Domestic abuse is one of the most pressing social issues of our time. No-one should underestimate the misery involved, nor the risks for children and the abused. 

It is because it is so important, that discussion of the subject needs to be as robust and well-informed as possible, free from dogmatic ideology, misleading statistics or biased research as much as is possible.

There is much to commend in Natalie Collins’ new book, Out of Control: couples, conflict and the capacity for change (SPCK), if it can be disentangled from radical feminist ideology and some questionable statistics. In this era of ‘fake news’, the use of research and data to promote controversial ideas should be thoroughly examined, especially on such an emotive subject.

The book’s chilling descriptions of experiencing domestic abuse are compelling and distressing. The reality of a relationship with a sadist is spelled out in explicit detail, which should shock anyone who is unaware of the horror out of their stupor. There are good suggestions to help someone in this position, and some excellent challenges to common attitudes, especially the chapter, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’

There’s a useful discussion on how Christian teaching and church practice can be dangerously misapplied in cases of abuse: attitudes towards marriage, forgiveness and redemption could lead to a highly manipulative abuser’s protestations of repentance being accepted without sufficient scepticism, consequences and boundaries.

But Natalie says just reading practical insights won’t help. She believes that domestic violence is caused by societal “male power over women” or the “patriarchy”, and she tries to convince the reader of this. The patriarchy, she believes, is the reason that abusers develop beliefs of “ownership and entitlement towards women”. Furthermore, “addressing any issue other than his beliefs of ownership and entitlement is not going to stop his abusive behaviour.” She cites research that suggests doing so is successful in changing an abuser, but this is a questionable conclusion (see my blog for details).

The stance in this book goes way beyond egalitarianism, towards what Natalie calls “the liberation of women through the abolishing of patriarchy,” a position that is sometimes called radical feminism. In Natalie’s view, this is God’s work: “God is moving and feminism is part of the truth he is outworking in the world. Hallelujah!” At the end of each chapter, there are suggested prayers and a number of encouragements to accept these beliefs, or to ask yourself why you’re “unwilling to recognise the truth”.

Misleading statistics

The author passionately believes that by bringing down the patriarchy, domestic violence can be limited, so it’s understandable she’s enthusiastic about it. However, the statistics and research she uses to argue for the feminist interpretation of abuse don’t back her case, in my opinion.

To argue that “extreme” domestic abuse is widespread, the book uses the shocking data that of girls aged 13-17, 72% said they had experienced emotional violence (she doesn’t mention that the NSPCC report cited 51% of boys reporting the same). However when inspecting this report: this definition of ‘emotional violence’ included ‘made fun of you’ and ‘shouted at you’. Other forms were rarer: 11% of girls and 4% of boys said a partner had threatened them with violence to do something they didn’t want to do; 1% or less of both sexes said they’d experienced this regularly. 30% of girls and 13% of boys had been told who they could see and where they could go by a partner: 7% of girls and 3% of boys said this had happened regularly.

The nature of statistics is that unless we’re very careful, we can project our pre-conceived ideas and ideologies onto them, to make them mean whatever we want them to. In any case, statistics tell us little about the cause of anything; to do so requires scientific analysis. Even then, for social issues, discovering the real “causes” and their meaning is usually difficult and complicated, particularly for politically charged subjects such as domestic abuse. Ideology often takes over and introduces bias.

Natalie has said that feminism made sense of her life. It’s understandable that a feminist worldview might feel helpful for a female victim of male sadistic abuse. However, what may be true for a household where there is male exploitation, domination and repression, is not necessarily true for society as a whole, nor even for a significant proportion of society. To try to show that it is, you have to use statistics and research, but I have questions about how she has done this: see here for more info.

In academic research, the degree to which domestic violence is perpetrated by women as well as men, its extent, and how it should be understood and addressed, are subjects of vigorous academic debate that hasn’t been resolved.

Blaming the patriarchy

I’ll let you make up your own mind about the statistics used. But, let’s suppose that research showed that sadistic or ‘extreme’ domestic abuse is less frequent than Natalie portrays, and that men do in fact make up one in three of the victims (contrary to what’s said in the book). What would this mean for her argument? She’s passionate about stopping domestic abuse – should this change? If fewer women and more men are victims, does this mean that we should care about it less, or consider it less urgent?  Absolutely not – we should care about the victims just as much, however many there are, and whatever their gender. The frequency and the gender balance of crime should not affect our compassion, concern and action for those whose lives are in danger and who are suffering and traumatised.

But different conclusions about its frequency and gender balance could lead us to draw different conclusions about society, whether or not the ‘patriarchy’ is the main culprit, and whether radical feminism a good means of addressing it.

It would also bring into question Natalie’s instruction that we should make assumptions about gender and domestic abuse in our churches. She writes: “Every church leader, preacher, pastoral support worker and congregation member should assume that there will be women and children in their congregation who are being subjected to abuse. And that there are men in the congregation who are abusive… Presuming that abuse is present within our congregation is a big shift in thinking, but is the only way to ensure that our communities become safe contexts for those subjected to abuse. Only then can we ensure that we do not collude with abusers.”

Given that there are male victims, and that perpetrators can be notoriously manipulative, is it a good idea to make any assumptions about gender and abuse at all?

Taking responsibility

The book also raises the question of personal responsibility. The author dismisses or minimises explanations for abuse ranging from unemployment, substance abuse and financial problems to anger, insecurity and narcissistic personalities. She states: “it is crucial that an abusers’ choice to abuse remains front and centre within our minds whenever we try to understand abuse.” (Exactly how she balances this assertion with blaming the patriarchy isn’t clear.)

I agree that if talking to a victim of abuse who is still with the abuser, the absolute responsibility of the abuser for the abuse is the point, and any real or imagined ‘mitigating factors’ and excuses such as a ‘bad childhood’ be minimised. But beyond this particular pastoral context, should this idea be extrapolated further, to how we understand abuse as a whole? 

The view that crime is simply a choice would get much sympathy from social conservatives, tired of the fashion to give mercy to criminals on the basis of ‘society/my upbringing/my trauma made me do it’. This book appears to advocate a return to a much more conservative vision of personal responsibility – but only in the case of domestic abuse committed by men. It doesn’t explore the wider implications of such a stance for other crimes, or even relationships and society. Should the “choice” of those who shoplift, burgle people’s homes and commit physical assault towards a stranger to be front and centre of our minds when trying to understand crime? If not, why only for domestic abuse?

I’m all for having a serious debate about the causes of crime in society and the degree to which personal responsibility must be emphasised, but this is a complex and much wider debate.

In summary, the factors and forces relevant in an abusive relationship, where a man has subjected a woman to a torrent of abuse, blame and excuses, and she is in shock, feels terror and a ‘traumatic attachment’ to the abuser, are not necessarily relevant for society as a whole. The book has much to offer in considering the former, but its treatment of the latter is debatable at best. I hope the book can encourage a dialogue that will improve attitudes and action towards abuse; but I believe it can only do so if those in the debate are not afraid to question and criticise its feminist interpretation. In these times, it takes courage to do so.

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Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church (an alternative perspective on Out of Control will be published in a forthcoming print issue of Premier Christianity). The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher