TW: discusses relationships, abuse and coercive control.
“I think my mum might be in a controlling or abusive relationship”.
I was in a school and around the middle of a day of back-to-back relationship sessions in which I talk about domestic abuse, healthy relationships, coercive control and about the prevalence and language around misogyny and sexism.
At the end of session four of seven someone came to me and nodded awkwardly – covid has stopped meaningful handshakes – and then spoke the above words to me. They continued: “…what you said about controlling behaviour, charming men, making excuses to isolate her, showering her with gifts and telling some of us siblings one thing and not others…it all rang bells. Mum’s been seeing a new guy for a couple of months and it’s been a whirlwind for all of us”.
Now between sessions there’s often not much time to chat and so I gave them some info about organisations that can help women and children who are at risk of abuse and control in domestic settings – Refuge, Womens’ Aid, Solace Womens’ Aid and local authority services via social services to support them – and told them to speak to the teacher in charge of PSHE / Pastoral for my contact details if they needed further help.
The crucial thing I’ve missed from this report is that the person above is a male teacher. He had been made aware of the nature of the session as part of the pre-workshop preparation I do – making sure all staff know about the content of the sessions for their own wellbeing and for that of the children – and wanted to come along and listen because he had some nagging doubts that he had shared with his sister, but which his brother had dismissed.
The work I do speaking about relationship abuse and control is important not just for young people, it’s vital CPD for teachers too. I lived to the age of 46 before I knew anything about the true scale or perniciousness of relationship abuse and domestic violence, coercive control and misogyny in the UK…the turning point for me was the death of my sister at the hands of her partner. There are statistics that prove that one in four women and girls will experience domestic abuse or violence in their lives (Refuge statistics) and that 97% of women and girls have experienced sexual harassment by the time they are 24 years old (UN Women UK, 2021)…but the trouble is that these statistics are often masked behind misleading headlines and newspaper stories about ‘isolated incidents’ where a ‘committed family man lost control’.
The devastating truth is that between two and three women or girls are killed in England and Wales by a man that they know every week in these ‘isolated incidents’ which are part of a wider continuum of male violence against women and girls which starts with language (I’ve recently been railing against the Silk Sonic song ‘Smokin’ Out The Window’ which includes the chorus “That bitch got me paying her rent, paying her bills…” and is basically the story of a man who has been told to smoke outside and he resents it – it’s basically an anthem to sexism and misogyny in plain sight).
The continuum continues with notions of being ‘manly’ or ‘girly’, young people having access to adult content on their devices (adult content which 15 years ago one would have had to go to a specialist ‘adult shop’ in a seedy back street and hand over cash to get the content young people are seeing within three clicks). And don’t be under any illusion that this content is in any way ‘relationship-oriented’ – modern adult content is ever more extreme, misogynistic, violent and male-dominated. Women are reduced to vessels for male pleasure and consent is NEVER discussed – the fact that we have the phrase ‘r*pe-culture’ should send red flags up everywhere and the fact that girls are rated by boys on social media should also send signals out about labelling and devaluing women and girls – nothing new there, it’s how big business works – but now girls being pestered for unclothed pictures ‘nudes’ and being sent d*ck-pics as young as 12 years old should concern us all. (Once she sends a picture it will often be shared she’s then a sl*g – if she refuses she’s a ‘tease’ – as ever women and girls can’t win and are caught between what they know isn’t right and what they are being pressured to do).
The continuum is built on power and control and it’s essential that PSHE and RSE sessions cover this tough topic – both for students understanding of the power dynamic at play in sexism and misogyny, their right to speak out if they are asked to do or send something that they do not want to do, their understanding of relationships and consent and the knowledge of what equality and safety are built on.
I want every student in KS3 and KS4 to understand consent and coercive control – so that boys can be the solution to the problem and take the lead in understanding that the pressure that they feel to behave in a certain way will have long-term consequences for themselves and for women and girls. They can use their influence to become leaders in their peer groups to develop different aspects of masculinity and share empathy though insights into healthy consensual relationships rather than the alternatives that some adult content displays.
I want girls to see that they have alternatives to being coerced and pressured into unhealthy or inappropriate behaviours and actions and that there is support for them when they are feeling overwhelmed with relationships and other peer pressures.
I also want to speak about the reality of domestic abuse and controlling relationships – the facts that men are also abused by female partners and that same-sex relationships can also be blighted with abuse. (92% of defendants in domestic abuse court cases were men in the ONS 2018 statistics – of whom 83% were repeat offenders).
I want to offer these insights as starters for teaching staff to open discussions about equality, appropriate behaviour, youth leadership and open debates about what we want our school communities to be like – places where we are all valued, supported and respected.
After all, if it takes a PSHE / RSE session for a teacher to recognise coercive control and abuse, then wouldn’t it be good if young people were shown this aspect of adulthood as early as possible? I think so.
Let’s make 2022 the year of empowerment and leadership for healthier relationships.