Defining abuse

Originally posted on October 4, 2011

Abuse can happen to anyone. It can happen to a poor person or wealthy person, an adult or a child, a man or woman, a heterosexual or homosexual. Unfortunately, the law does not always recognize that. Some governments define abuse like domestic violence along gendered lines, effectively ignoring several groups of victims. For example:

The Scottish Government’s definition of domestic abuse as an offence perpetrated by men against women does “serious damage” to gay and transgendered people suffering violence in the home, an academic has said.

Law lecturer Brian Dempsey said the “peculiar” way Scotland defines domestic abuse renders sufferers who are in same-sex relationships “invisible”.

Mr Dempsey, who teaches at the University of Dundee, has now called for a reworking of the way such abuse is defined by ministers.

The official definition, however, states that: “Domestic abuse (as gender-based abuse), can be perpetrated by partners or ex partners and can include physical abuse (assault and physical attack involving a range of behaviour), sexual abuse (acts which degrade and humiliate women and are perpetrated against their will, including rape) and mental and emotional abuse…”

Mr Dempsey said the Scottish definition of domestic abuse as primarily about male abusers controlling female victims “dominates” publicity materials and training for medical staff, police officers, judges, housing workers and civil servants. As a consequence, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people who suffer abuse at home, as well as their children, are being marginalised, he argued.

Dempsey unfortunately leaves out heterosexual male victims, but his general point hits the mark. By wording the law in a way that focuses on one group of victims, other victims get marginalized. This has a much broader impact than people may think because the language of laws often reflects the general perception of an issue in society, which in turn affects the amount of outreach to other victims.

As Dempsey notes, the focus on the gendered language can lead to situations where nurses or officers miss the cues from those victims.  It could also lead some of them to accept the stories some victims tell to cover for their abusers. There is also the biases that the GLBT community faces. All of those play into whether victims will come forward and possibly whether they will be believed.

Of course, there is always for a defense for this kind of criticism:

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Domestic abuse must not be tolerated in any form and the Scottish Government has committed over £55 million during the period 2008-12 to tackling domestic abuse and violence against women.

“We have received international recognition and praise for our gendered definition, which does not exclude or deny other experiences, but does focus on the majority experience, that 83% of domestic abuse incidents recorded by the police in 2009-10 involved a female victim and male perpetrator.

“In addition, we have funded a helpline for male victims and the LGBT youth domestic abuse project.”

The problem with this claim is the definition creates a false impression that domestic violence is something that proportionally happens mostly to women. The GLBT community represents a small portion of society, yet it is possible that they experience the same rate of domestic violence as women. However, many victims may not come forward due to fear about biased responses. Likewise, male victims often do not discuss their abuse, and rarely report it. Basing the definition on reported claims fails to acknowledge those very basic points.

It is possible that more heterosexual women are abused than any other group. It is also possible that they are not. In the grand scheme of things, it should not make a difference. Abuse is wrong regardless of who it happens to, and the notion that one group’s victimization is more deserving of attention contradicts the notion that all abuse is equally wrong.

Plenty of international(probably feminist) organizations may praise Scotland’s gendered definition, but they do a disservice to the countless male and GLBT victims who do not receive the help and attention they need because organizations do not sufficiently acknowledge their experiences. That needs to change, and a great place to start is with the legal definition.


One thought on “Defining abuse

  1. Pingback: FBI considers changing its definition of rape « Toy Soldiers

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