Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > impact on women / resistance > UK: Aggression against women comes in many forms: “Nothing” is still (...)

UK: Aggression against women comes in many forms: “Nothing” is still something

Monday 20 February 2023, by siawi3


“Nothing” is still something

Aggression against women comes in many forms

1 February, 2023

By Victoria Smith

Years ago, I lived with a man who hit me, though not most of the time. Sometimes he would only shout at me, but again, not most of the time. I couldn’t predict when things would go wrong, though I tried to work out a pattern. One day, you’d say something and it would be fine; the next, you could say the same thing and you’d know, instantly, that you’d ruined everything.

You would know before the shouting started. There’d be physical tells: changes in the eyes or the hands or the curve of the lips. Nothing would have happened yet and already it would be too late.

There would be no response that could get you out of it, but your mind would be racing to find one. Definitely don’t argue back — that would be a given. Pleading wouldn’t do. He’d find it manipulative. You couldn’t walk away. That would be disrespectful and besides, he’d follow you.

Don’t flinch or cower. To do either would be playing the victim. Then again, don’t look unmoved — that is, arrogant and superior. Put simply, there would be no way of being, moving, existing, that would not make you deserve what was coming all the more.

Physical violence is not the only means by which men terrorise women

Sometimes it would end in physical violence; sometimes it would not. This made little difference to the initial terror because, of course, you didn’t know. Afterwards, if no blows had actually been struck, it would be decreed that “nothing happened”.

I think a lot of women live with “nothing happening” an awful lot of the time. A man does not have to hit you more than once for all the occasions upon which he could have hit you to have the required effect. He might not have to hit you at all. One of the reasons why it has been so important for feminists to promote awareness of coercive control is that physical violence is not the only means by which men terrorise women. There are women who live in constant fear of men who can justifiably say, “I never even touched her.”

Whilst the term “domestic abuse” is useful, it can create a false distinction between what happens behind closed doors and the way in which this influences behaviour in public life. Women who have experienced abuse in one environment become hyper-sensitive to the tells, those little signs that indicate the same dynamics are in play. Whilst very few men might risk treating a woman in public the way an abuser would treat her in private, there are buttons they can press, ways of occupying space that show an awareness of who has the upper hand. There can be an expectation of deference, and a belief that it is acceptable to treat insufficiently deferential — that is, insufficiently fearful — women as aggressors.

Of course, it is difficult for a woman to point this out. Should she complain about a particular man, she will be told, yet again, that “nothing happened”. Even when she sees something which replicates the patterns she knows so well — the unreasonableness, the rage, the unstoppable, self-pitying resentment of a man who feels a woman has diminished him — the perpetrator will claim plausible deniability. He will be affronted that anyone could ever compare him to an abuser. Indeed, that is just more evidence of how right he was to get angry in the first place.

What I am describing here are feminist basics, but I feel it is important to restate them here, now, in an age of incels, far-right activism, online revenge porn, sex trafficking, a woman-hating police force — an age of misogyny so grotesque that it has emboldened some men (and women) to decree that “nothing happened” really is nothing to complain about. Knowledge of just how much some men hate women, and of what they will do to them, is being used to suggest that there is “actual” misogyny — actual violence, actual rape, actual murder — and then there are women who trivialise it by making false complaints.

An example of this would be the recent behaviour of Labour MPs Ben Bradshaw and Lloyd Russell-Moyle towards female MPs speaking about Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill. To many women, myself included, the shouting and bullying felt disturbingly familiar. The sense of moral superiority expressed by Russell-Moyle in the aftermath, claiming that his “passion” led him to adopt the wrong “tone”, was utterly predictable. She, Miriam Cates, made him do it. Anyone with principles would have done the same. Who could call that abusive?

I know I am not the only woman who saw this and felt genuine dismay. This behaviour should have no place in public life. It should have been condemned by Keir Starmer rather than airily written off with platitudes about “respect”. Starmer claims to care about violence against women and girls but seems oblivious to the broader dynamics that underpin it. If nothing happened in the House of Commons, then nothing is happening in most abusive households either, until something does happen and we all have to pretend that nobody could have foreseen it.

In many ways I would rather un-feel all this, but I can’t

I do not like feeling the things I do when I see men shouting at women in ways I know they would never dare shout at men (no matter how “passionate” they are feeling). I would rather not make the connections I do. It is not opportunism. It is not a weapon I like to wield. In many ways I would rather un-feel all this, but I can’t. As long as I can’t, it enrages me that men who exploit the fear of women — who have enough insight into male dominance to exercise it, but not enough to acknowledge it — still have the nerve to tell women which men we “really” need to worry about.

Do they think women who find their behaviour problematic haven’t been hit or raped enough to know what “proper” misogyny is? Are we a bit spoilt — fussing about a bit of shouting and finger-pointing? Do they not grasp that experiencing the extremes, far from rendering other manifestations of woman-hating trivial, make one even more alert to the underlying currents?

I am quite aware that, just as I never found a way of backing out of a confrontation in the past, there is no way of expressing this persuasively to men who like yelling at women. To them, I am weaponising trauma. I am whiny and manipulative. I am playing the victim. I am seeing threats of violence everywhere.

They will say “nothing happened”, and on a basic level they will be right. I think that “nothing” matters, though. I think that “nothing” deserves to be named.