Photograph: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images
Sisters Uncut are a great example of grassroots feminist activism. Their protest at the premier of the film Suffrage helped raise awareness of the consequences of the decimation of specialist support services for women. However, their campaign is specifically about the importance of specialist domestic violence services, which is why I was disappointed to read a piece in the Independent by a member which uses the term domestic violence and violence against women interchangeably.
It is absolutely true that Sylvia Walby’s research into the reality of violence against women in the UK demonstrates how the Crime Survey erases the experiences of women who experience domestic violence by capping the number of crimes that one person can report at 5. The Office for National Statistics insist the cap is necessary as
“otherwise the sheer number of crimes committed by perpetrators against the same individual would skew the rest of the statistics.”
Recording the frequency of incidents of physical, emotional, psychological or sexual violence experienced by an individual would cause a surge in crime statistics, but it doesn’t ‘defy’ statistics as Sisters Uncut suggests. It would make clear the consistent failure of successive governments and police forces to deal with the issue. It would have long-term consequences on financing and would make women’s secondary status in political life obvious. The cap disproportionately impacts women and it specifically impacts women who experience the vast majority of domestic violence by erasing the sex of the perpetrator: who are overwhelmingly male. The decision to create a cap was not to make it easier for statisticians, but a clear policy of eliding the reality of all forms of violence against women and girls from public awareness.
The cap also functions to inflate the number of men who experience domestic violence by including incidences of retaliatory violence where a woman lashes out at the male partner who is physically harming her causing injury to his person.* The victim, therefore, becomes a perpetrator of domestic violence. In this case, the man’s one experience (caused by a woman defending herself) is given more credence than a woman who may have experienced 365 separate incidents of which only 5 count in official statistics. This is why the 1 in 6 men are victims of domestic violence is a misnomer. Conflating retaliatory violence with the pattern of coercive control that is domestic violence harms women as a class and makes it more difficult to campaign for specialist services for women. The cap makes domestic violence look ‘gender-neutral’.
It is not yet clear to me how the new criminal offence of coercive control will be recorded in these statistics. If each incident of coercive control is included, the crime statistics will be astronomical. It’s unlikely the media will address this issue appropriately since they have uniformly reported a drop in violent crime in the annual crime survey despite the fact that domestic and sexual violence and abuse are on the rise. Here the media colludes in creating a picture where only violence experienced by men constitutes real violence.
Removing the cap is essential to change public perceptions of domestic violence, however domestic violence does not equal violence against women and girls. It is one part of the continuum of violence against girls first formulated by Prof Liz Kelly in reference to her research on sexual violence. The theoretical construct of this continuum has since been expanded to include all forms of violence against women: domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, crimes in the name of ‘honour’, trafficking and more. Violence against women is any “violence that is directed at a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”. As a radical feminist, I include pornography, prostitution and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation as part of the continuum.
So-called ‘austerity measures’ in the UK disproportionately impact women increasing women’s poverty (and that of their children). I believe this forms part of the continuum as denying women physical and emotional safety whilst financially penalising them for being born female are acts of state sanctioned violence in and of themselves and make women more vulnerable to other forms of male violence.
Sisters Uncut’s activism around the specific issue of domestic violence is essential, particularly making links to the cuts to legal aid, housing, refuges, healthcare, migrant women, poverty, and forcing women to facilitate unsafe contact between their children with their violent fathers through the family courts and social services. Using the term ‘violence against women’ interchangeably with domestic violence is problematic and it is important for Sisters Uncut to remain clear that their focus is solely on domestic violence and the importance of specialist services for women. After all, there are over 40 rape crisis centres across England and Wales at risk due to changes in funding. The national umbrella organisation Rape Crisis England and Wales appears to be receiving no government funding in 2016.** Specialist services for Black, Minority and Ethnic women are more at risk than other services. Cuts to ESOL and racist migration policies put BAME women at greater risk because of state-enforced dependence on violent spouses to remain in the UK with their children. Fighting specifically for domestic violence services can not come at the expense of other specialist services for women.
We need to be very clear when discussing the continuum of violence against women and girls and not use terms interchangeably. This particular article by Sisters Uncut is the most recent media piece I have seen making this mistake, but they are not the only one. The mainstream media consistently conflates terms, even in the very few well-written articles on the issues.
The political system is simply not designed to support women or recognise women’s specific vulnerabilities. which raises another issue with Sisters Uncut’s activism: membership. This is the definition for membership into the Sisters Uncut collective:
Our meetings should be inclusive and supportive spaces for all women (trans, intersex and cis), all those who experience oppression as women (including non-binary and gender non-conforming people) and all those who identify as women for the purpose of political organising. Self-definition is at the sole-discretion of that sister.
The women’s services that aren’t closing due to lack of funding, like Eaves, are being replaced by ‘neutral’ services. Local authorities are increasingly giving funding for refuges to homeless services and others that do not recognised the gendered reality of domestic violence. In at least one recent case, a woman fleeing an abusive male partner found herself housed in the same facility as the man because the local council did not recognise women’s specific vulnerabilities. There have been numerous reported cases of men claiming to be victims of domestic violence solely to be housed in the same facility as their former partner. There are a number of cases in Canada and the US where men claiming to be transwomen to gain access to women’s spaces where these self-defining transwomen have committed sexual assault and rape. None of these are aberrations. They are a direct consequence of the failure to recognise and differentiate between the hierarchical power relations of the social construction of gender and the material reality of sexed (and racialised) bodies.
Women cannot identify out of the biological reality of their body. Pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause exist. Women’s bodies exist. The preponderance of violence against women and girls is because women are constructed as less than men. Women due to the majority of caring because our culture links having a uterus to doing all the caring work. Men who engage in coercively controlling behaviours believe they have the right to do so – male entitlement is the basis of violence against women and girls. Our entire culture assumes men’s inalienable rights of sexual access to women’s bodies and their control over (re)productive labour. The judicial system, family, civil and criminal, still view women and children as the possessions of men. ‘Neutral’ policies on domestic and sexual violence and abuse are created to erase the identity of perpetrators: men. Ignoring the hierarchical social construction of gender makes it easier for local authorities to defund specialist women’s services. After all, if anyone can self-identify as male or female, the sex of the perpetrator and of the victims becomes irrelevant.
We will not end violence against women and girls by using gender- neutral language or by conflating one form of violence with the entire continuum. Claiming to be non-binary will not suddenly erase the inequalities in pay predicated on sex (or race or class). Women who do not conform to the gendered identity coercively assigned them at birth have always existed and are always punished – from the ‘witch’ trials to the corrective rape of lesbian women. This is not a new phenomenon and queer theory is responsible for erasing the history of women’s oppression by men. Obviously, this oppression is contextualised by historical location, cultural practice, as well as race, disability, sexuality and class, but the premise remains the same: women are treated as objects and possessions of men; men who believe they are entitled to control and harm women.
We need to eradicate the current white supremacist, capitalist-patriachy. We need to fight against austerity as its just the newest way to punish women for the crime of being born female, but we won’t do this unless we are clear in our language.
** The report into this was recently released and I have not yet had a chance to read it.