‘Putting up a fight’: a Culture of Resistance to Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse
(Trigger warning: please be aware that, although this post does not discuss acts of abuse and violence in detail, it does discuss sexual and other forms of abuse in general.)
While domestic violence and sexual abuse might leave certain material traces within abusive homes (for examples, see my conference paper, here), community archaeological studies might more effectively attend to resistance to abuse, than focus upon abusive and violent acts, which risk re-traumatising victims and survivors of violence and abuse.[i] Concentrating on acts of resistance may potentially affect positive outcomes, as well as being more palatable for broader audiences, consequently providing opportunities to raise awareness of the need for greater public support for over-burdened, and under-funded, services that rely upon voluntary action and charitable donations (such as Childline, NSPCC, Rape Crisis, SV2, Women’s Aid, and Refuge). Although PSP might consider how material culture was and is used in abusive acts, this may enable exploration of the ways in which victims appropriate and subvert instruments of abuse, and other material culture, in acts of resistance.
Society, community, and domestic abuse: affecting and responding to change in attitudes and behaviour
Many today experience domestic violence and sexual abuse, but (despite changing definitions and legislation) these phenomena are, of course, nothing new;[ii] historical perspectives may inform legal and social services, and empower victims and survivors, and enhance support networks. Examining attitudes and reactions to domestic violence and sexual abuse in the past might provide opportunities to (re-)consider modern structural (political and economic forces), social (community and family), and individual endeavours to both prevent abuse, and support victims and survivors. Studies of violence and abuse in the homes of previous generations involving (and, it is hoped, ultimately driven by) victims and survivors might go beyond ‘top down’ approaches, and in themselves provide opportunities for both resistance, and prospectively, self-determination. Such studies may provide more distant (and potentially less disturbing) ‘spaces’ for reflection and understanding of abusive behaviours, and reactions to such acts, in the present day, which might in turn inform and enhance personal, collective, and systemic development.
Even a cursory appraisal of primary and secondary historical sources reveals the influence of structural attempts to control and prevent abuse and violence in the home (such as legislation and the provision of care), which vary according to time and place, upon social and personal attitudes. The process of law affects how victims and survivors of violence and abuse categorise and describe their experiences; how the public perceive and respond to abuse and violence; and how perpetrators perform and conceal or display abusive and violent acts. Legislation may either reinforce or transform (albeit gradually) public opinion regarding the social acceptability (or unacceptability) of particular abusive and violent practices, and abusive and violent behaviour in general.[iii] For the victim and survivor, the law may therefore act either to validate, or contest, the sense of wrong engendered by violent and abusive acts. But, in coming together to reflect upon experience, victims and survivors may recognise areas of legislation that do not adequately protect from abuse and violence, or effect justice, and in turn, might change legislation, and public opinion, through campaigns and protest. Again, collaborative historical studies may be integral to reform.
Legislative and social welfare systems also provide (a) language(s) through which victims and survivors might articulate their experiences (and emotional responses). They also serve to inform victims and survivors that their experiences are far from unique, which those isolated from friends, family, and wider society (a common abusive ploy) might not realise. Recognition of shared experiences might enhance notions of community, and prospectively support, for victims and survivors.
Strategies of resistance
As individuals, victims may adopt a myriad of resistance strategies when facing violent and abusive situations, although those who have not experienced violence in the home might more easily imagine resistance in physical terms – as self-defense, or ‘putting up a fight’, against violent acts. While this might occasionally be possible (in some cases), and perhaps (more rarely) be effective in ending or delaying violence (albeit often only temporarily), this may more frequently be either ineffectual, or unfeasible. Even when the physical strength of perpetrator and victim are more or less equal (which of course is extremely unlikely in situations of child abuse, and may be uncommon in many, if not most, situations of domestic violence), various factors may compromise the capacity of victims to counteract assault.
We must also remember that domestic abuse might include sexual abuse; and perpetrators of either domestic abuse or child sexual abuse might subject their victims to other forms of abuse, including emotional and psychological abuse. Children are of course dependent upon adults for financial support, as may be victims of domestic violence; perpetrators might subject either children, or adult partners, to economic abuse, and children may experience neglect.[iv] These various forms of abuse may combine with other, more obvious, inequalities, such as differential physical strength (as mentioned above), or explicit lack of social power. In themselves, or in combination, they may reduce or remove the capacity of the victim to re-act, particularly with regard to escape (which is impossible for many victims), or seeking help (to which victims may not in any case have access). Threats (against the victim, or those close to them) frequently prevent ‘fighting back’ (in whatever form – including what many who have not experienced abuse often imagine to be easy: the act of ‘telling’). Long-term emotional or psychological attrition may leave the victim with a sense of worthlessness, and no emotional ‘energy’ to effect change. Abuse might affect the mind so far as to even compromise freedom of thought. Techniques such as ‘gas-lighting’ might alter the victim’s sense of reality; and psychological trauma can affect phenomenological perception. Terror can provoke subconscious ‘coping strategies’, such as Dissociation (my colleague Debra’s specialism), that create distance between mind and bodily experience, causing mental fragmentation, and influencing re-action. Resistance, in any form, might therefore often be impossible, and the capacity for resistance might change (irregularly) over time, depending on both internal and external factors.
However, where resistance is possible, this might take highly individualistic and variable forms, although (as noted above) social interaction of victims and survivors reveal common strategies of resistance, as do historical studies. Resistant practices may range from the victim rejecting the marital bed for the spare room – or leaving the family home, either temporarily or permanently; calling the police or social services, or seeking help in other ways; the concealment of objects – such as clothing, cosmetics or soap (where the jealously and possessiveness of domestic violence perpetrators is manifest in their ‘forbidding’ the victim to wear ‘feminine’ or supposedly alluring clothes, wear make-up, or wash), or contraceptive pills (where domestic violence perpetrators aim to control their victim’s body, and believe that motherhood will increase the dependency of their victim); the collective verbal and physical obstruction of the victim’s friends (who might together prevent, and draw attention to, violence acts); the individual ‘telling’, ‘answering back’, or conversely, to the deliberate silent stillness of victims – the refusal to react being frequently the only option available for active protest against physical and sexual assaults.
The victim might not always, or often, describe their behaviour in terms of ‘resistance’, nor be consciously aware of their own achievements in resisting abuse. Resistance might also be contested or undermined – not only by the perpetrator, but also by family and friends (of both victim and perpetrator), and the wider community (including authorities). Resistance might be framed in terms of ‘acting up’ – ‘stubbornness’ or ‘disobedience’, or ‘attention-seeking’ behaviour. Historical studies of violence and abuse demonstrate how this may be part of a process within which abusive practices are ‘normalised’, whereby the violence enacted by those in power is seen as an acceptable response to ‘aberrant’ behaviour, and the victim seen as ‘deserving’ of ‘correction’. Victims might internalise such attitudes, and may come to define their ‘lack of co-operation’ in such ways.
But by recognising, through historical studies, common resistant practices ‒ past and present, victims and survivors might more easily realise their achievements in re-acting (however subtle) against abuse. Victims and survivors may draw upon such recognition in sustaining, or reconstructing, a sense of self, and in developing or enhancing a sense of community, to which they belong through shared resistance, as well as abusive experiences.
The next post will take the topic of resistance culture further, by considering how archaeological studies might be used in developing a Heritage of Resistance as a resource for victim and survivor communities.
[ii] The British Crime Survey / Office for National Statistics provide estimates of the numbers of people each year who experience domestic violence and abuse (see the Home Office Violence Against Women and Girls Policy; see also HMSO 2013 A Call to End Violence against Women and Girls Action Plan. See NSPCC website for figures of child abuse, and 2014 report. For studies of domestic and sexual abuse in the past, see for example, Elizabeth Foyster (2005) Marital Violence: An English Family History, 1660-1857; Shani D’Cruze (ed.) (2014) Everyday Violence in Britain, 1850-1950: Gender and Class; and Clive Emsley (2005) Hard Men: The English and Violence Since 1750.
[iii] For example, see Foyster, op cit. (note ii.)
[iv] See note i. for definitions of abuse and violence.