News Analysis

Thursday 2 October 2014

Domestic violence knows no class boundaries

Published 17/06/2013 | 05:00

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Nigella Lawson, handsome, clever, rich, who seems to unite some of the best blessings of existence, is not the sort of woman we expect to get hit by her husband. Yet, here we are, gawking at photos that apparently show Charles Saatchi with his hands around our heroine's throat, and her chilling terror.

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How fortunate for him that it took place in a posh restaurant, where everyone was too polite to intervene.

We don't believe middle-class men are violent to their partners, or that successful women suffer it. Surely, domestic violence is the grubby problem of the poorly educated? We suspect the typical victim is a meek mouse of a woman who somehow brought those cigarette burns on herself by being irritating.

"I've met a lot of women who've survived domestic violence," says Polly Neate, chief executive of Women's Aid. "All different types of people, but I've never met a little mousey woman."

Anyone can be a victim. A quarter of women have suffered domestic violence, and being an extrovert, boasting a brilliant career is, outrageously, no immunity.

CRUELTY

Class or status are irrelevant, but we persist in our naivety. It's a defence mechanism; we're desperate to find a cast-iron reason that distances us from the miserable fate suffered by someone unnervingly similar to our comfortable little selves. We cannot tolerate the thought we are not safe.

We cling to our rose-coloured view, wilfully disregarding the truth that our blindness makes us guilty of cowardly neglect. It is difficult to acknowledge the truth, because then we are obliged to take the inconvenient, awkward, possibly frightening step of doing something about it.

We supposedly "decent types" find cruelty hard to comprehend, so we search for a sensible cause to explain it away. Or at least to explain it. Is it a man's inadequacy, which he viciously takes out on someone physically weaker than himself, who in some way, perhaps by their mental and moral superiority, inspires their envy and resentment? Charles Saatchi doesn't quite fit this profile.

"Before I started this job," says Ms Neate, "I'd be more inclined to think domestic violence was perpetrated by sad, weak men. Now I think it can be all kinds of people, and the only common factor I can latch on to is the cultural backdrop. If you are inclined to be abusive, you don't have to look far in popular culture to find justification. We might not have as many mother-in-law jokes, but we've got a lot more naked and provocatively posed women up and down the street."

Years ago, on a train, I was physically intimidated by a couple of older men. One lunged at me, growling like an Alsatian. All the potential heroes in the carriage hid behind their newspapers or looked away. In those brief moments of fright, I realised how helpless I was, and that provocation isn't necessary.

CONTROL

Perhaps the sight of Nigella Lawson, frozen in fear, as her husband apparently chokes her, will end the curiously pervasive myth that domestic violence is just a teeny bit linked to the victim's behaviour.

Domestic violence is about exerting control, inspiring fear, and the insidious progression of that. As Ms Neate says: "The early warning signs of control are not necessarily physical, and can build up gradually – like controlling someone's mobile phone, or how often they see their family or go out."

We keep gnawing at the idea that the victim is somehow culpable. After all, Nigella has spoken of her mother's cruelty towards her as a child, and the idea that someone mentally abused by a parent has latent insecurities is hardly surprising.

Yet, we must take care, for again we teeter close to the suggestion that some women seek abuse. One glance at those photos of Nigella, with her lover's hands around her throat, and we can safely consign that theory to the dustbin of denial. No victim lets it happen – but perhaps we do.

Irish Independent

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