Book projects – No Fallen Angels: 5: Invisible assault

Invisible assault

– two aspects: non-recognition of physical assault; use of non-physical violence

If we’re to succeed in getting men to face their own violence, we need help from women: and the most crucial part of that help is for women to be honest about their own involvement in the web of violence. Exactly as with men, women’s violence is both physical and non-physical; but whilst men’s violence is highly visible, or searched for until it can be exposed, women’s violence is all but ignored.

In public imagery, there’s a strange perception that physical violence by women doesn’t exist: or if it does, it doesn’t count, or doesn’t matter. If a woman hits someone – especially an adult man – it doesn’t count as violence: although the reverse most certainly does.

This confusion was illustrated clearly in one episode of ‘Blue Heelers”, a television programme about an Australian country police station. A policewoman from the city comes up to visit her boyfriend, a policeman at the station. They have an argument: in the midst of this, she gives him a full right-hander in the face. He does not respond in kind, no comment is made, and she calms down: he appears to accept this as normal. Later, out of uniform, they visit a farm about which the girl’s family is in dispute. She demands to go onto the farm; a man there refuses her permission to do so. She ignores him, and climbs over the fence. The man angrily yells at her that she’s trespassing; she ignores him and keeps on walking. He grabs hold of her shoulder; she punches him in the midriff, flooring him, and walks on. He recovers, runs after her; she again punches and floors him. Her boyfriend jumps over the fence, runs up to her, reminds her that she’s the one who’s trespassing, and leads her back over the fence. Yet back at the police station, she angrily accuses the farmer of attacking her, and demands that he be charged with assault – totally unaware of the violence of her own actions, or her own responsibility in the incident.

My own experience as a mediator has been much the same: most women I’ve dealt with have had enormous difficulty seeing their own physical violence at all – let alone the scale of it. For example, one of my neighbours knocked on my door late one night, saying that her housemate “had beaten her up again”. She did indeed have bruises on her lower legs; the housemate was due to move out in a couple of weeks, but clearly they had to be able to live with each other for that time, so I agreed to mediate. But the story was not quite as clear-cut as she’d made it out to be…

Both told me their versions of the incident. Both agreed that the other’s story was fair. Very roughly, there’d been long-standing rows about her music versus his television. He’d come home, tired; he wanted to watch the television news. She wanted to listen to music: “It’s my favourite song”. “Every song’s your goddamn ‘favourite song'”, he said; “your music can wait, my news won’t.” And turning on the television, he switched off her stereo. “You’ll break it, you’ll break it”, she screamed, as she ran out of the kitchen, and launched herself at him, flailing her fists at his back. He turned round, arms crossed to protect his face; she launched herself at him once more, and slipped sideways over a chair, bruising her legs. That was it: no other contact. He certainly didn’t punch out at her, or make any move towards her. Yet despite herself describing the incident in exactly that way, she was convinced that he had attacked her. It took three separate repetitions of the story to get her to understand that the reality was entirely the other way round. Even then she was still unconvinced: “He was meant to be hurt, he deserved to be hurt; he stopped me doing it. That’s attacking me, isn’t it?” And interestingly, because she had bruises to show, he would indeed be the one charged with assault if she’d called the police…

This perhaps sounds extreme: it isn’t. In fact, in my own experience as a mediator and elsewhere, it’s been terrifyingly common: far more common than the other way round. And yet the latter is the only one we hear about.

This one’s not going to be easy, but do it anyway. Look long and hard at your own history, and ask yourself this: exactly how many times since early adolescence have you hit someone, or thrown something at someone? Include especially those incidents where the only person who was physically violent was you. That includes a slap on someone’s hand, a punch to someone’s arm when you were angry with them, a plate threatened with and then thrown to the floor – any action of yours which you would consider physically violent if done to you or towards you.

If you’re like most other women, your initial response is likely to be “Never! None!” That’s what the Angel Factor expects; that’s what everyone would like to believe. It’s also extremely unlikely to be true…

No-one but you is watching this, no-one is going to question you, or charge you: so you can afford to be ruthlessly honest with yourself here. Notice the reflex that comes up with each incident that returns to memory: “Well, it was his fault anyway! They caused it!” Look closer: what choices did you have in each incident? What feelings come up when you face the realities of your own history of physical violence?

(A warning, though: don’t push too hard on this one – be firm yet gentle with yourself. If necessary, to break through the myths about ‘no woman is ever violent’, look first at other women’s actions: notice your feelings about that. Then turn, gently, carefully, to look at your own. You’ll almost certainly feel anger at first – particularly towards me! – and then a lot of denial: but what are the feelings behind that? Listening carefully to that deeper knowing, what do you learn about yourself?)

– reprise on ‘female gaze’ as violence

– specific women’s power, specific women’s responsibility: power of complaint, sexual power (abuse of latter as weapon is the reason for ‘patriarchal’ defences/restrictions)

– inaccurate perception of scale (“it doesn’t count”) – example of illustration from Kissane article – continuation of image of relationship between small girl and undamageable, non-retaliating father

– “it’s not OK to hit a girl” becomes “it’s OK to hit a boy” and/or “it’s OK to hit a boy in place of a girl” – examples

– non-physical violence – reprise/expansion from DVIRC list on lesbian violence

– Kate Gilmore in ‘Deadly Hurt’ debate – deeply violent (‘passive-aggressive’), projected onto ‘all men’

– ‘non-violence’ is often a synonym for non-physical assault – Sommers example (‘defence guard’ standing in a circle screaming at a professor – Brownshirt analogy)

– deniability – example from 30s schoolgirl, articles on bullying generally

– excess of male suicides might be understood as female murder (link to ‘Mirror Man’)

Related pages