The first time my boyfriend hit me, I remember being taken aback by the look in his eyes. Ten years ago, I read it as shock, but of what I wasn’t clear. That he’d walloped me; that it sounded quite so loud; that his balled fist had sent my glasses sailing from my face; that I didn’t make a sound; that I didn’t punch him back, only recoiled in the corner of his bedroom, his parents suddenly silent in the room next to us.
Most people looking in on a relationship from the exterior would accept that moment as abuse. In reality the abuse started long before my boyfriend hit me: with a ceaseless litany of niggling insults and complaints, about my looks, behaviour, even my literary taste. Rudeness isn’t a crime, nor is being irritating: but coercive control has been a criminal offence since 2015. Such non-physical abuse is also at the centre of changes contained in a domestic abuse bill introduced by the government last week.
Staying at a close friend’s house at the weekend, I noted how completely at home I felt: I knew where the coffee and wine were, my toothbrush was where I’d left it last time, and most crucially, my phone seamlessly logged onto his wifi unprompted. Coercive control engenders the opposite feeling: the emotional equivalent of the security guard who tails you in a department store, making you feel unwelcome and fully scrutinised. Coercive control is about ensuring you never feel comfortable in the relationship, and must always be on tenterhooks, trying to please your partner.
My boyfriend’s fist hurt physically but not emotionally. I’d by then become numb to the daily rigmarole of being alerted to my outstanding capacity to disappoint him. The punch was accompanied by a phrase I’d hear repeatedly, before I left him. It is the abuser’s calling card and the title of a superb memoir of surviving coercive control by Helen Walmsley-Johnson – Look What You Made Me Do. The blame lay with me: I had given him no choice but to attack and belittle me, to permanently monitor.
The draft Domestic Violence Act came after consultation with victims, survivors, lawyers and frontline workers and was hailed by the government (after a decade in power) as “landmark” reform. Recognising the definition of domestic violence to include psychological control and economic abuse (where the abuser controls their partner’s finances), and finding ways to formalise such complexity in law is certainly a positive step. The bill seeks to bring in polygraph tests to court rooms, harsher penalties and outlaws the vile right of abusers to cross-examine their victims in family courts.
But as Diane Abbott pointed out, cuts of over a third in all local authority funding to domestic and sexual violence services under austerity has had dire consequences for local authorities’ ability to fund women’s refuges and other vital services which might have alleviated the suffering of many women.
Combating domestic violence requires a host of different agencies in different sectors working in tandem: the wraparound social safety net that is needed has been savaged by a near decade of austerity. The bill highlights the £66bn a year that domestic violence costs England and Wales economy alone. But without accepting that justice is costly, we will never see anything other than cosmetic changes in how we deal with domestic abuse.
Everyone should have the right to be loved and without harm. But until the domestic violence legislation is backed up with investment we have to conclude that Conservatives value different lives differently, and a short term ideological saving will cause avoidable torture for another generation of women. Public attitudes change: if our society no longer expects people, regardless of gender, to be irrevocably bound to someone who loved them once yet now only seeks to break them, the state must support them too.
One evening, too scared to respond to a text message, I boarded a train and stayed with a friend for a few days, knowing I was too scared to end the relationship in person. On my return, he kicked in my wardrobe and bedroom door: One woman is killed every three days by a violent partner. And violence usually increases when women leave their abusers: Women’s Aid report 76% of women killed by former partners were killed within the first year of separation. Continuing to reduce the funding for domestic violence abuse is not just asking for more from less, but is itself a form of abuse.