be pinned down on the patriarchy only, including domestic violence, then the mere idea that the roots of such problems could be found elsewhere than in political male oppression (for example -as Erin Pizzey had demonstrated with female abusers- in a traumatic childhood causing dysfunctional behaviours in adulthood) can only be anathema. Anathema too must be the idea that women themselves can be domestic abusers, for acknowledging this would be acknowledging that women, after all, are not that 'disempowered' in their relationships, a reckoning that would send crashing down the whole patriarchal view onto the floor, like the fragile castle of cards that it is. This is how Erin Pizzey, for all her good will and good intent and exceptional work in bringing up the issue of women being abused by male partners (let alone pointing at the complex interpersonal dynamics to be found within abusive relationships; where not all women are the same, and where people, men and women alike, can be both victims and perpetrators) found herself in the crosshair of a political dogma: she had to go.
The rest is history. And, history being always written by the winners, as radical feminist ideology took hold of women's refuges, over the next five decades, the patriarchal view will take hold of the official narrative, shaping from our understanding of the issue to the campaigning field, and, even, policies implemented to address the problem.
The consequences, of course, have been dire. For all of us. And we can see them all around.
First, women victims of domestic abuse themselves have been neglected, as the violent prone have been lumped in together with the battered ones, all victimised indiscriminately, with absolutely no care whatsoever being given to their individual needs. Then, abusive men have been affected too. The patriarchy is not the root cause of domestic violence. Yet, because we keep blaming it, most intervention programs targeted to male abusers have been shaped based on the patriarchal model (the Duluth model being the most important) something which, here too, hasn’t been without consequences: women who have decided to stay in relationship with such men, thinking that they would be safe, that their partner had changed for having gone through such programs, have been, in fact, put at further risk of harm. How many have been murdered by men who were known for their violence, but had been happily sent back to their girlfriends and wives after having been put through such quackeries? Abusive women too, of course, have been completely neglected. What Amber Heard and the likes of her need are certainly not excuses, or, being victimised for behaviours that everyone who has been abused can recognise as a typical pattern of aggression and coercive control (again: most abused women supported Johnny Depp) but help. As it is, they don’t get it. Since their existence, or, at least, their real prevalence, has been negated, while their male counterparts are put through quackeries and snake oils (the Duluth model, still, remains widely applauded by women organisations, despite having been debunked even by its original proponent!) there is next to zero intervention programs specifically targeted to help abusive women into resolving whatever issues make them abusive in the first place. Remembering the work of Erin Pizzey that is, knowing that being violent prone is a factor contributing to increase the risk of ending up in an abusive relationship, it also means that many such women are, because of their own toxicity, very vulnerable indeed! We ignore them at our peril. Last but not least, it’s the victims of such women who have been completely negated, silenced, dismissed, and, because of the monopoly exerted by dogmatic organisations upon the field and policies, re-victimised by the system. These victims are, first, the men in relationships with such women. 1 man out of 6 reports having been abused by a female partner, and 40% of domestic violence victims are men. Johnny Depp, then, is just one in a million -if you are a mother of son(s) reading this then think about it: it's not unlikely that you child(ren) may be affected by female perpetrated violence... But not only. The children of such women are also put at risk -60 to 70% of abused children are so by their mothers. You will remember, here, that, in Erin Pizzey's shelter, women who were violent prone were also highly likely to be abusive to their kids too. Child abuse perpetrated by women remains taboo, it shouldn’t be. Again, domestic violence has been shown time and again to be an intergenerational problem -how many boys and girls have been learning violence from their mothers, or from a toxic relationship between both two violent prone parents? Domestic violence, also, is a form of family violence. As such, it’s also the female relatives of such women who bear the consequences of the radfem orthodoxy. So-called Cinderella violence, for instance, has been increasing over the past decades, yet who speaks for its victims? Certainly not women organisations, too busy ignoring violence and abuse which are not masculine. The result? Female victims of female violence have been as swept under the rug as men have been. Is that tenable?
Going back to the Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial, of course, it's always sad when the fate of rich, famous, White celebrities, must be splashed all over our mass medias for an issue, which has been affecting the rest of us for decades, get, at long last, the reckoning it deserves. No one cared about #MeToo until Alyssa Milano tweeted about it 10 years after it had started. Likewise, no one cared about the victims made by the gendered view of domestic violence until Johnny Depp fought to clear his name. We can, then, be cynical.
Yet, as the #MeToo created a storm, albeit way later than it should have, what the Depp-Heard trial taught us is that, at long last, the misguided gender narrative peddled by very powerful and established lobbies, and rooted as much in feminist political radicalism than in a terroristic violence which had targeted especially women not abiding to their credo, has been exposed for what it is: a divisive dogma, so ideologically motivated that it is completely out of touch even with abused women themselves.
The thing is, Refuge, Women’s Aid, Respect, and many others, have been controlling the field for far too long. The time has come to question their underlying motivations; especially given that such motivations are counter-productive and have never contributed into resolving the problem in the first place. For, let's not kid ourselves: to believe that domestic violence is rooted in the patriarchy, and trying to solve the issue from such belief, is like believing in alternative medicine over medical sciences, and, from then on, trying to cure cancer by financing homeopathy. It doesn’t work, and the mere fact that 1 woman out of 4, and 1 man out 6, keep reporting having been abused, should be evidence enough to such disconnect if needed.
In the end, though, the massive support received by Johnny Depp, especially by women themselves, should give us hope: the paradigm is shifting, and we will all be better off when it fully does. Science matters. History matters. It's about time that, at long last, Erin Pizzey and those who have walked into her trails ever since, are finally on their way to be vindicated.
Don’t be on the wrong side of history: question, and beware who you support.