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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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.