Content warning: domestic abuse, domestic violence, discrimination, sexual assault and rape
It is an all too familiar scenario. There are friends over for pre drinks, Beyoncé is playing, everyone is looking fly. Someone takes a photo of the #squad and goes to upload it on Facebook, but a friend asks them not to. “My boyfriend doesn’t know I’m out/ my boyfriend doesn’t like it when I wear this top/my boyfriend wouldn’t like it if he knew I was drinking,” they nervously laugh, and offer instead to take another group photo. After some brief awkwardness, the night resumes and the moment is forgotten.
Domestic abuse is happening at university. It is happening in our halls of residence, in our tutorials, in our nightclubs. So why are we so reluctant to talk about it? Domestic abuse knows no boundaries of class, age, race or gender, but as a society we do not see students and young people as domestic abuse victims, despite women aged 16 – 24 being the group at the highest risk of experiencing domestic abuse. Women’s Aid defines domestic abuse as “an incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening, degrading and violent behaviour, including sexual violence.” It is perpetrated “in the majority of cases by a partner or ex-partner” and in the vast majority of cases “it is experienced by women and is perpetrated by men”.
When we think about domestic abuse, the image that comes to most of us is of an older woman, married and with children. We do not think about two university students in their early twenties. Why is this a problem? By continuing to perpetuate the stereotype that young women do not experience abusive relationships, we prevent them from getting the help they need. Speaking to The Guardian, Neil Blacklock from Respect commented that young people “come to us and ask if their relationship is normal,” as “they feel uncomfortable, but find it difficult to name as abuse.” Sexpression Edinburgh, a charity providing fact-based, sex-positive, body-positive and inclusive sex and relationship education, told us “people arrive at university not feeling confident to recognise abuse in their own relationships or knowing how to talk to friends about it”. If you do not see yourself as a victim, then you are less likely to seek assistance.
When we think about domestic abuse, the image that comes to most of us is of an older woman, married and with children. We do not think about two university students in their early twenties.”
We spoke to Dr Marsha Scott, from Scottish Women’s Aid, who emphasised that “Scotland (and elsewhere) continues to suffer from stereotyped notions about who experiences domestic abuse and what that experience looks like. Every woman is at risk, not because of any characteristics of her own but because of the high prevalence of perpetrators of domestic abuse… abuse is possibly physical but always psychological, always involving control, coercion, and fear.”
This reluctance to label relationships as coercive, manipulative or abusive is by no means an exclusively university phenomena. However, university students are supposedly famed for their #wokeness. Both on campus and nationally there has been an increasing emphasis on tackling sexual assault and rape, making the absence of discourse around abuse all the more noticeable. Edinburgh University Student’s Association have run several very successful campaigns, such as this year’s No One Asks For It, and the Consent Campaign, with slogans ranging from “The way I dress is not a yes” to “You can’t always get what you want”. Sexual assault on campus is clearly rife; NUS research shows that in 2010 68% of women students had experienced verbal or physical assault, and so these campaigns are vital.
Domestic abuse is happening at university. It is happening in our halls of residence, in our tutorials, in our nightclubs. So why are we so reluctant to talk about it?”
Sexual harassment and domestic abuse are clearly related; they are both on a spectrum of violence against women, but they are not the same. A campaign to end one might open up discourse around the other, but there are clear limitations. The new bystander training being promoted under the university’s No One Asks For It campaign is a fantastic initiative, but would require there to be a bystander present at moments of abuse to be applicable in the context of a relationship. More initiatives focused directly on the red flags of domestic abuse, where to go and who to tell would help tackle the issue. Sexpression Edinburgh noted that “education is so important, but there also needs to be a big shift in cultural portrayals of relationships”, citing both Gilmore Girls and Beauty and the Beast as examples of romanticised unhealthy relationships.
It can be easier to focus on tackling sexual harassment for a multitude of reasons. The dominant image of sexual assault and harassment is often, although not always, something that is perpetrated by a stranger in a public space. Ongoing emotional and psychological abuse can be hard to identify, making it difficult to call out. Victims can still be in love with their abusers, making conversations about the abuse more complicated. Abusers often isolate their partner from friends and family, making it harder to reach out to a friend you are concerned about. It is one thing to shout at someone in the street for catcalling your friend, but it is another to call their partner abusive.
Not only are there misconceptions about who can experience domestic abuse, but misconceptions about what that abuse looks like. Women’s Liberation Officer Chris Belous told us that recognition tends to be for the more “obvious signs of abusive, violent relationships, while other things like emotional abuse and gaslighting go unnoticed”. When talking about domestically abusive relationships, so often the first question asked is ‘did they hit you?’. Not only does this significantly downplay the catastrophic effects emotional abuse can have, but makes victims less likely to come forward as they do not feel their relationship is abusive if there is no violence.
If nobody knows that you’re not straight, how can you talk about the abuse in your relationship?”
Domestic abuse is not experienced in a monolithic way. For couples in non heterosexual relationships, there can be an extra layer of stigma attached. University is a space where young people, away from home, often feel freer to explore their sexuality. This creates further issues. If nobody knows that you’re not straight, how can you talk about the abuse in your relationship? For people with disabilities, changing accommodation to escape an abusive relationship can be harder if your flat has been adapted to meet specialist requirements. Women of colour and transgender people face the fear of racism and transphobia when reporting their abuse. Men are victims of domestic violence, both in heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but feel unable to speak out about it, for worry of not being believed or for being deemed ‘not manly’. An important part of opening the discussion is remembering that any relationship can be abusive; a romantic relationship, a sexual one, a family one or a friendship. The validity of someone’s experience is not lessened because it isn’t part of mainstream abuse discourse.
Chris Belous commented that “it’s all too easy to say well, why don’t you just leave, or cut them [the abuser] out, but there can be lots of barriers to a person being able to do that straight away”. The university context creates additional barriers to escaping abusive relationships. For most university is the first time living away from home. This can leave students without a support network in place. When there are so many new experiences and new people, it can be hard to find someone who you trust to confide in. Being away from home, it is easier to retreat into your student accommodation unnoticed. All of this contributes to isolation and often an escalation of abusive behaviours.
An important part of opening the discussion is remembering that any relationship can be abusive; a romantic relationship, a sexual one, a family one or a friendship.”
However, a university environment can be a supportive atmosphere. The Advice Place is a highly useful place to register concerns as a friend, flatmate, or as a victim of violent or emotional abuse. They offer advice on reporting to the police, anonymous reporting, practical advice on keeping safe as well as university specific advice on complaints or special circumstances.
If you are concerned about your own safety or that of a friend, the Scottish Women’s Aid helpline is free to call, and open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, on 0800 027 1234.
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