We’re doing a terrible job of trying to understand women who leave sexually abusive relationships

Domestic violence convictions are on the up, while those for sexual violence are at a five-year low. Why are they treated as totally separate crimes when so many people suffer both?

Lizzy Dening
Sunday 01 September 2019 14:03
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When you ask most people to describe what they think of as “domestic violence” the answers will probably involve kicking, punching or screaming. But many of those involved in controlling relationships are also victims of sexual abuse.

Despite the government keeping domestic violence funding and sexual violence funding generally separate, there’s a very blurry line between the two. The statistics are certainly similar – roughly one in four women experiences domestic violence, while around one in five women will encounter sexual violence in adulthood – and it would be naive to assume these are never the same women. In abusive relationships, the abuser will often force or coerce their victim into sex after a physical attack – manipulation often dressed as an “apology”. Both are acts of power, humiliation and dominance.

Volunteering at Peterborough Rape Crisis Centre, I’ve been shocked at how difficult it is to raise funds for sexual violence – we aren’t even allowed a coin token slot at the local supermarket, because of squeamishness over the word “rape” – while I’ve seen many local workplaces collecting for domestic violence. And this distinction can be a truly damaging one for survivors. The implication is that survivors of sexual violence are somehow to blame in a way that those who have been abused in other ways are not.

It’s not only that the public finds non-sexual violence more clear-cut – there’s a strong bias in the courts too. While domestic abuse conviction rates have been reported this week as rising in Wales (78 per cent in 2017-18) sexual violence convictions in England and Wales have fallen to a five-year low, with only 37 per cent of cases sent to the CPS in April to September last year.

This is obviously a worrying message to present survivors of sexual violence. I know many who would never go to the police in the first place, for fear of not being believed, or being questioned on their phone records, past relationships and other irrelevant victim-blaming details. And that’s without mentioning those who have plucked up the courage to go to the police and had their charges dropped, despite giving harrowing evidence. When survivors of sexual violence see that the chances of a conviction are so low, it’s understandable that many just can’t face the process.

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In setting up my website Survivor Stories, I’ve spoken to various women who have sought help for emotional and physical abuse long before they’ve ever thought to heal the wounds of sexual violence. One told me she went to Women’s Aid after leaving her abusive partner, but felt conflicted about seeking counselling at the rape crisis centre. She told me she worried about “taking the space of a woman who had been raped by a stranger”. And this is why it matters how we talk to survivors of any type of violence.

While society – and the media – continue to think of rape as a one-off act of violence by a stranger in an alley, and continue to use victim-blaming language, women who have been systematically raped and abused by their partners feel unworthy of help.

It’s those abusers, of course, who are more aware of this stigma than anyone. It’s one of the tools in their arsenal to make these women stay with them – “no one will believe you”. Or, “you wanted this”.

Why are people more comfortable with helping survivors of certain types of abuse, when it all stems from the same behaviour? We need to get better at listening to survivors with different experiences, and talking about rape. Only then can we help empower them to seek help, no matter what form their abuse has taken.

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