A placard at a protest in Scotland in 2013. Photo: Getty
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Will an emotional abuse offence ruling help vulnerable women?

Control, dominance, bullying and manipulation are the driving forces behind countless “romantic” narratives. If new regulation is going to eradicate coercive and controlling behaviour as well as physical harm, we have to start questioning the stories we are told.

In the James Bond film Octopussy, first released in 1983, the hero rapes the title character, or at least that’s what I’d call it now. Aged eight, watching it in the cinema with my parents, I lacked the words and knowledge to see it that way. I just knew there was something odd about this particular scene. The woman did not seem happy. She was resistant, pushing back, but Bond kept on forcing until she acquiesced. The whole thing made me uncomfortable.  It all seemed terribly wrong. But, I told myself, Bond is the hero so it must be okay. And the woman didn’t seem too upset, at least not once she’d given in. This must be normal. This must be what people do.

Three decades later, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given myself this little pep talk. I’ll be reading a novel or watching TV and the same old “normality” pops up. The same old feelings return. No, I tell myself. Don’t overreact. Don’t go all feminist on this. After all, it ruins a good box set to waste time fretting over why a man can rape his sister and still get to play the nice guy. It’s just a story, I say to myself. Besides, it’s all part of the nuance. You’re not meant to see Jaime Lannister as a paragon of virtue. Focus on the nuance! I try and try but the trouble is, the gratuitous positioning of “complex protagonists” as rapists never feels particularly nuanced to me. I guess that makes me a rubbish TV critic.

We grow up surrounded by stories which shape our understanding of what is and what should be. The messages we receive are not straightforward: this is good and this is bad. They are more subtle than that, but they are messages all the same, presenting a particular moral worldview and positioning us in relation to it. We learn that heterosexual relationships are terribly complicated, that men and women are different and that one cannot expect men – tortured, complex men – to follow the same rules as women. We learn to see things only in shades of grey. We learn to be accepting and to view this as tolerance. As women, we learn that it would be heartless and judgmental ever to do otherwise.  

Control, dominance, bullying and manipulation are the driving forces behind countless “romantic” narratives. We’re reluctant to question this because, well, that’s romance, isn’t it? Romance is confusing and contradictory, not just in fiction but in real life. How do you know someone is hurting you? How can you be sure this isn’t just an expression of his pain? How can you be sure your pain isn’t the right kind of pain? Maybe you deserve it. Maybe it’s just what’s meant to be. No one wants to be the fool who takes everything far too literally. Sure, it looks like abuse but context is everything. You mustn’t forget the back story (and unlike women, abusive men always have back stories).

Last week the government launched a consultation to look at strengthening the law on domestic abuse explicitly to cover coercive and controlling behaviour as well as physical harm. Such behaviour might include threatening a partner, cutting them off from their friends and family, controlling their access to money – the kind of thing Christian Grey does in Fifty Shades of Grey, albeit usually without the private jet. All such behaviours are abusive and do require formal recognition. Nonetheless, as Julie Bindel notes, “many women experiencing this type of abuse will not know what coercive control actually means in law”:

Not because they are stupid, but for the simple reason that most behaviours defined as such are so commonplace in unequal heterosexual relationships that women have been told to put up with it, and that they are usually to blame.

We grow up watching James Bond or Game of Thrones. We read magazine features telling us that men cannot be expected to discuss their feelings and that all emotional work in a relationship is down to us. We know not to be too demanding regarding money or freedom, since that would be nagging, leading our menfolk to be under the thumb (and hence the real abused party). We spend hours giving ourselves the “this is fine, it’s just nuance” pep talk when we see coercive, abusive things being done to someone else (after all, it’s just some random woman). Why wouldn’t we do the same when such things happen to us?

A recent study published on BMJ Open revealed a “climate of coercion” surrounding anal sex between young heterosexual couples. As the Independent reports, quoting from the study:

Even in otherwise seemingly communicative and caring partnerships, some men seemed to push to have sex with their reluctant partner despite believing it likely to hurt her. […] Women seemed to take for granted that they would either acquiesce to or resist their partners’ repeated requests, rather than being equal partners in sexual decision-making.

How does such a dynamic come into being? Through a thousand pep talks in which young women persuade themselves that their own needs are insignificant when set against the broader narrative. We can and should regulate against all forms of abuse, but in order to truly eradicate it, we need to question the stories we are told.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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