‘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.
‘Doing the right thing’? Histories of the Home and Domestic Violence: Homes Under Pressure Conference Paper
Artefacts from refuge assemblage ©PSP
‘Doing the right thing’? Histories of the Home and Domestic Violence[i]
Dr Kirsten Jarrett, Past Sense Project
This paper introduces research carried out as part of a project I co-direct,[ii] called ‘Past Sense’ (or PSP), through which my colleague and I explore the material histories of violence in the home, bringing together archaeological and psychotherapeutic research. We analyse evidence from the early modern period to the present day, although current fieldwork predominantly examines the contemporary past. However, we are only at the very beginning of what is experimental research; this presentation is therefore of early work in progress, and preliminary thoughts. Our subject is a very sensitive one; although I will not describe acts of violence or abuse in detail, I will discuss abusive contexts and associated material culture. To begin, I will provide a recent definition of domestic violence.
What is meant by Domestic Violence and Abuse?
Home Office Definition, 2013:[iii]
“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality.”
Domestic Violence can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:
The perception of abuse and violence in the home is of course contingent on historical and cultural conditions; however, the different aspects of abuse shown here have often been incorporated within allegations of cruelty in the past.[iv] We must also remain aware of the prevalence of abuse, and shed stereotypes that situate domestic violence solely within underprivileged or poorly educated homes. We cannot assume distance between our work, and its reception by traumatised individuals: it’s essential that scholars consider carefully how they discuss violence in the past, especially with regard to recent decades, and recognise the potentially damaging effects of studies upon often vulnerable individuals and groups, as well as prospective benefits.
PSP works within the conceptual frameworks and methodologies of Contemporary Archaeology, which though facing different practical and ethical challenges to traditional archaeologies, often employs established methods. Awareness of the prospective social benefits and adverse affects of archaeological research in this field has encouraged the development of collaborative community and public work. This has in part influenced the adoption of diverse approaches, providing scope for creativity that might allow the generation of more ‘meaningful’ histories for marginalised individuals and groups, for example, integrating ethnographies, narratives, storytelling, and art.
A previous study that explores marginality also raises the subject of domestic violence. It illustrates possible methodologies; but also brings to light important issues regarding the potential effects of contemporary historical work. I will quickly consider this work, which might provide a springboard for future archaeological work on violence in the home; discussion will focus on issues that subsequent studies might consider. (With regard to the following study, we must remember that approaches to data privacy have changes since the excavation.)
Previous Studies: ‘The archaeology of alienation’
Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas carried out the ‘excavation’ (in July 1997) of a recently abandoned 2-bedroom, 1960s council house. They published the results in 2001 as a chapter within Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, entitled ‘The archaeology of alienation. A late twentieth-century British council house’.[v] In part, I discuss this work in response to the authors’ intent for their study:
“…exploring the theme of alienation from the dual perspective of the material culture of a marginalised and socially disenfranchised person or family in the late twentieth century and the process of marginalisation and alienation that we, as archaeologists, effect on the people we study” [my emphasis].
The study adopted standard archaeological recording and sampling techniques, plotting artefacts on room plans and photographing finds in situ, which are categorised according to function, age, and gender. The remains are interpreted as representing a household comprising a single mother and her two children; and an adult male (in a sexual relationship with the woman, and perhaps the children’s father), who stayed over-night, but did not co-habit – the methadone bottle in the bathroom suggesting his attempt to overcome heroin addiction. Domestic material, apparently abandoned, was variously in disarray, and boxed (seemingly ready for removal), to the authors indicative of rapid flight; the man’s addiction is tentatively suggested as the reason for relationship breakdown. This conclusion follows discussion of housing difficulties for single mothers and their children who flee situations of domestic violence, inferring explanation for abandonment of the site.
For the purpose of this paper, I shall very briefly consider the description and exhibition of personal possessions, which I suggest that subsequent studies, if recognising potentially abusive situations, should approach with especial care. I would argue that in such cases, it is important that we neither assume that apparent abandonment renders material devoid of meaning (for various factors constrain choice regarding which material is taken and left), nor that such acts are necessarily seen as permanent. Connected to this issue is the sensitivity we must apply in both the questions we ask of the material, and the way we ask them.
Using this study to highlight how subsequent studies might analyse and disseminate data, I shall consider the seemingly innocuous question, “Who lived there?” (posed as a bold section heading in the chapter). I wonder whether questions of this sort – typical of archaeological studies of household environments – might be modified if exploring potentially abusive situations: might it seem intrusive to the victim of violence, placing them as subject of academic surveillance, or as an object of voyeurism?
This brings me to examination of intimate possessions. The chapter records how the presence “erotic underwear” and a “lovers’ guide video” suggests a sexual relationship between the man and woman in this household. Bearing in mind the prospect of sexual abuse within situations of domestic violence (and the frequent humiliation of victims), I suggest that subsequent work might explore different ways to discuss material associated with sexual activity. Research should, at the very least, not compromise the dignity of victims and survivors, nor enhance a sense of vulnerability. This issue relates to how studies used photography. We turn to a photograph in the chapter (entitled “Abandoned bedroom floor”) that, in illustrating methods (the use of a grid in recording finds), also shows objects within this room. This might serve to raise the issue of re-traumatisation, which subsequent archaeological research should strive to avoid. To most, such images may appear harmless; however, subsequent studies might consider the potential detrimental effects of displaying possible sites of abuse (and perhaps violation). With regard to illustrating material relating to contexts where abuse is suspected, instead of using photographs (which might – or perhaps should – be used only with informed consent), other, less provocative techniques (such as line drawings) might be used. However, practical constraints are acknowledged (such as restricted time, and the limited capabilities of drawings).
So how might we go forward with research in this field? Of course, it may only rarely be possible to detect an abusive situation through material remains, although certain material traces may be informative. The concept of structured deposition – regularised, deliberate placement of a restricted range of artefacts suggesting ‘out of the ordinary’ behaviour – familiar to archaeologists of ritual, might be of use alongside an awareness of abusive technologies. Through this approach, we might recognise acts of concealment, for example.
However, I feel that collaborative work might provide the best solution, involving those experienced in comparable contextual conditions. To some, archaeological study in the presence of a subject perhaps seems superfluous; however, archaeological ethnographers are demonstrating the value of combining contemporary testimony with a wide range of sources. We are (or should be) well aware of the multi-vocality of material culture. And the voice of the archaeologist, and that of the subject, may merge and diverge at different points, wherein lie questions surrounding representation and understanding, among others. Collaborative, therapeutic archaeologies, with co- and auto-archaeological components (such as Rachael Kiddey’s recently completed doctoral research, that studied homelessness in the Contemporary Past, in Bristol and York), which have previously been carried out with success.[vi] I see scope in such approaches for PSP work.
Auto- and co-archaeologies[vii]
Auto-archaeologies have drawbacks, as well as advantages. They may enable experimentation, and the testing of boundaries, but might also risk compromising privacy. Progress may therefore be a slow, as the subject negotiates control of autobiographical material, while navigating ethical and legal issues.
With regard to histories of abuse, creation of an autobiographical narrative (that considers the significance of material culture before and after leaving) may be useful – before archaeological recording, and re-familiarisation with the personal archive. The subject must remain alert to tendencies to reconfigure memories according to present needs – that is, for certain experiences to come to the fore, while others may either be actively or subconsciously put aside; subsequent narratives might therefore differ in content and emphasis, to some extent. The subject must also remain aware that personal perceptions will be embroiled within (re-)negotiation(s) of social identities and relationships – past, present, and future. But, comparison of other sources with detailed contextual information and emotional responses (as provided through a narrative) may say much regarding the interplay of material and memories.
Material contained within personal archives might include photos, and written evidence, such as legal documents, letters, and diaries (informing interpretation of context). But these sources can be examined as artefacts to explore materiality and, as with other archaeological sources, spatial relationships. Standard archaeological methodologies may be adapted to work around the constraints of contemporary studies (particularly privacy, and material abundance), recording artefact household contexts; stratigraphic relationships within and between assemblages; and artefact details.
Landscape has long been integral to archaeological studies, and archaeology is well equipped to explore diachronic change. I have therefore begun to think how I might integrate analysis of relationships between ‘place’ and memory, using geographical information provided by documents and other sources.
Domestic Violence refuges might hold a central position in restorative (i.e. post separation) landscapes. Though initially transitory (in providing temporary accommodation), they may be significant loci for the construction of social identities (such as re-categorisation as lone-parent family) and relationships (e.g. in (re-)establishing friendships and family), coming to be seen as historical sites.
The historical significance of the refuge building might be enacted through (a) virtual ‘return(s)’ to these sites using satellite technologies, each visit enabling the (re-)processing of experiences, as the life of the survivor changes in the present. For present and past residents, connected landscape features may be (re-)encountered on foot, perhaps in some cases to create landscape narratives, but also to explore the histories of refuge environs, in order to enhance a sense of place. Contemporary Archaeologists have previously adopted similar techniques, in attempting to understand the meaning of landscapes to marginalised individuals and groups; such methods may be of use in PSP community work.
I will conclude by saying that my colleague and I are aware that we face many challenges with this work. However, even the few weeks of preliminary research has begun to yield potential methodologies, and positive outcomes. Expanding digital technologies, providing remote access to a wide variety of resources, may enable vulnerable collaborators to participate in constructive and creative ways, while remaining in control, and in some cases, anonymous.
It may be possible to develop further a sense of ‘place’ through collaborative historical study of refuge environs and buildings (commonly housed in modified family homes). The more distant past might provide a less disturbing social ‘space’, in and through which collaborators might explore experiences of home, and renegotiate local and community identities. Recognition of similar experiences in the past might enable victims in realising that they are not to blame for their abuse: the role of patriarchal systems becomes evident, providing a potential to erode stigma. Shared experiences – in the recent and more decent past – might support the development of community, establishing a heritage of resistance to violence in the home. But we must always attend to the question posed in the title of this talk: are we doing the right thing? (A question also asked by many when leaving violent relationships.)
We intend to develop our research to include studies of childhood sexual abuse, as well as domestic violence. Through this work, we might not only learn more about the most hidden histories of home, but also do so in a way that might enable those with traumatic experiences to move forward from pain, of a kind that many find too disturbing to speak of, or listen to.[x]
[i] This version of the paper has been edited (to remove sensitive content and material subject to copyright restrictions; some of the sentences and paragraphs shown here were modified or removed during the presentation, in an attempt to reduce reading time).
[ii] For more information on the project co-directors, see ‘PSP: What, where, why, who, and how?’; and ‘The PSP ‘journey’: Exploring the Material History of Violence in the Home’.
[v] With thanks to Victor Buchli for providing permission to use his co-authored chapter.
[vi] For example, see ‘Leave Home Stay’, by Christine Finn, presented January 2014 at a Centre for the Studies of Home ‘Custodians of Home’ Conference, at the Geffrye Museum (when I gave a paper on another project with which I am involved: Living in the Past Community Archaeology Project). Christine Finn’s work ‘Leave Home Stay’ can be seen on her project website, here, and is discussed in an article in the Guardian ‘Old Junk or Treasure?’ here.
[vii] In the presentation, I introduced an experimental study in progress, which has been removed due to sensitive content. The following instead speaks in general terms about the prospect of integrating co- and auto-archaeologies within histories of domestic violence.
[viii] This section was omitted during the presentation, due to time constraints; again, sensitive information has been removed, and the discussion is in general terms.
[ix] Passages from the following section were omitted during the presentation, due to time constraints.
For the Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network, 7th annual conference, Homes Under Pressure conference, to be held at the Geffrye Museum in London on Tuesday 31 March 2015, PSP co-director Kirsten will be presenting a paper ‘Doing the right thing’? Histories of the Home and Domestic Violence’, which will discuss archaeological studies of domestic violence. Co-director Debra may contribute slides on the psychotherapeutic perspective. After the conference, we may be able to post the slideshow on this website. The abstract for the paper is as follows.
This paper explores the benefits and difficulties of household archaeologies of the recent and contemporary past, when studying or encountering historic situations of domestic violence. It introduces a proposed community project that aims to carry out archaeological research at a women’s domestic violence refuge in the East Midlands. Although principally analysing material culture, this study will also integrate a range of historical sources, including oral histories, and co-ethnographic accounts.
The paper aims to examine possible methodologies, and discuss the sensitive issues surrounding historical studies of domestic violence – particularly with regard to the prospect of investigating contemporary contexts, by commenting on a previous ground-breaking archaeological survey. It will explore how such studies might either (when awareness of the complexities of domestic violence is deficient) re-traumatise, or (in the case of more informed, co-operative, approaches) empower and support, domestic violence ‘survivors’; and consider the potential of participation by refugees in such projects to augment the process of social relationship and identity reconstruction.
As readers might themselves come to see this project, I have come to see PSP in terms of a ‘journey’; I believe that my colleague Debra also sees it in this way. Initially, I cringed in using this term to describe what we’re doing: it’s somewhat clichéd, and might be associated with (what some would have described in the 90s as) ‘New-Age-naval-gazing’. But in reflecting upon the methodologies that we intend to test (particularly approaches developed within the field of ‘Contemporary Archaeology’), the notion of both fieldwork and interpretation as ‘learning processes’ perhaps justifies use of this term.
In discussing our individual fields of research – my doctoral research being on the role of material culture during cultural and social transitions in the (re-)construction of identities (albeit during a historical period very distant from today), and Debra’s psychotherapy MA research and support work with survivors of childhood sexual abuse (e.g. with SV2), particularly in helping those with Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Dissociation – we saw common ground. At first this was most apparent in the notion of the ‘transitional object’; but subsequently we considered how we might together explore the broader significance of material culture in situations of abuse and – what may be especially important – in the post-trauma restitution or reconstruction of ‘self’. Perhaps inevitably bearing in mind Debra’s specialism, we initially contemplated ‘how’ the material traces of child abuse in the past, and self-reparation in the past and present, might possibly be recovered, while having a positive social impact, supporting survivors in managing trauma, and informing support workers in the significance of material culture in both acts of abuse, and in moving forward after traumatic experience. We are still mulling over this question. But with access to documentary, photographic and other material evidence of domestic violence and post-traumatic restitution in the past and present, we are beginning PSP work with what most might see as an impossible topic – though what to us is so far proving an ‘easier’ focus for the archaeological investigation of violence in the home. (Subsequent posts will explain further, and discuss the primary sources and methodologies we have in mind at this point.)
Considering the personal – and hyper-sensitive – nature of the evidence with which we shall work, collaborators and participants may in some way be affected by engaging with the project. We hope that domestic violence (DV) victims and survivors may take something positive from participation (whether as collaborator in fieldwork, analysis, or presentation of findings, or as audience). However, we are aware of the potential vulnerability of victims and survivors. Our main concern must therefore be to avoid adversely affecting those who engage with PSP, paying particular attention to the potential risk of ‘re-traumatising’ those who have had experience (or are still experiencing) violence and abuse: I am thankful, due to her professional experience, that Debra is vigilant in limiting this risk. This risk has both inspired and constrained project development, with concerns provoked by previous work by others stimulating the question ‘then how might / should the topic be approached’.
We realise that it may not be appropriate to develop or implement certain methods – despite their apparent successful employment in previous studies (which is one reason why we’re beginning as a pilot project, before ‘delving in deep’). I also do not yet know if other issues will obstruct our ability to meet project aims. The historical sources that we will study may often be ‘harrowing’ at best, which might ultimately prove ‘too much’ to continue (I’ll discuss this issue further in another post). For various reasons, ‘enough’ DV victims and survivors may not take part to make the ‘data sample’ numerically ‘significant’: those who have experienced DV may feel they have nothing to say; might not want to remember these experiences; and / or support workers, legal advisers, and perhaps might see participation as inadvisable.
The potential impact upon family and friends is also an important consideration: it is clear that violence in the home (whether in physical, emotional, sexual or other forms) between parents – or inflicted upon children by family members or friends – may affect not only the generations directly involved (as victim and perpetrator), but might also affect subsequent generations: a subject in which Debra is particularly interested, and which archaeology, in studying the ‘longue duree‘, might be particularly well equipped to examine, despite the obvious challenges that must be carefully navigated along the way.