Belfast Telegraph

Why emotional abuse should not be made a crime ... we must learn how to deal with control freaks

By Mary Kenny

Domestic violence is an odious crime but also a world-wide phenomenon, and no society has managed to extinguish it. Violence against women, according to UN statistics, is often proportionately worse in rich, developed countries than in poorer, less developed ones.

In Finland, over 46% of homicide victims are women, whereas in the Central African Republic, it's just over 14%. Austria, the Czech Republic and Denmark all clock up considerably higher percentages of female homicide victims than Colombia, Guatemala or Uganda (Ireland, though a developed society, has a relatively low proportion of female homicide victims at just over 13%).

So why do quiet countries like Denmark kill - proportionately - nearly three times more women than the troubled Philippines?

Less developed societies with extremes of poverty and wealth are often more violent than sophisticated, more egalitarian countries. But once a society becomes better policed, more compliant with law and order and more egalitarian, public violence declines.

Proportionately, domestic violence can increase. What people do behind closed doors is much harder to monitor than when gangs stab or shoot each other in the street.

There are many charities and organisations now working to combat domestic violence. Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged a new Domestic Abuse Bill in the current parliament, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, espouses campaigns against domestic violence and abuse.

In Ireland, organisations like Safe Ireland and Women's Aid have done fine work supporting women (and children) terrorised by domestic violence and abuse. In Northern Ireland, the PSNI recorded more than 29,000 incidents of domestic abuse in 2016/17.

Since, on average, men are bigger, stronger and more muscular than women, it is evident that in most relationships the person inflicting the physical (or sexual) abuse is likely to be a male. Alcohol abuse can aggravate domestic violence.

But Margaret Martin, the director of Women's Aid, says that drink can be the excuse, not the reason for violence. In one survey, 27% of victims said alcohol was "always" involved, and 29% said "never" (the rest said "sometimes").

Why physical and sexual abuse happens is a complex question. Some evolutionary psychologists put it down to the human condition and, particularly, the male condition. Testosterone produces male desire - and male aggression. That's no excuse. Physical and sexual abuse are crimes, and should always be reported and prosecuted.

But the concept of domestic abuse has now moved on to include emotional abuse and "controlling" behaviour. Sharon O'Halloran of Safe Ireland has written in the media about the damage that psychological abuse can inflict and how it can be a prelude to physical assault. Coercive control is categorised as a serious form of abuse - though the Irish government harbours a certain reticence in making emotional abuse an offence.

The Irish government is right. Coercive control and emotional abuse may leave psychological wounds. Most of us have seen controlling behaviour in our own families. But is it the State's place to invade private life to such a degree that our psychological wounds are a matter of prosecution?

And if emotional abuse is a crime, then it's a crime committed as frequently by women as by men. I can think of many couples where the woman is the psychologically dominant partner, and where I have seen the woman needle, manipulate and control the man.

I once knew a woman whose cringeworthy and repeated abusive humiliation of her husband was almost unbearable to witness. The man always looked miserable, but he sat there and took it. Maybe he loved her anyway; maybe he was a masochist and sought punishment - there are men who pay dominatrix prostitutes for that reason. Maybe he felt he had no option, and feared possible homelessness if he walked away from it.

Was I supposed to inform the police? Report it to the social services? Suggest a victim's refuge? My attitude was that adults must sort out their own couple psychology.

Controlling behaviour happens in personal relationships and at work, and, again, the coercive personality can be male or female.

We must learn to deal with it, or to avoid control freaks. Making it a crime is treating adults like children, and where it's specifically aimed at male control of women, it's belittling women's independence and autonomy. Women need to be empowered, not infantilised.

Steven Pinker, the psychologist, has referenced the many studies showing that female brains are often superior in verbal skills, and girls nearly always have better verbal fluency. When it comes to trading words, rather than blows, women have the capacity for full equality.

The government and the State cannot do everything to regulate private life. It can, and should, protect vulnerable citizens from violence and assault. The developed societies should concentrate on reducing physical violence against women, including homicide. But words, psychology and emotional control are something else again.

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