Domestic violence is much more than physical abuse
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Domestic violence is much more than physical abuse

Imagine you are a photographer and you’ve been asked to provide a shot for an article on domestic and family violence (DFV). What imagery comes to mind?

Have you pictured a woman cowering in a corner, or a close up of a man’s clenched fist? Perhaps a woman with her hands outstretched protecting her face? If these are the sorts of images that come to mind for you, then you’ve already been influenced by the way DFV is portrayed in the media.

Much of the reporting on DFV feeds the perception that domestic violence is first and foremost the perpetration of physical violence. And while it is a sad fact that physical abuse is the reality for some women, putting such a strong and consistent emphasis on the physical aspect of abuse is dangerous. This not only detracts from the reality that so many women are living with, it ignores the fact that physical violence is most often the last form of abuse that victims are exposed to.

For victims, this type of reporting sends subliminal messages that, unless you’re being hit, what’s happening is acceptable. It means they are less likely to seek help when experiencing other forms of DFV and, even more concerning, may not even be aware that the other behaviours being perpetrated against them - such as emotional and verbal abuse, destruction of property, social isolation, financial abuse, sexual abuse, threats of suicide and threats to harm others - are all forms of DFV.

This was certainly my experience. For nine years I endured almost every form of abuse other than physical. And even when the abuse did eventually escalate to the physical, I still had no idea how to get out. He had hurt me, but he hadn’t actually hit me, so what could I do? I didn’t know who to tell or where I could go to get help and still didn’t understand that what was happening to me was actually DFV.

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The abuse had become so normalised over the years that it didn’t seem too outrageous that I’d now been physically hurt. The threat of what he was capable of had been there for years and so when it finally happened, I almost expected it. I was so conditioned by the idea of abuse being when a woman is “bashed” that I never saw myself as a victim, or him as a perpetrator. Not seeing the situation for what it was meant that I was even more vulnerable, with little chance of escape.

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The impact on the wider community of this singularly focussed representation of DFV is a lack of understanding of just how complex the issue is and how many other types of abuse are being experienced behind closed doors. If we don’t recognise DFV in all of its forms, then experiences of abuse other than physical will continue to be dismissed or downplayed and victims will continue to suffer in silence.

The media has its part to play in the general misunderstanding about what DFV is and where our concerns should lie. The message being communicated over and over is that we should only be concerned about physical abuse.

Physical abuse might be the easiest to depict, define and identify, and there may be a very clear line in the sand between what’s ok and what’s not, but that does not mean that it’s the only, or even the 'worst’ form of abuse.

Physical wounds may heal - bruises fade, scratches heal, bones mend. But mental and emotional scarring is much more difficult to recover from. We need to broaden our collective understanding that those invisible scars are just as real, just as painful and shouldn’t be ignored.

The fact is, you don’t have to be punched in the face for it to be abuse. Regardless of the form it takes, DFV is never ok. Everyone has a right to feel safe within their own home and if they don’t, they need to know that there is a way out and there is help available.

International Women’s Day is the ideal time to reflect on this issue as a part of the broader focus on women’s rights and gender equality. If we can come to acknowledge DFV in its entirety as well as recognise when the representation of violence is stereotypical or unrealistic, then we take an important step in the right direction.

Ella is a survivor of family and domestic violence, and an advocate for the Voices for Change Program. 

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