An open letter to young men on the subject of domestic abuse
I was asked to write the piece 'An open letter to young men on the subject of domestic abuse...' by a young men's magazine for their domestic abuse awareness week. They never ran the event so I've decided to post it here instead. Sorry it is so long!
During that time he never physically attacked me, we met twelve times at most and he was usually much nicer face-to-face. I hope that by telling you my story you will be better equipped to recognise abuse when it happens to your friends or loved ones, or to call it out if you see a friend beginning to control their partner. I also hope that if you identify with some of the ways my ex-boyfriend behaved towards me you’ll stop, and think, and understand the devastating effect emotional (but non-physical) abuse has on it’s victims.
I met Shaun on Twitter, in April 2011 when I was thirteen - we were both fans of the same TV show. After only a few months I would wake up every morning to a long spiel on Facebook, Skype Messenger AND Twitter telling me how much he loved me. ‘I was his princess and we were going to be together forever and always’. Looking back I see his early intensity as a warning sign of what was to come but at the time I was just flattered by the attention from a boy three years older.
In November 2011, I was taken into hospital suddenly with anorexia and expected to be there for a long time. I was only allowed my phone once a day and had no internet access so I broke up with Shaun thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal because we’d never even met face to face.
He was absolutely furious and said I’d ruined his entire life; he swore, called me a ‘bitch’ on texts and even threatened to team up with boys who’d bullied me at school. I kept apologising and we eventually became friends again. Sometimes he’d still lose his temper over nothing, but I just thought it would take time for things to return to normal.
We met for the first time in April 2012, we lived two hours apart so Shaun came to visit for the day. He met my parents and was very shy and sweet. The next time we met he kissed me and asked me to be his girlfriend again. After that he often stayed with my family for the weekend and acted like the perfect boyfriend: taking me on dates, bringing me presents, unable to keep his hands off me.
In between visits Shaun started to change. He’d scream at me, talk about how ugly girls looked if they didn’t dress in a revealing way then call me a slut and a whore. He self-harmed and sometimes blamed me because I made him unhappy. It started with scratches on the back of his hand with a key, then razor blades and when I saw him there would be a mass of uncleaned-up cuts on his wrists. Eventually that stopped frightening me, then he stashed over fifty boxes of paracetamol to take an overdose, he’d show them to me but say if I told anyone he’d do it straight away and it would be my fault. He’d call in the early hours of morning telling me he was on the edge of a building ready to jump, then hang up the phone and not answer for hours.
I think he was genuinely struggling, but some things were too much of a coincidence not to have been intended to frighten me. Like going to hug him and finding a rustling carrier bag with even more paracetamol in under his top, and it always turned out he wasn’t on the edge of a building. I was too exhausted for school and stopped communicating with other people, all my time was spent worrying about or arguing with Shaun.
I ‘liked’ a wrong page on Facebook, didn’t answer a text quick enough…any number of tiny things could lead to days of the silent treatment followed by a torrent of abusive messages online. “Didn’t I know what I’d done?” “I obviously didn’t care about his feelings”. Every argument went back to how I’d broken up with him a year before. Shaun said after that I’d changed into a bad person and he could never love me quite as much again, but still wanted to be my boyfriend. He refused to tell me what had changed though, instead insisting I must work it out for myself.
Even though Shaun went on to say and do much more abusive things, it’s the absolute conviction that I had somehow changed in a way I wasn’t aware of and become this toxic, unlikeable person that stays with me the most. Abuse doesn’t have to be physical to be damaging. If you’re implying to someone again and again and again that they’re worthless and deserve to be insulted, that can have a much worse, lasting effect than physical violence. You’re probably wondering why on earth I stayed… Shaun would always go back to being super-lovely and apologetic in between. The more abusive he got, the more my (already low) self-esteem was crushed. There was always a reason why he’d got angry, something I’d said or done, so if only I tried a bit harder it wouldn’t happen again, right?
There are no excuses for abuse. No number of love letters, presents or apologies - however sincere - justify it. If you know someone who is in a relationship like that please encourage them to get out. They probably won’t see what is happening to them as abusive and they might not believe you the first time you say it - but stick with it and point out why you think the way they’re being treated is unacceptable - eventually that might be the difference that makes them leave. And if you think you might be starting to act in that way, take responsibility for yourself, leave the relationship now and talk to someone for help.
It always happened again. When Shaun couldn’t find a point to attack me on he fabricated one, like in March 2013 we were due to meet and I got to the train station early... Sat waiting in a coffee shop, I received a text to say he ‘knew’ I was having sex in the public toilets. I sent him a photo of my coffee mug but he wouldn’t believe me. When we met he grabbed my hand in the middle of the street, waving it in the air, shouting for everyone to “look at the dirty slag and whore”. He threatened that he and his friends would find me and stab me in the face. By the end of the same day he said he was in love with me again, we were going to get married etc. etc. and I was so relieved I went along with it.
Not long after that I called the police for the first time. Shaun had been relentlessly calling and messaging, making threats, telling me I deserved to be raped and worse. Although the police didn’t take the report any further they were helpful, saying what I was experiencing ‘domestic abuse’ which hadn’t occurred to me before. It can be very difficult to distinguish between normal arguments and emotional abuse... It’s unhealthy if one person has all the power in a relationship or makes their partner feel intimidated or frightened. You should never have to change something about yourself because you fear your partner’s reaction. And domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily mean ‘in a relationship with’, we’d broken up by this point but still acted like boyfriend and girlfriend.
I tried to stop talking to Shaun but he always found a way to get back in touch. It began to feel safer to engage with him online than to block him and not know what he was thinking or planning, or when he might ‘pop up again’ under a false persona. Shaun used Ask.fm (website that allows you to send and receive anonymous messages) and he played ridiculous mind games and set traps for me. For months he appeared to receive messages from a girl living close to him. He fabricated an entire relationship with her, joking about things they’d done and texting me from her house. It all escalated when he said he was going to have sex with her and I didn’t argue. Of course she was never real! He had sent himself all the messages, and now he was furious at me because he thought he’d proved I didn’t care for him and would let him go off with someone else. (The fact he’d lectured I mustn’t be jealous because I’d lost my chance with him, and that it was him who had gone to extreme lengths to deceive me, were all apparently besides the point.) Psychological abuse is vicious, it makes you believe you’re the terrible person and ask the abuser to forgive you, just giving them even more control.
Online abuse is often dismissed as ‘not so serious’ and we get told “ignore it, block the person, delete your account.” There are two reasons why I absolutely object to this attitude to online abuse:
1) It is not the responsibility of the person being abused to remove themselves. Everyone has the same right to be on social media and it’s the person perpetrating abuse who should be made to come offline if they can’t behave responsibly. If that doesn’t make sense imagine you’re out with friends at a bar… You get into a disagreement and someone punches you in the face. The bar staff pay no attention to the person who just hit you, and instead say to you, “I’m sorry but I think you’re going to have to leave if you don’t want to be hit again.” Telling victims to get off social media if they don’t want the abuse is as stupid as that.
2) Online abuse is very, very real when it happens to you. The anonymous messages I received would pick on private details Shaun knew made me most vulnerable; like challenging me to eat less and less and saying I was fat despite knowing I was on the verge of readmission to hospital with anorexia. I’d started cutting with razors (copying him) and he taunted me for “not self-harming properly enough”. On a few especially bad nights I picked up kitchen knives to kill myself and just begged my mum to “make it stop”. I thought I could never get away from him and that he was going kill me. Please think about what you say online, the fast pace of social media makes it too easy to send off abuse and without a single thought to the effect on someone’s life.
The final straw which made me go back to the police was at the end of August 2013. I was staying in a hotel alone and Shaun chose that night to send a constant stream of anonymous messages from the afternoon to the early hours of morning saying “I should do everyone a favour and slit my throat or drink bleach”, “the world would be a better place if I was dead”, and “if I wasn’t brave enough to do it someone should stab me that night.” A few days later my Ask.fm account was hacked, all the messages got deleted, and I received an email to tell me my password had been changed to 'I look stupid'. I reported it to Ask.fm numerous times, but with no response I eventually called the police again.
That investigation dragged on over six months but in March 2014 Shaun finally pleaded guilty to harassment. (The police had been able to trace hacking my account to his IP address.) I went to court to see him sentenced. I’d been told to expect him only to get a fine because it was his first offence but the judge took it much more seriously. Shaun’s solicitor said he should be lenient because it was a 'silly mistake' and Shaun had already lost his job… The judge said it was “cruel, calculated abuse” and gave Shaun an 18-week suspended prison sentence, electronic tagging with a curfew for two months, a year on probation and ordered him to pay me £250 compensation. He was also given a restraining order that says he can’t contact me via any method or come near me for five years. More recently, Shaun pleaded guilty to a different offence which would not usually result in a prison sentence. Despite the fact his suspended sentence was over, his previous conviction was taken into account and he is now serving 14 months in prison and will sign the sex-offenders register for ten years. He certainly is suffering the consequences of his actions.
So, if you’re a young man and you’ve read this letter (thank you very much for reading it!), what do I hope you’ll take away?
Please know that domestic abuse does not only happen to certain groups or types of people, it is never the victim’s fault or responsibility to stop it, and it is not only physical violence. Abuse - when it happens in young people’s relationships - often starts out with signs such as someone checking who their partner is talking to and getting jealous or possessive. Demanding to know where they are all the time, putting them down, humiliating them in front of others but justifying it or laughing it off. Telling them “don’t go there” “don’t wear that” “don’t talk to them” but “I’m only telling you not to because I care about you”. Abuse often looks very much like devotion and care.
If you see your friends doing any of these things - call it out. Just because someone acts in a few of these ways in a relationship it doesn’t automatically make them ‘abusive’, but early on is the best time to say something. You might need to explain why that behaviour could make someone else feel bad or controlled, especially in first relationships it can be difficult for both partners to know what’s normal and what’s not, but it’s important because little things can spiral into something a lot more scary as they did with me.
You, as young men, are in the best position to change things; to be the start of a generation where abusive and coercive relationships are not practically the norm. A 2009 study found 75% of girls aged 13 – 17 had experienced emotional abuse from an intimate partner. Many young men also report emotional abuse by a girlfriend or boyfriend. This behaviour is extremely damaging on it’s own and also precedes nearly all physical and sexual abuse in relationships. Two women a week are currently killed by a partner or ex-partner, more than that kill themselves to escape domestic violence. It’s not easy to recognise or put a stop to abuse, even more so when you’re in the relationship yourself, but it is in the early stages and whilst we’re still young that is the best time to stop to it.
If Shaun had had friends who saw the way he spoke to me early on and called him out on it, maybe he wouldn’t have carried on to much worse things - peer pressure is powerful. Please speak up if you see that a friend is controlling their partner, and equally if you think a friend is being controlled. Don’t be a bystander to emotional or online abuse, just as you wouldn’t be a bystander to a physical attack without saying anything. Emotional domestic abuse is often more damaging than physical violence… but it can be challenged, and stopped, before it goes so far. You have the power to do that - please use it.