Twelve blue chairs are arranged in a circle. A clipboard, a single white envelope, and a retractable pencil are placed in a small pile underneath each. The room smells of cigarette smoke settled on wet jackets; I feel it seep into me as I wait for the room to fill up. I struggle to imagine who will sit in these chairs.
One by one the men enter: first comes a tall, gangly guy who must only be about 19. His hair is fluffy and a slight belly hangs over his jeans. Next comes a man with a bleached-blond topknot, clutching a folded-up newspaper. The two women standing at the front of the classroom keep the small-talk running: the joy of early morning McDonald’s breakfasts takes up an unnaturally long portion of time. Everything they say is light, cheery and doesn’t probe. The men’s hackles are up, and in order for today to work, they need to be relaxed.
Eventually, eight of the 12 chairs are filled. It’s time to begin. Fluffy Hair sits up straight, Top-Knot cracks his knuckles and turns around to grin at me. The men’s ages range from teens to their sixties. Their jobs include a luxury travel agent and a chef.* They all have one thing in common: they are domestic abuse perpetrators. The women leading the group want to show them there’s another way, that their relationships can be healthier. But most don’t even know what they’ve done wrong. Does that make it an impossible task?
It was scary back then – a year ago – when I sat in that room, rain spattering on the windowpanes, and listened to the facts. In the UK, 2.4 million adults suffer from domestic abuse. Almost one in three women in England and Wales will experience it in her lifetime. Two women per week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales. And these statistics don’t tell the full story: domestic abuse is a largely hidden crime, as victims often don’t report or disclose what is happening to them.
And then, earlier this year, our world was thrown into disarray. We were told to stay inside our homes, leave only for essentials… and for many people that meant being trapped indoors with their abusers. The statistics got worse. Calls to helplines spiked, and a study carried out by the charity Women’s Aid found that two-thirds of those surveyed said that their abuse was escalating under lockdown. Campaigners counted that at least 16 domestic abuse killings in the UK occurred over the first three weeks of lockdown: nearly triple the national average. An issue that had been insidiously rooted in society for years was suddenly magnified. I set out to meet those pushing for change.
Down a wide, leafy side street, Emily Florence Hutchings could rebuild her life. It was in this anonymous house, with its round kitchen table, that she could sit down, clear her throat, and tell her story, knowing – unequivocally – that she would be believed. She had been placed in a South London refuge after leaving an abusive relationship. Within a week of calling Solace Women’s Aid, she had a safe place to sleep.
“When I met this person he couldn’t do enough for me,” she says, recounting the early days of her relationship. “Then, slowly, he took over every part of my life, from not liking certain friends to set a curfew. Then the violence started."
Leaving didn’t stop the abuse. He reported her to social services to try to damage her career as a teacher; he showed up at her place of work; he used Facebook to keep track of her and harangued her with messages. “The police kept saying, ‘He’s not shown up on your doorstep… yet.’ My mum had to ring up the police and say, ‘Does my daughter have to be in a pool of blood before you take her seriously?’”
Emily is now a trustee of Solace Women’s Aid, she works in theatre, teaching, and has written a TV script based on her story, which she is looking for producers for. When we meet she has long, fiery red hair and is looking forward to cocktails with her friends later. But it could have turned out so differently. One in five women who are murdered by their partners or ex-partners had been in touch with the police. One of the most dangerous times for a victim is when they leave, making refuges so vital. They provide support for everything from counselling to legal aid. “I really think if it wasn’t for [my refuge] I’d be dead,” reflects Emily. “My refuge gave me physical and emotional safety. I want people to know that they are for everyone, and they don’t question you or look you up and down. I was so impressed as they were focused on justice – which is important – but also on moving your life forward.”
Refuges are there for when things reach crisis point. But as I sit in front of her, my tea going cold in my hands, a question tugs at me: could something have been done earlier? Why did it have to be Emily who uprooted her entire life in order to survive?
On the frontline
When Melani was a police officer she was someone to look up to. She had rank and every day she showed up and did the best job possible. “I performed well at work because that’s where I was getting a sense of worth. At home I was getting none of that,” she tells me.
Today, as both a survivor of domestic abuse and an ex-police officer, she has written training programme DA Matters with the charity SafeLives. It trains police forces in how to deal with domestic abuse cases, and was put in place after a number of reports found that training was lacking. “The police had the power but not the right attitude,” she says. The programme has now been delivered in 23 police services and the whole of Scotland.
“[It shows them] that what a domestic violence victim needs is very different from someone who has had their car stolen.” Because Melani worked as a police officer for so long, she knows that the questions asked often don’t lead to the right answers – answering “What’s happened?” is not easy when you are a victim of coercive control. “We do an evaluation after the course and see that the police officer’s attitude has changed; they understand the nuances of abuse.” Using real-life scenarios can also help police recognise the ways in which they could be fooled by a perpetrator, which she says can be very common – abusers will often tidy up or become incredibly charming, so it looks as though the police were called in unnecessarily. “The scene [police] show up to could have looked very different just 10 minutes before.”
“Everyone knows violence is wrong,” explains Emily. “But it’s the verbal abuse and manipulation that keeps you there. It distorts your reality – it’s like driving through fog.” And a relationship can be abusive even when no physical violence occurs. When victims can’t see clearly, it’s up to those around them to do it for them. “They might not understand that they are a victim,” explains Shigufta Khan, CEO of charity The Wish Centre. “They could think it is all their fault. Perpetrators give those messages to victims all the time – as does society.”
The toxic path
“I shouldn’t be here.” Those four words hung in the air of the room as the eight men gathered. The sentiment was in their crossed arms, their furrowed brows, some even said it – chuckling to themselves about how absurd it was that they had to spend two days in a stuffy room for “something so small”. When they introduce themselves, they don’t have to share their crime, but most were eager to. There was a lot of “I only”: punched a wall, broke her car keys, smashed up her stuff…
I was sitting quietly in the back of a Project CARA workshop – run by the charity The Hampton Trust. The early prevention course runs in partnership with the police and is slowly being rolled out across the UK. It’s a two-day course in place for perpetrators who previously would have received a simple caution. The course I sat in on was for men only, though the charity does run a similar course for female perpetrators. To be here, those in the room will have committed a “minor” assault, have no previous convictions (nor will they have received a caution for violence in the past two years) and their victim will have agreed for them to attend.
They all had a set idea of what abuse looked like. But throughout the day, the barriers came down. A jerk of a head when it was explained why “you really push my buttons” could be seen as threatening, the unclenching of a fist as the power of body language is discussed… They were shown that abuse can be verbal and behavioural. That it’s not just a black eye.
Five weeks later we all gather in that room again. The men are sitting up straighter, their arms are uncrossed. Not everything has changed, they still have to be corrected when they call their ex “that bitch”, and in a couple of cases, I wasn’t sure much information had gone in. But some did seem to understand what led them there and what they could do differently next time.
What would have happened if they hadn’t gone on the course? Each case is different – but what we do know is that, in a controlled study carried out by the University Of Cambridge, 35% fewer men who had completed Project CARA went on to reoffend against their partner, compared to those who’d just been cautioned. Domestic abuse tends to follow a pattern, and these “low-level” incidents are indicators of a toxic path. If the person is never told why what they’ve done is wrong, then how will they ever divert from it?
“It was just a box-ticking exercise [at first],” Aaron – who is in his mid-twenties and only wants to be known by his first name – tells me about his time on ADAPT, a longer, 20-week programme by The Hampton Trust. He was referred onto the course by a social worker. “I was in an abusive relationship and I was the perpetrator,” he says frankly. But around six weeks in he began to impart the things he was learning into his relationship.
“I realised this was actually working. [Before] I believed I had the right to come home and do whatever I wanted. That was how I grew up. For a lot of men it’s hard to show emotion – instead of crying [we] get frustrated and angry.” It’s easy to dismiss this as an “excuse”, or an outdated way of thinking. But, while there have been huge leaps forward in terms of how we think and talk about male mental health, men like Aaron are testament to how far we still have to go. Not all of us have first-hand examples of what a healthy relationship looks like and often, toxic habits are handed down generation after generation. It’s certainly zero excuse. But these learned behaviours won’t disappear on their own. They need constant education, re-education and communication.
“Lots of the men I was with [on my course] had been victims at some point,” says Aaron. “They get stuck in a cycle but [many perpetrators] would never come forward.”
Aaron and his partner stayed together for three years after the course, ending their relationship amicably. His son now lives with him.
Workshops like CARA and ADAPT aren’t without controversy. There’s the worry that victims will use the attendance as a sign that their partner has changed, even if they carry on the same behaviours. Or their partner could twist their learnings and use that to further manipulate.
Each programme, for this reason, keeps in constant contact with the victim – providing them with the support they need, whether they choose to stay or leave. Funding also means that there’s often a toss-up between programmes like these and refuges – which are already at risk of closure, particularly specialist services for BAME women. It seems so unfair that there isn’t money for both, but all the charities I spoke to cobbled together their resources – and that still only covered basic crisis support. Services for victims need to come first.
In 1971, Refuge opened the first women’s refuge in West London.Before that, those who wanted to leave had nowhere to go. It was only in 1991 that marital rape became illegal. The coercive control law was put in place just five years ago. “Our systems haven’t caught up with the reality of how we understand domestic abuse: the breadth of coercion and control,” explains Nicole Jacobs, who, after two decades working in the sector, is now advising the government on what needs to be improved, in her role as Domestic Abuse Commissioner. She believes that the Domestic Abuse Bill (which at the time of writing was awaiting its third reading) will drive things forward. “If it was the kind of issue that could be solved quite simply, it would have been done already,” she says. “There has already been huge progress.”
But it’s not just the systems that haven’t caught up. It’s us as well. There are set stereotypes as to what abuse looks like, who inflicts it, and who is on the receiving end.
Melani’s colleagues couldn’t believe that as a police officer she could be suffering. The men on the course didn’t see what they were doing – until it was pointed out to them.
It’s so easy to think that this wouldn’t happen to you. That, if it did, you’d recognise it – and get out fast. But in a joint Cosmopolitan and Women’s Aid survey, we found that although 65.5% of readers said they had not been in an abusive relationship, almost two-thirds of that number had experienced at least one potentially abusive behaviour. It’s all around us, and we are blind to it.
As the men in the room at the CARA course talked about punching walls and how it didn’t “count”, my thoughts turned to an ex of mine. When he got angry, he would smash things up. Most of the time he was sweet, gentle and loving: I thought the way he expressed his anger was “normal”. It wasn’t why we broke up. When I got home from the course, I Googled him. A few years ago he appeared in court, admitting to assaulting his wife. Without intervention, he was led down a path and found himself stuck in that toxic cycle. Lockdown might have shone a spotlight on what’s going on behind closed doors, but once it’s over, we all still need to make sure we’re listening if we ever want the cycle to stop.