New domestic abuse laws are vital and long overdue

Warning: This article contains sensitive and potentially distressing discussion (including examples) of emotional abuse and domestic violence.

In 2013, the Home Office defined “domestic abuse” as “any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to: psychological, physical, sexual, financial and emotional.”

Despite this recognition of emotional abuse as a form of domestic abuse, it is not covered under domestic violence law. Now Theresa May is proposing a change in the law, a major step forward for victims of emotional abuse who are frightened to report their experiences or cannot obtain legal support. In ‘Legislating private relationships’, Nick Mutch argues, “This law is a way for the government to appear that it has victims’ best interests on side while continuing to deprive them of things that genuinely could help them improve their lives.” But he completely fails to grasp the true extent of the damage that emotional abuse can cause. This new law would be a significant step forward in protecting and empowering victims. Home Office statistics show that two women are killed every week in England and Wales through domestic abuse. Domestic violence often stems from, and goes hand in hand with, emotional abuse, which many victims – male and female – do not even recognise at the time. Emotional abuse can include destructive criticism, lying, humiliation, isolating someone from friends or family, monitoring their phone calls/emails/texts/letters, controlling their finances, stealing from them, withholding basic necessities, not allowing them to work or sabotaging their job, blaming and shaming, threats, and intimidation. The impact of emotional abuse can be even more devastating than physical assault, and can have much longer term effects.

Take this case study for example: one woman at a refuge in Bolton had a husband who would not allow her to have her hair cut and would monitor her whenever she left the house. If he felt she had been somewhere other than where he had approved, he would constantly question her during all hours of the night, preventing her from sleeping before work the next day. He tried to isolate her from her children, which caused constant arguments, in the course of which he would become violent. Until the physical abuse started, this woman had seen her husband’s controlling behaviour as “normal and acceptable”. She had only ever been in a relationship with him and so had nothing to compare it with.

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Another woman at the refuge had escaped a partner who had not allowed her to nurture her severely autistic seven year old son. She was never allowed to show love to him, which she said was “breaking her heart”. In the refuge, she finally began to get to know her son, saying, “He makes me smile all the time.” Both these examples show the very real and extreme impact of emotional abuse. It’s rather difficult, then, to take Mutch seriously when he suggests that the occasional minor row such as the one he had with his then girlfriend could be classed as emotional abuse. In doing so he diminishes the real and frightening experiences of emotional abuse survivors.

According to the Home Office, types of behaviour that could be covered by the new law include threatening a partner with violence, cutting them off from friends or family or refusing them access to money in order to limit their freedom. (Under the current law, nonviolent coercive/controlling behaviour is covered by stalking and harassment legislation, but it does not apply to intimate relationships.) This type of behaviour far exceeds the occasional minor row Mutch describes. Mutch’s comparison of legislation designed to protect people from these forms of abuse with “the criminalization of homosexuality, or extraordinarily harsh penalties for women who commit adultery” is bizarre at best, and rather sinister at worst. Mutch also claims that, because emotional abuse is “virtually impossible to prove”, criminalising it would “lower public respect for the Justice system.” By that logic, surely we should also legalise rape, given the sub-10% attrition rate in the UK? He should also remember that anti-domestic violence law gives survivors of emotional abuse access to legal protections, even when it doesn’t result in a conviction.

Moreover, there are numerous things that we can do to help raise conviction rates, such as giving domestic abuse survivors the emotional and psychological support that they need or fighting victim-blaming tropes. Even without these other factors, a potentially low conviction rate is not an argument for keeping abuse legal. Another of Mutch’s claims deserving redress is his suggestion that, because the law could be abused, it would not be valuable. Perpetuating myths that false claims are rife or that people accused of abuse are automatically hung out to dry by the legal system is extremely damaging and not true. Mutch’s assertion that the new law “would become a tool in the abuser’s arsenal of psychological control and torment” goes against the judgement of experts who have worked with victims of emotional and physical abuse for years. This proposed law is heavily backed by numerous anti-domestic violence charities. Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said that treating emotional abuse as a crime could give victims greater confidence to speak out sooner as well as potentially boosting the conviction rate.

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Neate said, “Prosecutions and convictions as a proportion of recorded domestic crime are falling. And over the last four years over 10,000 perpetrators of domestic violence have been handed only community resolutions, with many simply being asked to apologise to their victim.”

The justice system is currently heavily skewed in favour of abusers; thousands of victims suffer in silence each year. It is extraordinary that emotional abuse, a form of domestic abuse that frequently goes hand in hand with violence, has not yet been criminalised. Theresa May is right: it’s time to give victims the long-overdue legal protection and empowerment that they deserve. It’s a small start, but a start all the same.