Sex and Violence: Sexual intimacy with an abusive partner

by Avril D’Arcy

Sexual relationships within an environment of abuse, is an incredibly complex topic of conversation. Apart from conversations that I have personally instigated, I don’t know that I’ve come across discussion in this area. While academically I am sure there has been research, I found little consolation or conversation about something that, after I had left my boyfriend, I needed to talk about. While counsellors and therapists are an incredible source for healing, my need to feel valued and understood often lies in the understanding of the ‘civilians’ in my life. As any taboo subject, sex will generally be greeted with giggles, disgust or clinical evaluation. While I understand that people can feel awkward or uncomfortable, they will never feel as uncomfortable as the women who have had or are having sexual relationships with an abusive partner. While I have many lasting, latent emotions surrounding my experience of abuse, this one of the last areas I have tried to come to terms with. It is also one of the areas that I have found myself carrying over into new relationships. To be deemed as useless, treated as an object and told that I had a role to fulfill, sex became a daily worry.

When are we going to stop believing that violence has different faces? The inevitability of damage caused by abuse of any kind should have taught us that it is all the same demon: power, entitlement, dehumanisation, objectification, sexualisation, control, bullying. It is all violence; it is all the mask of a violent mind.

I recently went to the launch of a campaign against the purchase of sex and the sex  trade. I thought the subject matter didn’t personally affect me, but I wanted to show my support. I wasn’t expecting to identify with the stories told or the issues discussed. I was very wrong. As a woman who has suffered abuse, I thought I had sufficiently compartmentalised my experiences. The stories and theories put forth changed my mind. Although everyone’s story is unique, I am no different to any other woman that has suffered gender based violence. There is a common denominator in all of our stories: Male privilege, male entitlement, and the suffering of women through men’s hands. I stand with my sisters who have had their lives changed through a tapestry of male-torment none of us thought would happen to us. There is no isolated incident. I am no better or worse than any other woman who has had their lives dictated or directed by a man who told us he would make it better. He would make the pain go away, if we did what he said.

I didn’t expect to identify with these women in the way I did. The idea of consent is much more far reaching than we allow ourselves to contemplate. Suspending the right of consent; suspending the idea that we hold bodily autonomy, the idea of male entitlement to sex with any partner is frequent and pervasive and is blamed on the uncontrollable male libido. Why wouldn’t I do anything to fulfil my partner’s desires, regardless of my own feelings or my own comfort levels? This is what I owed him; this is what I was supposed to do to make him happy. My mood didn’t matter; he didn’t care whether my mood was there. I became an object of his power and control, a metaphor for his male sexuality and his prowess. If I didn’t do this, I didn’t really love him. He was trying to fill a hole in his psyche and personality that he couldn’t fill himself. His power and the aggression with which he grew to express his sexuality and needs became overbearing and overwhelming. I was screamed at for not staying awake for him. I suffered the manipulative anguish and anger he would express in coercing me to act in ways I wasn’t comfortable. Sex was no longer an expression of love, but a means of distraction, a means to placate, a means to suspend another bad mood or another explosive argument and another two weeks of being ignored or taunted.

There were times when I drank to not care that I would have to sleep with him. There were times when I drank so that I would fall asleep and not have to come up with another excuse. There were times I pretended to be asleep, to have my period, to feel ill and there were times when I had sex with him because I had run out of options. Sometimes I spurred him on, just so he would finish.

There were also times when I missed the intimacy of a loving healthy relationship and tried to find that old friend of making love to my boyfriend. But the underlying feeling that I would be in trouble if I didn’t was never far away and would often ruin any genuine affection we shared. There were also times that I needed the comfort of sex and pleasure to feel better about a bad day with my boyfriend: To try and find some sort of physical love, comfort and affection through sex instead of the nasty arguments and name calling. If I could find him in the bedroom, maybe I could find him outside it.

Sometimes it was just a matter of wanting comfort, to be loved. If I could just please him somehow, I can get to the other side. It will be over soon.

I had no input however. I wasn’t allowed to comment during sex at all, lest I be accused of putting him down or turning him off. If I giggled, I was accused of laughing at him, if I didn’t make enough noise, I didn’t care. As in other areas of our relationship, sex had ever-moving goalposts and rules that I couldn’t keep up with. Once you start using your body for anything other than pleasure or love, once they have been taken out of the equation, it is very hard hold your self-worth or value. In using your body for the validation of another person, we inhabit a very dark place that has seriously damaging consequences.

I know I am not alone in the way I feel about this. I know other women have experienced the same things and have had to cope with it alone. I know that it is not talked about and that it is difficult. But the silence deafens me. I don’t want to be isolated in this, I don’t want to be pushed towards doctors and care agencies. I want the people I know to understand what this does to a person, in the hopes that it doesn’t happen to another. As a survivor of rape, as a survivor of abuse, I stand beside my sisters and ask for the enlightenment of men and boys and the pledge to not harm another.

Every day there are women that are going through this experience. Maybe they are planning to leave their partner, and have to engage in sexual intimacy in order to maintain an appearance of normality. There are women that are using their bodies to distract and disarm their abusive partners. There are women that are trying to avoid pregnancy with partners who refuse to use contraception. I know of many women that have been scolded for even the suggestion of using, in particular condoms, as if this was a matter of trust. Then there are men that break that trust by removing condoms without their partner’s knowledge. The phrase barefoot and pregnant didn’t come out of nowhere. I have many vivid memories of having to defend my fear over unplanned pregnancy, as if in some way I was insulting my partner. Why wouldn’t I want his child, regardless of anything else going in our lives at that moment? We were in love weren’t we? His ego was so inflated that apparently he would ‘know if he were to get me pregnant’ and would get angry with me at the thought of wasting money on anything as irrelevant as emergency contraception. In addition to that, infidelity is also commonplace with abusive partners, and as such, other major health worries come into play.

I’m not sure when the time will come where I don’t balk at the memory of waking up with my partner already on top of me, the memories of being told I wasn’t good enough if he wasn’t satisfied or the many memories whereby I felt more object than person. I do know however that we need to be able to talk about this aspect of life with an abusive partner. There are women who are engaging in sexual activity to avoid being hit, being shouted at, being hurt in any number of ways. It often seems like the easier option to forgo one’s own comfort to placate an aggressive partner. The system of manipulation and coercion is never more present than in the sexual relationship with an abusive partner. The feeling of responsibility lies with the women, of entitlement with the man: this dynamic becomes so poisonous that you begin to believe their twisted logics. Without open conversation on perceived male sexual entitlement and consent, we are only getting half the story. Violence takes many forms and abuse is at epidemic proportions.  Just because he’s not hitting you, doesn’t mean he’s not hurting you.

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Teens: The Impact of Social Media in 2015

by Sarah Gorry

It is not a surprise to anyone that the use of social media has changed the world as we know it. From checking in for flights, online shopping, ordering your favourite takeaway in one simple click, it’s hard to fault the easiness of phones and tablets. It has become a new way to do business and work together. We stay connected to friends through Facebook and Skype, we share moments of joy and sadness, funny times and hardships. We offer virtual hugs to our friend’s who are not near by and keep up to date with family across the world. In many respects, a brilliant thing, but as with everything there is a darker side to social media, a dangerous side to smart phones. A lot of that darkness lies on the shoulders of our teenagers.

I’m 28 and still get asked for ID on nights out so, I suppose my teenage years don’t seem so long ago. In fact I blinked and they were over. I didn’t know then, but those years between 15 and 18 were so full of fun and laughter I would go back to it in a heartbeat. It was a time I would describe as stress-free. I had very little pressure on me to be anyone or do anything I didn’t want to, something our teenagers today don’t get to experience. Sex was something that happened naturally in relationships. It was typical teen sex, awkward and not sexy in the slightest. There were fewer expectations or pressure to be of a certain standard back then.

I recently sat down with two teenage girls, who kindly gave me their time to talk all things sex, consent and being a teenager in general. I was quite saddened after it. It almost burst my bubble of thinking back to my younger days and I worried I had been looking back through rose tinted glasses. Maybe it wasn’t that fun after all? But my eyes were soon opened to the differences between my teenage years and life as an adolescent in 2015.

There is a huge crisis going on right now with our teens. My dad actually put it bluntly, we are focusing too much on what our kids are eating and how waist sizes are increasing and not doing anything to tackle other issues that desperately need to be addressed; ‘sexting’ being one of the most vital problems that needs attention.

A report carried out in 2014 showed 1 in 4 Irish teenagers have sex texted, with children as young as 10 sending sexual explicit images. Yet nobody is talking about it. It’s the elephant in the room that seems to be ignored by parents, schools and the wider culture.

The young girls I sat down to chat with explained to me that sending a nude is a normal thing to do. While not everyone one does it, most do engage in the exchange of sexual images. There is huge pressure on young girls to send naked ‘selfies’, these images are then usually shared around without their consent on apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Snap Chat. If you ask them why they feel they need to engage in such behaviours they will explain if you don’t you’re deemed uncool, frigid, and the person will just simply move on to another person to ‘sext’. Keep in mind the request usually comes from a boy they really like, resulting in girls feeling they must keep their crush interested or someone else will. This is leading to a huge amount of adolescents having unhealthy relationships.

Being the mother of an almost six year old daughter, these trends and behaviours are terrifying to me. What is even more terrifying is that they are being ignored. I discussed this with a male friend recently, his view was, it was bad when we were kids too we just didn’t have access to camera phones, whilst I know times change and progress, does that mean we just have to accept this? The mother in me finds it really hard to just brush it off as ‘kids these days’. It’s too dangerous to turn a blind eye.

One of the main factors in these behaviours becoming the norm is how accessible porn has become. At The Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation summit in the U.S last May it was stated that porn sites now get more visitor’s than Amazon, Netflix and Twitter combined. This is huge. And it is affecting Irish teens greatly. Its leading teens, who are not mature enough to engage in watching porn to have unrealistic expectations of sex, it’s also affecting how we view women, and our teen boys are growing up with a more aggressive attitude toward women than ever before. I see this on an almost daily basis. I hear it personally when I walk by a group of young boys, the language they use to sexualise me, and many other girls, is unbelievable. I’m 28, a mother, and very tough-skinned, but I worry how this type of language will affect teenage girls. We cannot and must not except this. I feel this is becoming so normalised that our girls just expect to be spoken to in this manner. Mary Ann Layden of the University of Pennsylvania who specialises in sexual trauma says that, ‘The earlier males are exposed to pornography, the more likely they are to engage in non-consensual sex’. Given the amount of young males accessing porn so easily nowadays this is shocking to hear. And in Ireland, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Ellen O’Malley-Dunlop said the same link between early porn usage and later attacks on women is being recorded in this country. She states ‘from our own annual reports we can see that there is increasingly additional violence involved in sexual assaults, and that can be traced to the growing availability of pornography sites that are increasingly extreme’.

Both people I spoke to said that there is no respect from males in their peer group. When I asked them about street harassment they explained how much the hate it, they cannot walk anywhere now without something sexual being said as they walk by, one of the girls described to me that sometimes there can be two separate groups of boys, on each side of the street, debating while they walk by whether your body is good enough or not. With no concern or thought for the girl involved. One of them put it simply and quite sadly “it’s not fair just because we are girls this happens to us, nothing gets said to them but we must look perfect or a certain way all of the time”.

Another personal story one of the young women shared with me was horrifying. She explained to me that when she was fourteen, a boy she had been out on a walk with held her down and demanded her to perform a sex act on him in the park. She luckily was able to escape to safety but in the weeks after the incident she received verbal abuse online from the boy who had done this to her. She rejected his advances, and escaped rape yet he was still abusing her online calling her ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’. She never discussed this with a parent or teacher. Although she knew it was wrong, it wasn’t all that shocking for her, because “this stuff happens all the time now”. This left me fearful that perhaps our teenagers are unaware of what constitutes rape and consent.

I didn’t sleep properly for three nights after hearing that story. I felt physically sick and angry. Really angry. Why is no one taking action? Surely if I am able to do research for this piece and look on thirteen-year olds Facebook pages that are set to public, then their parent’s can see the same things I could, and step in? I was stunned at how much private information I was able to read. I started writing this piece weeks ago, but admittedly I found it really hard to do. I have watched men in their thirties chat up young girls, I have seen them write ‘why can’t you just just hurry up and be 16’. I have witnessed girls offer oral sex to boys. I’ve discussed videos that have been leaked by males and I’ve been told of bribery for sexual exchanges.  Understandably this has been a dark world to submerge myself into. Especially when I have a daughter of my own. It scares me. A lot.

So what has changed over time? It’s apparent that respect and consent are diminishing concepts for these groups of teenagers. I feel the responsibility for these issues lie on many people’s shoulders; parents, schools, sports clubs. We must ask ourselves are we raising our boys to treat women equally and with respect, are we teaching them from a young age no means no, and the absence of a no doesn’t mean yes? There are so many worries here. We must instil beliefs of gender equality into our girls from a young age too, so they realise they are so much more than the names thrown at them as they walk down the street. We, as parents have a lot of work to do here, to ensure the safety of all our children. We need schools, sports clubs, and Gardai involved in this epidemic. Education is key in this area. Parents need help in addressing these issues at home. We should want our kids, male and female, to grow up with respect for one another, to know rights and wrongs. Consent needs to be clearly understood. If we miss these important lessons as they are growing up it will undoubtedly lead to a huge increase in abusive, unhealthy relationships. As a society we should want more than that for our next generation of adults.

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The Story Behind the Stereotype: Parenting Alone.

by Sarah Gorry – National One Parent Family Network

I was 23 years and 2 months when I became a lone parent. My daughter was a cuddly bundle of six  month cuteness. I had spent the six months prior in a bubble of new motherhood, adapting to my new life as well as coping with post-natal depression and coming to terms with my mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 61.

My life had quite literally changed overnight. I wasn’t surprised when my relationship broke down. It was on the cards. It was very apparent we weren’t compatible and it would have been near impossible to raise a child in that cold environment of walking on eggshells, being anxious and unhappy, but the life I was thrust into was a huge surprise to me.

Growing up I had a wonderful childhood. I had security. I had a stable home. I had parents who shared a deep bond, love and friendship together. I never heard my mother say we can’t afford to eat this or that. I never watched her cry or vomit when her bank account was overdrawn.  My daughter’s early years were a stark contrast to my own. At my worst, my weight plummeted to 36 kilos. I would throw up as soon as I woke up. I stopped eating completely. My body was so controlled by anxiety, which I tried so hard to get rid of by making myself sick every single day. I was faced with homelessness when my landlord  increased my rent and I was already struggling to pay before the increase. I spent morning, noon and night trying to find a new home to rent. It was impossible. I was struggling to feed my child and heat my home. I was living off 190 euro per week from my one parent family payment. I wasn’t receiving any maintenance for 2 years for my child and as much as they helped there was only so much my family could do. I was stuck in a poverty trap.

It was during my bleakest, lowest time that I met a group of women on a wet, miserable December afternoon in 2012 outside Dail Eireann in Dublin. They, as well as myself had gathered for a small protest after the budget was announced. That budget of 2012 changed the lives of nearly every lone parent in Ireland. Little did I know that those bunch of girls standing with placards, speaking through megaphones, would become my best friends, my biggest support and the most inspirational group of women I have ever met. Our baby, National One Parent Family was born.

We have spent the last 3 years lobbying against the disastrous cuts to one parent families, highlighting to our government they are pushing thousands of families into further poverty. 98% of lone parents are women. The cuts over the past 3 years have pushed us to the brink, we have had to abandon degrees and jobs, we have become homeless, we have battled with illness and stress and depression, all while parenting alone, while trying to give our children a happy secure life that every child so rightly deserves. To give them at times enough love and encouragement to make up for the absent parent, to play good cop/bad cop day in, day out, with no respite. On top of all this, lone parent are labeled by society.

Lazy, slut, whore, scrounger. Words I never heard in everyday vocabulary until I became a lone parent. ‘Should have kept your legs closed’ is another statement thrown so easily at us. I couldn’t believe how society viewed lone parents and I was shocked that I was constantly stereotyped. I wanted to scream so many times to people ‘Come live with me’ to see how they would manage in my shoes. I yearned for the people of Ireland to stand with us not against us, but I soon realised that would never be the case. We got ourselves into this situation they would say, so nobody is going to help you out.

The idea that so many people questioned why we didn’t use contraception was shocking, that they thought all of our children were unplanned mistakes. There is a common misconception that the majority of lone parents are teenagers, when in fact teenagers only make up 1.5% of one parent families in Ireland (One family 2010). People probe us as to why we allowed ourselves get pregnant, as if we all had drunken one night stands down an alley way and didn’t know our children’s father. Yes that happens, its life, we should support anyone’s choice in how they want to deal with an unplanned pregnancy and respect their decision but it’s certainly not the case that most children in one-parent families are the result of unplanned pregnancy. The majority are parenting alone is due to a marriage or long term partnership ending, with domestic violence and psychological abuse being the 2nd biggest reason for people parenting alone, according to National One parent Family Network’s latest ongoing survey.

Over the past few weeks I gathered stories from other women about their experiences. It opened my eyes to a world even I didn’t want to believe exists. It hurt and saddened me to read my friend’s experiences.  These are women I’ve known for some time, yet we have never fully divulged this information to each other, the darkness of our past, the events that led to us all to become friends, and I realised we were so much more than the labels put on us. Many of us were victims, and as hard as it is to live in poverty week in week out, every single person I asked ‘were they happier now?’ said yes. These women have ran in the middle of the night, they have sought shelter in a neighbour’s house with their children, they have fled their homes to stay in a women’s refuges. I collected stories from these women over the last month and I found it difficult to hear these accounts. I posted it on our Facebook page and I received over 100 replies when I asked, ‘How many of you experienced any type of abuse in your relationship prior to becoming a lone parent’. The results were shocking. Even for me:

‘I was, my ex was depressed too but I still dismissed that as a good excuse to rape me. I wanted to leave him well before but he actually made it easier for me by abusing me every night for a full week. I couldn’t take it anymore. I contacted women’s aid and left, my youngest child was 4’

‘Mine wasn’t physical but mental abuse. Constantly checking my phone, asking why I was smiling, he wouldn’t let me sleep and he enjoyed that’

‘I’m free 8 years now I threw him out after he tried to rape me. His abuse towards me was mental, physical and sexual. He still tries to control me now through our children’

‘Mine was 15 years of abuse, I left when my boys were 7 months and 2yrs when he took a knife at me In front of the children, I knew I had to get out’

‘I got my hand smashed and my neck sliced with a cut throat razor’

‘I went down to less than a size six and was still called fat, I breastfed for three years yet was called lazy if I didn’t have his dinner on the table at 2am, if I spoke to any other male including my father’s friends I was accused of cheating’

These are just some example’s of the many stories I received. These women are still recovering from the years of abuse, most of them left with very low self esteem and little confidence, worn down for years on end while trying to make everything right. And then to face a life of poverty and judgement after escaping from these relationships. Surely there should be better treatment than we receive right now.

Its time to ask why? Why are we victim blaming here? Why is the primary caregiver the ones who are attacked in society? We need to change how we view people parenting alone as a nation. Its time to open our eyes and minds to the true reality of what these people have gone through before you judge them.

We need proper support structures in place for people who have come to a point where they have to parent alone, lone parents countrywide are crying out for a help up not a hand out, help returning to education, training and the workforce. We should be recognised for the care we are providing for our children, not penalised for wanting a better, safer life for ourselves and our children or for being abandoned and left with no support.

We are marginalised. We are name-called. We are frowned upon. We are hated. We are unfairly stigmatised.

The truth is very different, we are none of the above. We are survivors. We are brave, and we are heroes, to our children and to ourselves.

Change is needed to recognise the truth behind the stereotype.

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Garden Variety Creepiness – Romantic Heroes or Abusive Men

by Tom Meagher

I purposely almost passed on the opportunity to add to the clamour of comment on the social and cultural toxicity of 50 Shades of Grey, because frankly it has been heavily remarked upon by people much brighter than I am. What I did find interesting was Christian Grey’s place in the great body of male leads, and the conceptions of love that inform those characters. The story’s grim valourisation of abuse and past Hollywood standards compelled me to explore the dynamics and background that led to the celebration/condemnation of Christian Grey and the historic and current position of abusive men as romantic heroes.

I would imagine it seems reasonable to most Hollywood executives that they are (to use problematic language) post-gender, post-race, and post all of the ugly stuff of historic inequality. We’re so often told that male-centrism in movies is not about male-domination, it’s about what sells; they simply go with what sells. It’s not about black or white, it’s about the box-office. What we never need to question is why that standard sells. The danger of the repetition of the toxic is that the foundation on which it rests becomes standard, and when the voices of opposition fall silent, that standard is re-established as the default setting, the one that has always worked when everything else falls apart. It rests on the retrospective illusion that progress is at once linear and inevitable, and that we are in our current position because history happened as it was meant to happen.

For the most part Hollywood movies are an exercise in administration rather than in creation. Male romantic characters enact questionable habits by rote, by virtue of how that role has previously existed and the viewers reaction to that standard romantic dynamic. The rare points of departure exist, but continue to be the exception. This device informs us that mistakes in executing new ideas prove the paucity of that idea, rather than external/unforeseen factors, the stubbornness of old values, or an ineptitude in the administration of those ideas. Even revolution brings with it some of the assumptions of the past, and it is usually through a lack of thinking rather than through rigour or imposition that standard ideas remain. I believe those Hollywood execs who say their intention is not subordination based on gender or race. They exist within, rather than produce the inequalities from which they benefit and unthinkingly perpetuate.

Women have been a plot device for male entitlement for as far back as stories were being told, as trophies for creepy behaviour, as the spoils of war, as the property of men, as the maiden-in-waiting for her adorable coercive, overly-persistent prince-charming. This canonical romance fodder is by no means confined to Hollywood’s conveyor-belt of repetitious creepy men and two-dimensional women. Romantic notions of ownership and possession have been cultural touchstones from Homer’s depiction of the Trojan war to countless Marvel and DC superheroes, to the princess in Super Mario Bros. The endless list of women as representative and actual rewards for men in every facet of media almost always stops when the reward is won. In 50 Shades we have a rare peek into the post-prize horror, the abuse and possession that comes from viewing women as things to possess, while glamourising that man as a brooding troubled Adonis with a haunting past.

After seeing that four foot high visual of a man grabbing a woman by the throat on the movie poster for 50 Shades, I asked a number of people who had read the book what they thought it was about. Most said it was a just a story about humping and BDSM, some said they found it ludicrously dull, almost all (whether they enjoyed it or not) found the prose unreasonably bad, but some agreed with its author E.L James that this was not just about BDSM, but a love story.

As I flicked through my memory bank of love stories with which to compare it, I concluded, although not as overtly ‘abusive dressed as sexy’, the scale of abusive or controlling and manipulative man on our screens who are cast as ideal and beautiful love-matches is so frequent it’s past remarkable. On the grand scale of love stories and conceptions of love that have had sustained across cultures for centuries, our depictions of love can be brutal, possessive and obsessive. 50 Shades has it’s place in the pantheon of disturbing fictional relationships, but it is by no means alone. What it does is show us what most of Hollywood’s romantic heroes might be like if we had the opportunity to see beyond the usual ending of the lead character (almost always the man) working out how to ‘get’ the woman.
The first story that crossed my mind was modern day tear-jerker The Notebook which I had re-watched over the holiday season and predictably sobbed uncontrollably. I remembered the great moments of nascent love I’ve had in my life, and of how some messy, many were awkward or downright embarrassing. None were as confidently and creepily coercive and abusive as the character of a seventeen-year-old Noah in this movie. The male lead (swooningly played by Ryan Gosling), gets an idea that he’s in love with a young woman he sees at a local carnival. He pursues this interest by asking her out. When she refuses his initial advances, he climbs a Ferris wheel she’s riding on with her date, and threatens to plummet to his death unless she agrees to go out with him, a concept we’re supposed to find impish, cute, and oh so romantic (imagine this played by a demented wide-eyed Nick Cage, then tell me it’s cute). Threatening suicide if a woman does not defer to your will is not a fun prelude to a great romance, but psychological abuse from the first moment of contact. To be fair, this story actually does go beyond the usual – stop it when they get together – bit, but only to show the couple in their first flushes of love and then when she tragically gets Alzheimer’s in old age. There are undoubtedly some touching and heartbreaking moments of love in their elderly relationship, but this switching between youth and old-age device allowed the filmmakers to avoid the couple’s entire adult relationship.

The enshrinement of these narratives in popular culture oscillate between the sacrificial notions of the romance of male protector-narratives of Titanic to the female subordination and power-imbalances of Pretty Woman. From the love-über-alles yarn of heroic poor men dying for rich woman, to the valourisation of rich guys who purchase sex, and eventually exploit their elevated social and economic position to keep that woman around as his very own PA/sexual escape-pod from the boredom and inauthenticity of his life, the ubiquity of ownership narratives or selfless/pointless sacrifices in popular culture are borne out by a history of thinking about romantic love as a divine and idealised form of male ownership of another human being.

These relatively recent snapshots of idealised love as eternal and immutable property have a rich and uncomfortable relationship with the romance of obsession, which places the object of affection as just that; an object, stripping that beloved other of the humanity of their imperfections. The upshot of the power-relations that surround the imposition of romantic love as the ultimate quest, the Holy Grail of meaningfulness and secular religiosity is that it places idealised forms of beauty and goodness into socially fluid and volatile constructs of power that often deny the agency of the beloved if the scales fall and that beloved fails to live up to the divine expectations of the lover.

50 Shades, as a manifestation and sexualisation of an abusive relationship, packaged and sold as ‘hot’, was perhaps unusual in its mainstreaming of unambiguous manipulation (and that it provided fodder for us to snigger at the peculiarities and cultural novelty of ‘female sexuality’), but burgeoning abusive behaviour is hardwired into the ‘normal’ aspirational heterosexual love-stories we watch and re-watch. Long before the divinity of heterosexual couple-love became a staple of Hollywood’s lazy conservatism, the path was well and truly beaten for them by a dangerous notional cocktail of male predators and female gatekeepers, whose bodies and hearts can be won through deceit or grand gestures that, off-screen could be bullet-points in the Dummies Guide to Stalking (Hugh Grant starting a cringe-inducing international incident with the United States as UK PM as a gesture of power and abandon a la Love Actually – or indeed any story in Love Actually, or the iconic creepiness of John Cusack with a boom-box in Say Anything). Follow any of these stories past their ‘happy ever after’ conclusion and the male characters would very likely display some creepy, dangerous Christian Grey-like behaviours.

The problem with the notion of romantic love relationships as unconditional, unchanging and unending is the impossibility of its demands, the demands of the dominant partner setting out the terms of those impossible demands, and the difficultly of leaving a lover within the confines of those aggressive expectations.

One of my favourite opening lines from a novel is from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ It opens at the scene of a suicide and the first line is:

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”

This beautifully written line is infused with inescapability and the hopelessness of a love unrealised – Garcia narrows the choices of the rejected lover only to death when he invokes words like “inevitable” and “fate”to describe the power and destiny and ultimate cruelty of love, begging the question: if the absence of mutuality can only lead to death, what does the withdrawal of mutuality inevitably lead to? Disturbing indeed, but this idealised ‘love as the search for ideal beauty’ can traced all the way back to the ancients, a time where power relations, indeed all relations between men and women, and indeed men and men would be unrecognisable in today’s world, but somehow this conception of love has sustained through millenia. Ideal forms of reaching for beauty is so enshrined in our conception of how we love that there is an ill-conceived idea of love as our only unconditionality. That wonderful human need for affection and love that can inspire and delight is repeatedly framed in an almost religious craving for the eternal – an immutability that can be grasped in the beauty of one lover. The arbitrary and unchosen nature of love itself is often framed as inescapable, using deterministic language like destiny, eternity and unconditionality.

The loved one’s reciprocation is not even remotely required for this devotional love. Take the common Hollywood theme of leer from afar, turned stalking pest – like Ben Stiller’s character (and, as it turns out, all the male characters) in ‘There’s Something About Mary’. The consent of the female character is entirely optional. Love, conceived this way is relational only in terms of woman as a means to the man’s goals of fulfilling his desire for her. This desire allows him to invade this other human’s space, private moments and movements.

Conceptualised through a lens of male entitlement, heterosexual love can be normalised in the most dangerous of ways, and Christian Grey can be easily conceived of as a seductive romantic hero rather than a controlling manipulator. The dark side of the romantic idealisation of the other is linked with male infantalisation of women, sexual entitlement to women in general, but particularly to ‘my’ woman. This intensification of control and objectification is reinforced and validated by a social edifice that commands and worships male domination, the sexualisation of young women, and the disposibility and demented desexualisation and mumsification of older women, to the point where it is a either a seam-busting joke, or a disastrous near family destroying abuse-storyline if an older woman expresses any sexual desire (see Thirteen or even Patricia Arquette in Boyhood).

In 50 shades, we see the egregious result of every Hollywood ‘ending as beginning’ in a way that still lionises the abuser. Hollywood’s classic arc is to portray a controlling man only up to the point where he ‘gets’ the girl (which, of course, is presented as romantic). If we could attach a three-years-later scene to our Pretty Woman example, where Julia Roberts’ doesn’t live up to the idealised notion of ladylike perfection that Gere’s character groomed and trained her to be, the unsurprising and disastrous results wouldn’t shock us. We would have clearly seen the warning signs. Gere was a creep from beginning to end, but, goddamn it, he got the girl, he saved the girl, he showed the girl how to live ‘properly’. Thank heavens for Hollywood’s abusive creep instructing women on their behaviour.

The status quo is not difficult to enact. It is the path of least resistance. Hollywood does not enact the privilege of the abusive, white, heterosexual, cis-gendered man, rather it is reflexively reproduced by the society that so keenly values those attributes, and their relationship to power and ruling classes, and projects it back to that society. The fact that the systematic supremacy of those attributes have been in operation for as far back as memory reaches means there is no requirement to consciously exercise oppression or even acknowledge its existence. Routine reproductions of power and oppression are more often imposed by not thinking, or enacting, but through box-ticking and repeating criteria. Hollywood exists in this unconscious repetition of established norms, popping up only very occasionally to think.

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800 Days

…..since I lost my beautiful friend. Exploring the personal human cost of systemic inaction and indifference over men’s violence against women. 

by Aoife Lyons

I have started writing this a hundred times. I have filled pages, typed and deleted, because nothing seems adequate. In some ways this has become a fixation, but at the same time, it is hard, and feels like it could be dangerous to delve too deep, as the cork might pop off, releasing in a chaotic flurry what I’ve been so busy bottling for two years.

I met Jill in Dublin in 2007. Something seemed to click: I loved the fact that she appeared to have no filter, would speak her mind, and reach her own conclusions. She came across as so self-assured, although the truth is always more complex. I was in silent awe of her confidence, of how she would do almost anything for a laugh, dredge up anything, from teenage ridiculousness, to adult stupidity, and mould it into a funny story, at once exposing and inoculating herself to embarrassment. We shared the same irreverent sense of humour, and would spend nights engaged in the most profound and ridiculous conversations, laughing at our own pretentiousness.

She and Tom eventually moved to Melbourne, but it took me two years of intense procrastination to follow them out. It was as though we hadn’t seen each other for a week or two, aside from the abundance of stories, which, told in the flesh, are always funnier than by email. That first night in Australia – me, my boyfriend, John, Jill and Tom, sitting on the balcony of their apartment in Brunswick, drinking beer, several varieties of duty free whiskey, and enjoying a selection of cheeses, like real grown-ups – was pregnant with possibility. We just picked up where we left off, and the conversation ebbed and flowed, wheeling wildly between philosophy, politics and comedy, or three all at once. We drew up a shortlist for future trips, places to eat and drink, museums, parks, the unlimited possibilities for grown-up, and not-so-grown-up larks. There seemed to be so much time.

Then, one Saturday morning, Tom texted to ask if Jill was with me. We had found an apartment within shouting distance of theirs in Brunswick, a short detour off the pub-to-home route. The next days were an indescribable mix of adrenalin and unspoken panic: the strangeness of police interviews, and the mounting media circus entrenched outside the apartment building. You can’t expect the unexpected, so I knew it was going to work out – it had to. These things may happen in every cop show on TV, in innumerable books, games and films, where the disappearance of young women serve as the central plot device, but they didn’t happen in real life.

When the reality began to take shape my internal monologue changed from one kind of denial to another, until there was no more denying. Her picture was everywhere. The story played out on TV like any other story of that sort, but profoundly different, at once distant and intensely personal. It was a waking nightmare; I would drink myself to sleep every night, descend into an eight hour blackness, to emerge tired, confused, and almost manic in search of distractions.

The anger came later. When someone you love has been designated a ‘victim’ in such horrific circumstances, it is just one aspect of the surreal smorgasbord that is to follow. There’s an intense numbness, interspersed with boundless panic and disbelief. Then the anger. I thought I knew what it was to be angry, but I had never even touched its surface. It was immense, metastasising uncontrollably. It was a Revelation, in the Old Testament sense. It was a deluge which drowned everything, to subside revealing a mutilated, alien wasteland. It was damnation, brimstone, pestilence, and Retribution. Especially Retribution. The events that followed were a vortex of unknown and unknowable feelings, of the procedural necessities, the pantomime of justice, that was, at least, over comparatively quickly.

It’s much easier, though destructive, to be angry than sad. It is easier, in turn, to direct that anger at a faceless bureaucracy – a system based on box ticking and finances, not the utopian ideals of Justice. That a human being raped and murdered my friend spawned in my consciousness later. That this human, who had spent a quarter of his life in prison for the rape and attempted rape of eight women (consider that only one in six rapes are reported), was paroled after completing a sex offenders program, is a source of great anguish, and impotent rage. That the parole board have apologised for not revoking parole after an assault on a man, rather than for granting parole in the first place, shows a catastrophic failure, and inexplicable naivety of a system that is supposed to exist to protect the community. (Or, their failure to apologise for granting parole is merely a cynical exercise in judicial blame avoidance.) His ‘good behaviour’ in prison was taken into account by the parole board, though he was incarcerated away from his female targets; his ‘remorse’ was recognised during sentencing, though weeks later he appealed on the basis that 35 years was unduly harsh. It would be comic were it not so tragic. All that stands between women and violent, recidivist sexual offenders is a paper tiger, a check-the-box ‘rehabilitation’, and a judicial system and parole structure that is as effective as using a croissant as a toothbrush: it doesn’t get the job done, and it makes a fucking mess.

The last two years have been a struggle. I have had to juggle the sadness of her loss and the anger of how she died. No one is equipped for this. Jill was three months younger than me: she came to my 30th in July, but didn’t live to see her own in October. Her life should have been lived parallel to mine, so the landmarks of my life seem tainted – any happiness is edged with sadness and guilt. Until quite recently I drank as though I were trying to drown myself, and I was. It is a private, isolating hell.

I quoted Martin Luther King at Jill’s funeral: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” I suspect those words should mean more, or resonate more, but they seem to be predicated on forgiveness – a stage I will never reach. More fitting words came from Christopher Hitchens: “We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.” And from Joan Didion: “There were no faint traces about dead, no pencil marks.” And from Oscar Wilde: “There are times when sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of sorrow have worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or star there is pain.”

The only shred of hope for me is that something positive can be wrenched out of this madness; that changes to the parole system may prevent this from happening again, even once (although, I’m cynical about the long term effectiveness of knee-jerk, politically motivated revisions); or that something worthy of Jill, something creative and joyous, can be eked out of this mess – the star born out of the pain.

Jill is not a cautionary tale. She is not a tragic fairy-tale character, a bleak warning to young women to be constantly afraid. She is now a public symbol of the shortcomings of a judicial system that seems to have motivations other than the protection of the community – grubby, pathetic excuses like lack of funding, and overcrowding, that we absolutely must not continue to tolerate. Jill demands that we must claim our due from the system, and not be afraid and passive, kowtowing to authority, meekly accepting that this is the way of the world.

While I try to cement my memories of Jill against fallibility and malleability of memory itself, her identity has been subsumed by the tragedy of her death. The person she was has been usurped by the circumstances: She is “ABC employee, Jill Meagher”, or “murder victim, Jill Meagher”, or “angelic”, or “unfortunate”. She was not this one dimensional caricature, defined by her job or by what happened to her, but my friend, the funny, gorgeous ball of energy. She was my self-deprecating, intelligent, ambitious, shameless, adventurous friend, who managed to be childlike and mature in the same breath. She was the brassy, curly-headed, devilish sense-of-humoured girl I met in Dublin in 2007. She was the reason I moved to Melbourne; the caring, thoughtful, gregarious, honest, hilarious friend, for whom I would save up stories of my everyday encounters in the hope of making her laugh. This was my Jill, though these words are laughably inadequate.

It has been almost 800 days, and I am still surrounded by things that can trigger a cascade: the movie we saw in the cinema in Melbourne, the sequel to which is out now; the books we talked about, Jill’s recommendations to me, and mine to her; the music (we both claimed to have discovered how singing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights was the only way to get an annoying song out of your head); the myriad things that are linked, however tenuously, with Jill. I hope I will eventually be able to remember the remarkable influence her life had on me, without the poisonous recollections of anger and trauma – these are totally out of step with what Jill was for me, and I resent their imposition.

Eventually I will be able to consider myself lucky that she chose me as her friend, rather than unfortunate to have only a few years of memories, some hazy and beer-soaked; of staggering from Smyths in Ranelagh, or from the Brunswick Green in Melbourne, to her house or mine, still thirsty and too awake; of laughing at the absurd clicking of her high-heels, worn down to the nail; of her innumerable tales of ludicrous antics, her openness to a universe of experiences, and mischievous disregard for rules. This, and so much more, is my Jill.

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After everything I’ve done for you…..

by Avril D’Arcy. 

Avril, the incredible woman who asked us to post this lucid and raw account of the everyday suffering of domestic violence, escaped the crippling physical and psychological effects of sustained harm by the person who proclaimed to love her. This is a stark retelling of the impact of the violence perpetrated against her, and comes with a trigger warning.

To be told that you are loved, in spite of who you are, is not to be loved at all. This was my life for years: To be loved in spite.

The everlasting memory of emotion from my time with my ex-boyfriend is confusion. I lived in a permanent state of nervousness. Being hurt by the man that I loved, being comforted by the man that hurt me, and apologising for making him angry in the first place.

I wish he had broken my nose.

Like really smashed it up.

Then maybe I wouldn’t have to justify and explain my every move.
Does it matter that I left before it got so bad that I couldn’t?

Should I have stayed to gather evidence?
You see the thing is, I don’t know that I ever could have left, apart from when I did.

So why am I the one hiding in the shadows like some sort of villain?
Why am I the one that has to sit at home while he garners sympathy from mutual friends and plays at having a grand old time without me?

As I sit here, I wish he had broken my nose, like really smashed my face up.

Maybe then I wouldn’t have to feel like it’s me that’s done something wrong by wanting my friends to know how much he’s hurt me, how much I’ve lost of myself.

The worst thing he’s ever done, is made me feel afraid of myself.
I feel like I can’t trust myself, my former self or my future self.
He wants me to know that this is normal, that I am naive and that this will definitely happen to me again.

I want him to know that he will never break me, not now, no more.
I want him to know that I’m not going anywhere, that he will have to face what he’s done when he sees me.
I want to reclaim a life that was always mine to begin with but that I now have no idea how to reach.

Not even fingertips graze the edges of the circle I once called my friends.
The fear of them believing him stands so strong and cements the already insecure and paranoid nature of my mind.

I wish he had smashed me up.
I didn’t meet a man that was awful to me. I didn’t go on a date and get slapped in the face and decide to stay. That’s not how it happens, that’s not how it is. I met a man and he was wonderful. He hung on my every word, he complimented me and was attracted to me and we had fun. We laughed all the time, at the start. It starts slowly and silently. With looks and small comments. Innocuous comments or so you believe in the beginning. Small criticisms of pointless, unimportant things. But it isn’t harmless, it isn’t innocuous and eventually it will leave your soul in tatters. For me, I got out before the physical violence became visible. He had twice physically hurt me and somehow it was the best thing he had ever done for me. I saw the chance to leave.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know what he was doing. I did, to some extent. It’s just that I thought I could help him. I thought that once he’d calmed down, he would listen to reason. But you can’t talk to an unreasonable person. There’s nothing with which to reason.

When it was good, it was too much of a risk to try and bring anything up, I learned that the hard way. When it was bad, I tried my best to make him see sense but that only spurred him on further. When it was really bad, I couldn’t escape the loop of insults and criticism and when it was really, really, really bad, I saw the opportunity to run.

Why I waited so long is a question with which I still struggle. In all honestly, I didn’t see a way to leave before he gave me the concrete answer, an answer I didn’t know I’d been waiting for. The view from the floor.

I wasn’t surprised that last day. I remember simply thinking, ‘this is it, here it comes’. I didn’t scream, I was fairly resolute in my acceptance of the situation. It felt like I’d been waiting for it for years. The biggest surprise was the fact that there was a strange sense of relief, of completion: I had been given a way out that was absolute and left no explanation. Or so I thought at the time. The worst days, much much later, were the times I thought about going back, fleeting thoughts though they may have been, they were the scariest I had ever faced.

My name is A­vril, I’m 31 and last year I left an abusive relationship. It happens everywhere. And it’s everybody’s problem. I always thought that this was a black and white issue. That there was no middle ground where people could sit and maintain a demeanour of complacency. But in this, I was so incredibly wrong. Previous conversations with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers always gave the impression that everyone knows that domestic abuse, in all forms, is categorically wrong. That there are no excuses and there are no sides. This all changed in the aftermath of my relationship with my ex-partner. We were together for three and a half years. That’s a long time to wait to leave. I didn’t take photos of bruises, I didn’t think I’d have to. I didn’t go try and destroy his life, to be honest I thought he’d done that himself. I never realised that I would have to explain, to discuss, to argue my case. But I did, and some days I still have to.

I was orally raped when I was seventeen. I don’t think I’ve ever written that sentence before. It was by a boy I knew, a boy I had been kissing that night. I didn’t see it coming and honestly am not sure if I’ve ever resolved my feelings about it.

I had never told a boyfriend about that night; I was so afraid that they would see me differently, treat me differently. But I told this boyfriend. I thought it would help me, and help him to understand better. You’re supposed to be able to tell your boyfriend, partner , husband all your secrets. The things you’re most afraid of, the things you can’t tell anyone else. I trusted him. I was so wrong. He used all of my secrets against me, all of my insecurities and fears. He used them to hurt me, to undermine me and to make me doubt and dislike myself. There was one particular evening and he was yet again fighting with me. I was selfish, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t care about what he wanted. He told me that it wasn’t fair that he should have to miss out on something he wanted just because of what some asshole did to me when I was seventeen. What he wanted was oral sex, but not as I would have given. He was rough, like really rough. On this one particular occasion, I complied, I didn’t want to but I did. It was better than having to face the inevitable shouting, swearing and silent treatment that always followed when I disappointed him in some way. He was being pretty rough, but I continued, uncomfortably. Eventually I ended up retching and throwing up bile. You would imagine that at this point I would have stopped, but I was so intimidated by this man, that the safer, easier alternative was to clean it up with my mouth and pretend it never happened. To this day he doesn’t know that I did that. That I felt so ashamed of myself, so nervous of him and his reactions to me doing something ‘wrong’ that I licked up my own bile. Afterwards he expressed his appreciation and I pretended I was fine. I felt like I was dying inside, but I smiled. I hated what I had become. In what state of mind could I have been in that the alternative was to do something like that? I was broken. But I didn’t know how to fix it.

Sex had become a minefield. I could rarely do anything right. There was no room for me in our bedroom. He blamed me for everything. I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t turn him on. He was aggressive, had been becoming more aggressive in bed for a while. He would pull my hair so tight, I would have to pull against him in order to be able to breathe properly. He didn’t seem to notice that I was even a real person in these moments. I had become an object, a means to an end. It does something to you, when you or your partner has begun to use your body in this way. You feel an emptiness inside, a damaging force of objectivity. One evening, after a particularly cruel argument, I locked myself in the bathroom and had a panic attack lying in the bath. He told me that I was a selfish bitch, that he wouldn’t flirt with other girls, but they make more effort than I did. Maybe if I dressed sexier, wore more make-up he wouldn’t. It was my fault. As per usual. He eventually told me that actually he preferred fucking his ex-girlfriend than me. That was when I went to lie in the bath. Sobbing and trying to breathe. When I came out, I asked him why he was saying these things, he told me simply: Because I want to hurt you.

He gained power from hurting me. Every reaction I had was a source of power for him. I had become numb to the usual, swearing, shouting, the ‘shut the fuck ups’ and the ‘shut your fucking mouths’. He had to go further and further each time. I was a slut and a whore, I was a selfish bitch, a stupid cunt a fucking moron, a silly cunt. I was gross, disgusting and he thought he might catch something from me. He thought I had been with too many men, and that I was disgusting, but he said that he thought he would have at least got what he wanted from me. I was insecure and paranoid, irrational and jealous. He once said the words, ‘You used to be so confident, what happened?’ I just stood there in disbelief and silence.

I apologised for everything, for my very being. I don’t know how this happened, it wasn’t how any conversation started out. I once apologised for not telling him properly that he was hurting me by his behaviour. How? How did I become this person? Where had I disappeared to? This wasn’t the person I was supposed to be. It wasn’t the person he had started going out with. It seemed like he had taken all of the things that he had loved about me in the first place and torn them to shreds. He now hated all of that and I could do nothing right. The goalposts kept moving, I would master one thing and he would come up with a new problem. My behaviour was so modified by the end, I didn’t know what I was doing. I questioned my every step. My whole day was mapped out by whatever type of mood he was in that day. I used to cry most days on my way home from work. Thinking about all the things I needed to say to him. Things that we needed to sort out. Plans I had for the future, the voice that I had lost. But every day I would get to the front door and pull myself together and pretend that I was fine. I knew that if I walked in the door with anything other than a smile and joy to be back in his presence that I would be looking at another evening of fighting or of silence. I wasn’t allowed to be in a bad mood, I wasn’t allowed to have had a bad day. If I took too long to take my earphones out or didn’t greet him properly I was facing accusations of not caring enough. I should be happy once I was back with him. Nothing else should matter. It’s a pretty exhausting way to live. He on the other hand could be in whatever mood he liked. You won’t find a more negative person. The world was against him. But he created a space where it was us against them, and by god I should appreciate everything he did for me.

I was sick all the time, I rarely get sick. It was as if my body was trying to tell the story my soul couldn’t. I got abscesses and cysts, I got heat stroke and colds, sore throats and had chest pains that never seemed to leave. I was exhausted and wasn’t sleeping. I was in a constant state of latent anxiety. Waiting for the next time he was in a bad mood or the next time I said something ‘wrong’ inadvertently. I was walking on eggshells and didn’t know what the next day would bring. I would tell him if I was feeling anxious. I’ve battled anxiety and depression since my teens and have learned that I should say out loud when I was experiencing symptoms. If we were ok at that time, he would tell me not to worry that he had everything under control. I was worried about money, our future, our inability to save, to clear his many debts and didn’t know what sort of a future we would have with his financial history. I was constantly worried that I would have to do all the heavy lifting when it came to financing our life. He worked part time, and didn’t seem to care about things like that. We had each-other, didn’t we? Why couldn’t I be happy knowing that? We had a roof over our heads? Of course we did, I was paying all the rent and most of the bills. I was making him stressed talking about money, making him feel bad about debts that were nothing to do with me and that he didn’t want to talk about. If we were fighting when I told him of my anxiety or stress, he would tell me that they were my issues and it wasn’t his problem that I couldn’t ‘handle him’ when he was angry. It was my responsibility to ‘deal with him’ when he was abusing me.

I dreaded getting sick. Firstly, I often got sick after he did, not unusual since we were living together and were partners. Somehow though I always had the impression that he thought I was doing it on purpose. An irrational mind will do that. He was initially always caring when I was ill. But as the illness progressed he would get increasingly frustrated, impatient and angry. He yelled at me that he said I looked fine, like I was looking for a compliment, for attention. I was actually asking him if my face was more swollen than the previous night. I had two massive abscesses and at that point was so swollen that I could see my own mouth without the aid of a mirror. He was angry that I wasn’t listening to him. Another time, I was in incredible pain with a cyst. I had asked him to check on me later as I was in bed. The pain got really bad though, and I got up to get more pain-killers from our kitchen. I just went in and out and back to bed, was feeling miserable, there was no need to stop and chat, he was busy playing computer games or watching TV. He had a massive argument with me about how I did it just to make him feel bad, how I should have asked him to get them, even though I was in another room. Somehow, this was about him too. When I got heat stroke while on holidays, he started a massive argument about how I wasn’t showing enough appreciation for him helping me. I could barely stand up at that stage. I didn’t appreciate all the things he did for me. I was so selfish. I’ve forgotten how many times I lay on our bed and sobbed until I couldn’t anymore. None of it made sense. He told me he loved me, he told me he’d do anything for me. Why did he want to hurt me like this?

Logic told me that it was all bull, but somehow I still wanted to help him. I begged him to get help, told him I would be with him through it. He would promise he would, and then the next time say he didn’t need it, that he didn’t believe in therapy and that it was my problem anyway. If only I wasn’t so annoying, if only I could just do what he wanted. He once asked me if I needed him to make a list for me, his sentence trailed off. He drew an explanation on the wall of his room as to how exactly I was annoying him. It was one of the few times he caught himself and heard what he was doing. That happened a couple of times. Where he would realise what was happening. Those moments gave me hope. But he quashed those feelings deep. He couldn’t accept what he had become. He had stopped apologising in the last nine months of our relationship. I had moved in with him, I had met all of the issues that he had with me, and now he had me where he wanted me. He forgot all his promises, his laments and was resolute in his righteousness. I was the problem and how dare I make him feel bad about anything. The constantly moving goalposts made it impossible for me to keep up with his complaints. Nothing was ever going to be enough, no matter what I did, he would find another problem.

I once wrote down a list of some of the terrible things he had said to me.

‘You’re lucky I’m not a violent man’
‘I know why you’re so annoying, you question everything’
‘I have my anger under control, your face is still intact, isn’t it?’
‘You’re a shit girlfriend’
‘You don’t turn me on, you’re not sexy enough’ etc etc etc….

When he read the list his response was only: ‘Do you know how hard that was for me to read?’ It was out of context and I never listen, that was one of my problems.
He couldn’t seem to grasp the reality of how hard it was for me to have to hear those things from the man that I did honestly love. But my feelings were secondary, always. He came first. If he was having a good day, I was having a good day. I was caught in a cycle of abuse that I couldn’t find my way out of. Our lives had become so intertwined that I would lose everything should I go. I left him once, it lasted a few months, but I went back. I reasoned myself into it, thought he would change, he didn’t, he never will. On the day that we decided to give things another go, he told me that I had had my ‘out’ and that if I left him again, that he wouldn’t be so good to me, that he would make sure I lost everyone. Why I didn’t run screaming then, I have no idea. I just always thought that there would be time later to bring things up, to figure things out. He had problems, and I would help him with those, and then we could talk about all of it. I couldn’t leave him when he needed my help. That day never came, and things just got worse and worse. By the end I felt like I needed a ‘good’ reason to leave. I had rationalised all the other reasons. The psychological and verbal abuse didn’t seem like enough. I thought about recording our fights, to make him listen to how he treated me. I never seemed to do it though. I would start out standing up for myself, but end up cowering, backing down, crying and asking that he just be nice to me. What a question to have to ask of your boyfriend. ‘I just want you to be nice to me’. The words rattle around my head constantly. When I finally got the courage to tell him that when he was angry, he scared me, he told me that he was leaving me, because he couldn’t be with someone that thought that of him. Again, it was my perception of things, and I was wrong, and it was never his fault.

I had started saving money in a separate account that he didn’t know about. I told myself that it was an emergency fund, a ‘just in case we needed something’ fund. The fact was, I had little control over our finances. I was paying for everything, which left me with nothing extra for myself. I only went out when he was out, and would give him any money at the start of the evening. This was all under some sort of guise of me being incompetent. What did it matter, it was ‘our money’. Funny how it was always ‘our money’ when he was spending it. I rarely bought anything or did anything by myself, and on the rare occasions that I did, he made it almost impossible for me to enjoy it. Anything I did by myself was undermined to the point of obsolescence.

The last month with him was horrific. I couldn’t move, but that set him off into a rage, into the usual silent treatment or onslaught of insults. Two weeks before the day I left, we were actually having a pleasant evening together. An argument erupted because of a cup. A cup.

I was being crushed in a doorway by my boyfriend. I can’t find the right word for this action. He didn’t want to listen to me, and he wanted to close the door, so he closed it on top of me. He loved doors. He liked to slam them, he liked to close them in my face. The plaster on the wall in our sitting room was cracked because he had slammed it so hard, so many times. The bedroom door kept sticking for the same reason, and there was a cupboard door that was falling off its hinge. This time though, I was the one that got damaged in the door. My boyfriend was a big guy, and he, full force, with all his strength, crushed me between the door and the door jamb. I was in shock, my voice sounded tiny and scared as I told him to stop, that he was hurting me. That he was scaring me. ‘Why are you doing this?’, “because I want to close the door’. I was nothing.

I was crying hysterically on the couch, in shock, in emotional agony. He couldn’t stop anymore.

He completely retreated into denial. He hadn’t done anything wrong, he wouldn’t apologise. This was the point that I became really scared of him. I had always convinced myself that it would never get to this point. As explanation for his behaviour, he listed all of my faults, all of my secrets and insecurities. And then he told me that he loved me in spite of all of it. In spite of who I was, he loved me anyway, and I should be grateful for that. After everything he had done for me, how could I still not understand that? That night I ended up comforting him. I can’t remember now how I did that.

I got stubborn at the end, I knew I couldn’t live like that. I needed to stand up to him, to speak back to him, to try to make him understand he couldn’t treat me that way. That’s when I ended up being dragged from my doorway, knocked into a wall and onto the ground. Squaring up to me hadn’t worked, the spitting rage through gritted teeth didn’t see me cower the way it usually would. I didn’t back away, I stood in front of him and told him straight. He couldn’t speak to me like that. People have asked me why I didn’t just move out of his way, let him walk away after he had called me names, after he had humiliated me and threatened me. But I couldn’t, I had to tell him to stop, to think, to see that he couldn’t insult and swear at me. I needed to stand up for myself, I couldn’t take it anymore.

As I lay on the floor of our hallway, he laughed a snide little laugh, looked at me and said, ‘you silly cunt’. I half picked myself up and sat against the door, in shock, in a weird calm, inside myself. I tried to put a t-shirt on, which he had earlier in the argument shouted at me to take off because it was his. He grabbed it and threw it behind him across the hall to where I couldn’t reach. I couldn’t have been more vulnerable. And he was laughing at me.

I sat in our apartment for a whole day before telling anyone or doing anything. Part of me thought that if I could fix it, if I could talk to him, I wouldn’t have to tell anyone. I was in shock. Paralysed with the realisation that this had actually happened to me. I didn’t want to believe it, and my mind tried to rationalise it as best it could. But there was no getting away from it now. I knew it was all over, that the decision had been made for me. There was no fixing it. And I had to start thinking about fixing myself. I never imagined that this could have happened to me, I don’t think anyone can. After I left, the range of moods and emotions were astounding and overwhelming and sometimes I still find myself seeking approval for my decisions. My clothes, makeup, hobbies, interests. I repeat myself constantly, especially if I am nervous or tired. I apologise first, before anyone even questions me. Just in case. Adapting to the real world was incredibly hard. The realisations of my relationship kept hitting me in waves over a period of months. It’s been over a year now, and I’m still learning how to cope with people. I’m still discovering the ways in which my brain had reprogrammed itself to just survive through the daily life of the relationship. Sometimes I feel like if I feel better, it means that what happened to me won’t matter. Like I’m the only proof of what he did.

It’s been a very long journey to today. There’s still a lot of work I have to do to heal, but one thing I need to remember is this: I was wrong on one point. The decision wasn’t made for me. I made that decision, somewhere I found the strength to make that decision. I walked away. I didn’t go back when the pleas and bargains and empty promises started flowing. And I am the one that gets ownership of my own story. Not him. And that’s a really good place for me to start.

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The Danger of the Monster Myth

Tom Meagher

One of the most disturbing moments of the past eighteen months of my life was hearing my wife’s killer form a coherent sentence in court. Jill had been murdered almost six months earlier, and Adrian Bayley’s defence team were presenting a rather feeble case for a four-week adjournment of his committal hearing. Bayley appeared via video-link as I sat flanked by two friends and a detective. The screen was to my right, mounted high up and tilted slightly towards the bench. It was uncomfortably silent apart from the occasional paper shuffle or short flurry of keyboard clicks. I anticipated, and prepared for the most difficult moment of the day when Bayley’s face appeared on the big-screen TV, looming over the seat I then occupied. When that moment arrived, a jolt of nausea came and went, but the worst was to come, made all the more horrifying because it was unexpected. The judge asked Bayley whether he could he see the courtroom. I don’t remember his exact words, but he replied that he was able to see his lawyer and half of the bench. I had come face to face with him before in court, but vocally, I never heard him manage more than a monosyllabic mumble into his chest. This was different. There was a clarity of communication, sentence structure, and proper articulation. It was chilling. I had formed an image that this man was not human, that he existed as a singular force of pure evil who somehow emerged from the ether. Something about his ability to weave together nouns, verbs and pronouns to form real, intelligible sentences forced a re-focus, one that required a look at the spectrum of men’s violence against women, and its relation to Bayley and the society from which he came. By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions. Bayley’s appeal was dismissed, but I left court that day in a perpetual trauma-loop, knowing I needed to re-imagine the social, institutional and cultural context in which a man like Adrian Bayley exists. *

Three days after Jill’s body was found, 30,000 people marched respectfully down Sydney Road. I watched on T.V as the long parade of people reacted to their anger at what happened to Jill with love and compassion, the very opposite of everything Bayley represents. I remember my sister’s voice from behind me as I fixed my eyes on the images saying, “wow, people really care about this.” After the court date where I heard Bayley speak, that infinite conveyor belt of the compassionate replayed in my mind. People did care about this, and for whatever reason people identified with this particular case, it was something that I hoped could be universalised, not localised to this case, but for every instance of men’s violence against women. The major difficulties in mobilising this kind of outrage on a regular basis is that most cases of men’s violence against women:

1)     Lack the ingredients of an archetypal villain and a relatable victim,

2)     Are perpetrated and suffered in silence and

3)    Are perpetrated by somebody known to the victim.

The more I felt the incredible support from the community, the more difficult it was to ignore of the silent majority whose tormentors are not monsters lurking on busy streets, but their friends, acquaintances, husbands, lovers, brothers and fathers.

Since Jill died, my inbox overflowed with messages from thousands of women who shared with me their stories of sexual and physical abuse. Some were prostitutes who felt it pointless to report sexual assault because of perceived deficiencies in the justice system, some were women whose tormentors received suspended sentences, and felt too frightened to stay in their home town. These are the prevalent, and ongoing stories that too often remain unchallenged in male company.

While the vast majority of men abhor violence against women, those dissenting male voices are rarely heard in our public discourse, outside of the monster-rapist narrative. Indeed, the agency of male perpetrators disappears from the discussion, discouraging male involvement and even knowledge of the prevalence and diversity of male violence against women. Even the term ‘violence against women’ sounds like a standalone force of nature, with no subject, whereas ‘men’s violence against women’ is used far less frequently. While not attempting to broad-brush or essentialise the all too abstracted notion of ‘masculinity’, male invisibility in the language of the conversation can be compounded by masculine posturing, various ‘bro-codes’ of silence, and a belief, through the monster myth, in the intrinsic otherness of violent men. The Canadian feminist and anti-violence educator Lee Lakeman argued that, “Violent men, and men in authority over violent men, and the broader public that authorises those men, are not yet shamed by the harm of coercive control over women…..Maybe we can rest some hope on the growing activity of men of goodwill calling on each other to change. When that group hits a critical mass, the majority of men will be more likely to want to change.” According to an EU wide study conducted in 2010, one person in five knows of someone who commits domestic violence in their circle of friends and family (Special Eurobarometer 344, Domestic Violence Against Women Report, September 2010). Perhaps it’s time we, as non-violent men, attempted to hit this critical mass.

One of the most dangerous things about the media saturation of this crime was that Bayley is in fact the archetypal monster. Bayley feeds into a commonly held social myth that most men who commit rape are like him, violent strangers who stalk their victims and strike at the opportune moment. It gives a disproportionate focus to the rarest of rapes, ignoring the catalogue of non-consensual sex happening on a daily basis everywhere on the planet. It validates a limitation of the freedom of women, by persisting with an obsession with a victim’s movements rather than the vile actions of the perpetrator, while simultaneously creating a ‘canary down the mine’ scenario. Men who may feel uncomfortable by a peer’s behaviour towards women, may absolve themselves from interfering with male group norms, or breaking ranks with the boys by normalising that conduct in relation to ‘the rapist’. In other words he can justify his friend’s behaviour by comparison – “he may be a ___, but he’s not Adrian Bayley.”

The monster myth allows us to see public infractions on women’s sovereignty as minor, because the man committing the infraction is not a monster like Bayley. We see instances of this occur in bars when men become furious and verbally abusive to, or about, women who decline their attention. We see it on the street as groups of men shout comments, grab, grope and intimidate women with friends either ignoring or getting involved in the activity. We see it in male peer groups where rape-jokes and disrespectful attitudes towards women go uncontested.  The monster myth creates the illusion that this is simply banter, and sexist horseplay. While most of us would never abide racist comments among a male peer-group, the trivialisation of men’s violence against women often remains a staple, invidious, and rather boring subject of mirth. We can either examine this by setting our standards against the monster-rapist, or by accepting that this behaviour intrinsically contributes to a culture in which rape and violence are allowed to exist.

The monster myth perpetuates a comforting lack of self-awareness. When I heard Bayley forming sentences in court, I froze because I’d been socialised to believe that men who rape are jabbering madmen, who wear tracksuit bottoms with dress shoes and knee-high socks. The only thing more disturbing than that paradigm is the fact that most rapists are normal guys, guys we might work beside or socialise with, our neighbours or even members of our family. Where men’s violence against women is normalised in our society, we often we compartmentalise it to fit our view of the victim. If a prostitute is raped or beaten, we may consider it an awful occupational hazard ‘given her line of work.’ We rarely think ‘she didn’t get beaten – somebody (i.e a man) beat her’. Her line of work is dangerous, but mainly because there are men who want to hurt women. If a husband batters his wife, we often unthinkingly put it down to socio-economic factors or alcohol and drugs rather than how men and boys are taught and socialised to be men and view women.

I wonder at what stage we will stop being shocked by how normal a rapist seemed. Many years ago, two female friends confided in me about past abuses that happened in their lives, both of which had been perpetrated by ‘normal guys’. As I attempted to console them, I mentally comforted myself by reducing it to some, as yet undetected mental illnesses in these men. The cognitive shift is easy to do when we are not knowingly surrounded by men who commit these crimes, but then we rarely need to fear such an attack.

The idea of the lurking monster is no doubt a useful myth, one we can use to defuse any fear of the women we love being hurt, without the need to examine ourselves or our male-dominated society. It is also an excuse to implement a set of rules on women on ‘how not to get raped’, which is a strange cocktail of naiveté and cynicism. It is naïve because it views rapists as a monolithic group of thigh-rubbing predators with a checklist rather than the bloke you just passed in the office, pub or gym,  cynical because these rules allow us to classify victims. If the victim was wearing x or drinking y well then of course the monster is going to attack – didn’t she read the rules? I have often come up against people on this point who claim that they’re just being ‘realistic’. While it may come from a place of concern, if we’re being realistic we need to look at how and where rape and violence actually occur, and how troubling it is that we use a nebulous term like ‘reality’ to condone the imposition of dress codes, acceptable behaviours, and living spaces on women to avoid a mythical rape-monster. Ok, this rape-monster did exist in the form of Adrian Bayley, but no amount of adherence to these ill-conceived rules could have stopped him from raping somebody that night.

When Bayley was arrested, the nightmare of the lurking evil stranger was realised. It was beamed through every television set and printed on every newspaper headline in the country. It’s was the reminder that there are men out there who are ‘not like us’, men who exist so far outside our social norms that the problem can be solved simply by extinguishing this person. Bayley became a singular evil that stirred our anger, and provoked a backlash so violent that it mirrored the society from which he emerged, that the answer to violence is more violence.

Many comments on facebook pages and memorial sites set up in honour of Jill, often expressed a wish for Bayley to be raped in prison, presumably at the arbitrary whim of other incarcerated men. Putting aside the fact that wishing rape on somebody is the perhaps last thing we do before exiting civilisation entirely, there is a point that these avengers may have missed – somebody has to do the raping. Vengeance by rape, implies that rape is a suitable punishment for certain crimes. In other words, rape is fine as long as it’s used in the service of retributive justice. Indeed, we would be essentially cheering on the rapist who rapes Bayley, for ensuring that justice is done. Or, if we find this rapist just as abhorrent as Bayley, we’ll need another rapist to rape him, to avenge the rape he committed, and this would go on and on in an infinite loop. In essence this ‘rape as retribution’ argument invokes the need for far too many rapists. For people like Bayley, rape is punishment, it’s how he exerts his dominance, and exhibits his deep misogyny through sexual humiliation. If we, as a society then ask for Bayley to be raped as punishment, are we not cementing the validity of this mind-set?

I dreamed for over a year of how I would like to physically hurt this man, and still often relish the inevitable manner of his death, but wouldn’t it be more beneficial for Jill’s memory, and other women affected by violence to focus on the problems that surround our attitudes, our legal system, our silence rather than focusing on what manner we would like to torture and murder this individual? Adrian Bayley murdered a daughter, a sister, a great friend to so many, and my favourite person. I am the first one who wants to see him vilified and long may he be one of Australia’s most hated people, but it only does any good if this example highlights rather than obscures the social issues that surround men’s violence against women.

What would make this tragedy even more tragic would be if we were to separate what happened to Jill from cases of violence against women where the victim knew, had a sexual past with, talked to the perpetrator in a bar, or went home with him. It would be tragic if we did not recognise that Bayley’s previous crimes were against prostitutes, and that the social normalisation of violence against a woman of a certain profession and our inability to deal with or talk about these issues, socially and legally, resulted in untold horror for those victims, and led to the brutal murder of my wife.  We cannot separate these cases from one another because doing so allows us to ignore the fact that all these crimes have exactly the same cause – violent men, and the silence of non-violent men.  We can only move past violence when we recognise how it is enabled, and by attributing it to the mental illness of a singular human being, we ignore its prevalence, it root causes, and the self-examination required to end the cycle. The paradox, of course is that in our current narrow framework of masculinity, self-examination is almost universally discouraged.

Since Jill died, I wake up every day and read a quote by Maya Angelou – “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Male self-examination requires this courage, and we cannot end the pattern of men’s violence against women without consciously breaking our silence.


*Special mention here must be given to Jill Meagher (McKeon), who, many years before she was killed as a result of them, originally introduced me to these issues, to Louise Milligan for her endless support and encouragement to express them, to Clementine Ford, whose personal support, tireless crusade for gender equality and against violence allowed me to organise my thoughts, and to Alan O’Neill and Ben Leonard who have shown me that many men are passionate and serious about ending men’s violence against women.

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