Angie, 36, feels trapped in a toxic relationship because her physically and emotionally abusive, long-term boyfriend earns a lot of money and controls the finances. Years of degrading comments have left her feeling hopeless, worthless and powerless to leave him.
Jane, 25, is young, successful and slim, but stays with her emotionally abusive boyfriend, who constantly tells her she’s fat and stupid, because she’s scared of being alone and has started to believe his taunts about never being able to find someone better to love her.
Sophie, 45, has endured years of domestic violence, physical sexual and emotional, at the hands of her long-time husband, but is scared of leaving him because she’s worried about what further harm he’ll do to her and their three kids, and besides, the AVO she took out against him hasn’t worked anyway.
Male bullying and violence can take many varied and insidious forms, but know this dear reader – you never, ever deserve it. And while the above names may be fake, to protect the innocent and safeguard people’s privacy, sadly the scenarios are not – they’re all recent, real-life examples.
Widespread male violence and bullying can be from a brother, father, or a partner; sadly, violence against women is one of the most widespread human rights abuses in Australia and around the world. In fact, one in three Australian women will experience violence in an intimate relationship.
And while I’m sure I don’t need to bombard you with many further grim domestic violence statistics here – for violence against women is so widespread and ingrained in our society that most women will know others in the above situations or experience such abuse themselves – it is noteworthy that domestic violence is the biggest cause of homelessness for Australian women.
And when you’re young and naive, you might think you can change a partner; make them a better person capable of kicking their abusive ways. But as you mature, you will hopefully come to realise, as I had to in my early 20s, that that’s not your job and you deserve so much more than they could ever give you.
And speaking of what we women deserve, just this past weekend I was so saddened to read a newspaper report about how a 16-year-old rising Romanian tennis player said she “deserved” to be violently assaulted by her abusive father (also her coach) because she’d played badly.
How did it come to this, that women feel they bring male violence and bullying on themselves? And what makes a man, as my vile, middle-aged neighbour did recently, ever think it’s OK to verbally abuse a woman, from the street outside her home, over fallen palm fronds in his yard post-storm?
I pride myself on being a strong woman, but even I shrunk back into the shadows of my lounge room when this nutter decided to hurl abuse at me at 9am on a Sunday, all while my husband was away and I was breakfasting with my two toddlers in the supposed safety of my own home! And so I went in search of answers from a clinical psychologist, who wishes to remain anonymous, over this difficult issue.
I hope you find her expert, wise answers as illuminating and helpful as I did.
Why is male violence and bullying so prevalent in society? Unfortunately, often boys grow up thinking it’s OK to use their strength and size to get what they want and they continue this bullying behaviour into adulthood because they find that it works; they can dominate and intimidate to get what they want. It may be more likely in boys who lack good verbal skills as they feel more competent using intimidation rather than discussion.
How do we teach women they never “deserve” to be abused, whether physically, sexually or emotionally? Of course no woman (or child) deserves to be abused! No one “deserves” abuse and no one has the right to abuse others. Of course, it does happen for reasons mentioned above. Perpetrators often abuse women for trivial things and make them believe they are stupid, incompetent, clumsy or whatever. This make the perpetrator feel strong/powerful/in control. Women with a reasonable sense of self-esteem can counteract this with an appropriate comment, but women who lack self confidence, are fearful or who feel helpless will take such put-downs to heart and feel even more disempowered. Addressing the DV or abuse would involve helping the woman to believe in their own worth and not accept bullying and abuse.
How do women being abused best seek for help? Talk to anyone and everyone – friends, family, DV help lines and if it doesn’t stop, the police. Bring the abuse out into the open because it’s more likely to escalate if kept hidden. Unfortunately, women often don’t like to talk about it if they are being abused because they often feel a sense of shame. Perpetrators often make their victims believe it is the woman’s fault. Abused women are often lacking in self-esteem so agencies that work with abused women will help them to build their self-esteem.
Why are some female victims so scared and reluctant to seek help? How can we better support these women? The reality is that some perpetrators make terrible threats against them and their children and women have good reason to be afraid. Usually abuse in a family starts with something small and gradually escalates. That’s why it’s important to address the abuse as soon as it begins, with a clear message that it’s not ok. But it’s not easy and women should never be judged for not speaking up. Perpetrators sometimes threaten to harm/kill the woman and/or her children if they seek outside help, so it’s fear of the repercussions if they speak up that prevents them.
How can mothers better educate their sons not to abuse women? The way in which the father and other significant other male role models treat and speak to and about women is very important. If these male role models set an example of respectful treatment of women then boys are likely to internalise this, just as they will internalise disrespect and abuse of women. It’s not inevitable though – boys can make a conscious decision to be different from their fathers.