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26 November 1999

Battered intimacy

Tessa Mayes questions whether the latest campaign against domestic violence will really benefit women

The face of Sheryl Gascoigne, ex-wife of footballer Paul Gascoigne, is now officially associated with the campaign against domestic violence in Britain. This week she launched a nationwide awareness campaign by Refuge, the domestic violence charity, which coincided with the International Day Against Violence Against Women.

The media went all-out to promote the campaign, with pull-out supplements and star interviews. It is not hard to sympathise with the personal tragedy of Sheryl Gascoigne, whose relationship with Gazza allegedly involved 'eight years of physical and emotional abuse'. But I find it difficult to agree with the message behind her domestic violence campaign. It not only exaggerates the dangers for women but also presents a negative view of intimate relationships. For most people close relationships put a smile on their faces, not two black eyes.

Refuge runs advertisements about the facts of domestic violence which are 'not an exaggeration'. They claim that 'one woman in four is beaten by the man in her life at some time in her life'. This view is echoed by the Cabinet Office Women's Unit. In June 1999, women's minister Baroness Jay launched a campaign to 'change the culture' in the way domestic violence is presented. The campaign publicised the same statistic, that 'one in four' women suffers from domestic violence. This presents a truly frightening picture of family life.

So where does the figure come from? Surveys which serve as the basis for the statistic use a broad definition of domestic violence which inflates official figures. For example, a survey conducted by Islington Council in 1994 defines violence as physical, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse. This means that a man has simply to shout at a woman for it to be counted as a domestic violence statistic. Yet what relationship doesn't involve arguments from time to time?

Using statistics in this way presents a distorted picture of family life and intimate relationships in Britain. No doubt some women who experience argumentative and manipulating partners feel emotionally abused but not all women feel it counts as violence. Hurt feelings are not the same thing as physical violence; to say so belittles the experience of the relatively small minority of women who are physically attacked.

Refuge's domestic violence campaign claims to help women. Their helplines were constantly engaged on the eve of their media campaign. Women callers probably feel that advice about what to do in difficult domestic situations is beneficial.

But how helpful is it to portray people's relationships as having a 'one in four' chance of turning degraded and violent? If one in four women are victims of violence by men, this implies that one in four men harm women. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from such an exaggerated figure: normal relationships are dangerous places and women should view their man with suspicion and distrust.

Thankfully, not all women think of men as dangerous in this way or themselves as victims. Whatever you think of the sad ending to the Gascoigne marriage, most people's relationships are violence-free and likely to stay that way.

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