Recent research by Cosmopolitan and Women’s Aid has revealed disturbing new statistics on young women’s experiences of domestic violence in the UK.
In a survey of more than 122,000 people, more than a third of women (34.5%) revealed that they had been in an abusive relationship.
More shocking, though, is that many of the women surveyed didn’t actually recognise the signs of an abusive relationship in the first place. Almost two thirds (63.8%) of the women who answered that they had not been in an abusive relationship revealed elsewhere in the survey that they had in fact experienced behaviour or treatment from a partner that could be classed as abusive.
When it comes to domestic violence, the first image that comes to my mind is a frail, bloodied woman with black eyes and scratched arms, curled up in the corner of a dark room. She’s straight out of the anti-violence awareness campaigns I saw around me growing up in the UK.
In reality, abuse comes in many forms other than physical and doesn’t always leave easily-identifiable marks on bodies. Abuse includes a vast range of actions and behaviours, from emotional damage, financial manipulation, sexual intimidation, coercive control, social media invasion and much more. Of course, physical violence can and does occur, but a relationship can be abusive without it, or for a long time before it happens.
The frightening thing is that this survey suggests that young women in the UK today are unaware of what counts as abuse. Without being aware of what counts as abuse, and without being able to name certain behaviours as violent, it’s difficult to protect yourself or your friends and family from relationships that are toxic, damaging or even life-threatening.
During an interview for BBC Woman’s Hour, 3 young women who had experienced abuse in their first ever relationships described some of the characteristics that made those relationships so unhealthy. Each of their experiences were different, but some of the things they spoke of included extreme jealousy, forced isolation, being forbidden from talking to other people, a constant undermining of self-esteem, excessive anger, sexual shaming – sometimes through social media, financial exploitation and derogatory language.
A common reflection among these young women, as well as others who have shared their experiences through Cosmopolitan, is that it’s difficult to know when something is wrong if you don’t know what’s ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ in the first place. Each of them described experiencing a large volume of small actions or behaviours that on their own might seem insignificant, but when added together created a toxic and frightening environment to find themselves in.
Speaking on the release of these new statistics, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:
“Our culture often portrays controlling behaviour as a sign of being desired or loved when in fact coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse. As the shocking findings from our research show, many younger women may not recognise that their partner is abusive if there isn’t physical violence and may even think that threatening, controlling and intimidating behaviour is normal in relationships. We know that younger women are most likely to experience domestic abuse but least likely to access vital support services. We want to change this.”
Surely we are failing young people if we aren’t teaching them what a healthy relationship looks like before they embark on one for themselves for the first time. Surely to recognise red flags for yourself or for the people you care about you need to have first been given some examples of what those red flags might look like. Relationship education needs to be prioritised in all schools, and it needs to encompass much more than the basics of sex and contraception. No young person should have to experience an abusive relationship – or watch a friend experience one – as a way to figure out what is and isn’t an acceptable way to be treated by another person.
If you’re in the UK, you can help shape the government’s approach to the issue by giving feedback on the consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Click here to add your voice – it’s open until May 31 and doesn’t take very long!
For more information and support, visit Women’s Aid’s website or call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.