The new Domestic Abuse Bill aims to broaden the definitions of abuse and to improve the support available for victims. The main hope for this new legislation is that by more accurately defining abuse, more victims will get help. This comes at a time when domestic abuse charities and campaigners, both in the UK and across the world, have reported a surge in calls to helplines and online services during the lockdown. Currently, many who report abuse are told to come back when they are physically assaulted, as this is the only form of domestic abuse the law recognises.
Legislators hope the new definitions will lead to broader detection through improvements in training for the police, Crown Prosecution Service and courts. How successful is this likely to be? Whilst socialists welcome the extension of the law to recognise more forms of domestic abuse, the extent to which this will improve the situation is limited. The Bill does not lift the pressure often associated with living in families. It aims to contain, rather than fundamentally eradicate, relationship abuse. A decade and more of austerity has exacerbated domestic violence.
St Mungo’s, the homeless charity, report that 33 percent of homeless women say domestic abuse contributed to them becoming homeless. Only 11 percent of homelessness services offer women-only accommodation due to lack of funding. Similarly, local authority funding for women’s refuges have been cut by nearly £7 million since 2010, meaning shelters are closing and cutting services. The Bill makes £16.6 million available to local authorities. With services already cut to the bone, this will not be enough to support rising levels of abuse.
Victims of domestic abuse are classed as vulnerable and have priority need to be housed, but the housing crisis means that there is a lack of accommodation so that local authorities often turn victims away. Another aim of the legalisation is to bring the case of “R v Brown” into legislation, which would mean any defence of consent where a victim suffers serious harm or is killed during sex is invalid. The case concerned five men who were convicted of various counts of assault, due to the injuries they inflicted upon each other during consensual, homosexual, sadomasochist activities. Despite this, the “rough sex” defence has been increasingly used in Britain in cases of sexual violence that have ended in murder or serious harm.
A 2019 study showed that more than a third of UK women under the age of 40 have experienced unwanted slapping, choking or gagging during consensual sex and in 45 percent of these cases, the defence of “rough sex” led to a lesser charge, or even no charge at all. The hope is that by invalidating consent to “rough sex” as a defence, more rape cases will come to court. Again, although welcome, changes at a legislative level only will not go far enough to address the underlying problems governing relationships. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has brought other issues into view.
For example, research in 2019 showed public authorities are failing to uphold the basic human rights of ethnic minority women and children who have been victims of domestic abuse. The research, compiled by the international NGO Sisters For Change in partnership with The Manchester Maya Project, warns of institutional racism and sexism at the local level in Greater Manchester, and most likely elsewhere. It highlights that women and children from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are not being protected or getting specialist help after suffering domestic abuse.
A number of women’s aid charities report BAME women are reluctant to report abuse to the police, worried that their fears will not be taken seriously. At a more general level, BLM has opened a debate about defunding the police. For socialists, this would mean closing down police departments so that funds could be used elsewhere. In 2018/19, £13.3 billion was spent on the police in England and Wales. This money could be redistributed to set up new refuges or build houses that victims of domestic abuse rely on. Additionally, in the UK, 75 percent of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release from prison. Rather than spending £4.56 billion a year on locking people up, money could be invested into resources for schools and social services, as well as programmes to ensure people are less likely to reoffend.
Karl Marx argued that in capitalist society working class people lack control of their lives. As we lose control of our labour, lives and ourselves, our relationships become distorted and alienated. In abusive relationships, this lack of power means victims often stay in oppressive relationships because they lack any alternative. Relationships are shaped by the social contexts of institutions and ideas dominant during specific historical epochs. For capitalism, a key institution and set of ideas framing relationships is the nuclear family.
As long as the nuclear family continues to service this purpose, the increased powers to monitor and criminalise relationships intensifies the alienating effect it has on relationships. But fundamentally, as long as we live in a society which systematically oppresses great sections of it, structures like the police and legal system cannot be reformed to act in the interests of victims of domestic abuse.