Trigger Warning for violent imagery, discussions of intimate partner violence, and victim-blaming.
A new campaign against domestic violence has just been launched in West Yorkshire, England. According to police, domestic violence increased by 30% during the last World Cup in 2006. They’re looking to prevent that from happening again this year.
Let me say, first of all, that I think it’s laudable that they’ve recognized a trend and are acting on it instead of just standing by the phones and waiting for the calls to come in. It’s also rather encouraging that they actually believe domestic violence is something that can be prevented rather than simply responded to. I also know that I tend to criticize more of these types of campaigns than I celebrate. I know that I may seem insensitive towards the fact that it’s very, very difficult to come up with a striking image and short slogan that captures substantial and unproblematic anti-violence theory. In truth, I do recognize that this is an incredibly hard task.
But I also don’t think it’s helpful to applaud campaigns that are actually harmful. And I don’t think it’s useful in the long-term to give out cookies for effort, while such efforts keep failing to improve.
Now, the image above, at first glance, is better than a lot of other campaigns. It focuses on the perpetrator, not the victim. That, alone, is a huge step. And so thank god for it.
But there are also numerous problems. Firstly, I have to say that while incidents of domestic violence rose by 30% last World Cup, I doubt that domestic violence itself rose in hugely meaningful terms. I imagine that what was seen was not a rise in men abusing their women partners, but a great surge in men abusing their women partners all at once. I imagine that virtually all of the perpetrators were already perpetrators (or would have soon become perpetrators) — they just all decided to commit their assaults around the same time, for a change. The World Cup didn’t make them do it. And so I think that centering a campaign around the World Cup as though it’s a cause is somewhat misguided.
As Jo recently noted in comments, I also take issue with the constant focus on potential prison time when dealing with perpetrators of gendered violence, whether it be intimate partner violence or sexual assault. I’d really rather prefer consistent messaging that focuses on the fact that such violence is wrong and oppressive and should be considered completely unacceptable to the community, rather than “well, you might be punished.”
But my main problem with this campaign isn’t actually the poster you see above. It’s the fact that there is a second poster. A poster aimed at women, who are presumed to be the victims. This second poster is incredibly revolting, in my view, and that’s why I’ve put it lower down in the post instead of at the top.
This second image will be larger than the first because it includes small type. Please be aware that it is very graphic and will be possibly triggering for anyone who has experienced intimate partner violence or any other form of assault.
There is so much wrong here that I hardly know where to begin. I’ll work in ascending order.
First of all, there is the imagery itself. Again, only a white woman (or a woman who is clearly supposed to be read as white) can be a victim. And the imagery is extremely violent. Rather than helpful to many survivors, I have to be concerned that it’s just likely to trigger them. It also reinforces the hierarchy of “real” victims and perpetuates myths about “real” domestic violence. “Real” domestic violence leaves marks. Most people believe this, including victims. The fact that many if not most perpetrators know how to avoid leaving marks is ignored. And so is the fact that the following narrative runs through many victims’ heads: “He just slaps me around a bit. It’s not that bad. It’s not like I’m all bruised up. It’s not like I’m at the emergency room. It’s not like I’ve got scars all over my body.”
The next problem is that the poster completely absolves the perpetrator of any responsibility. The marks on the woman’s back aren’t attributed to her partner — they’re attributed to red cards and penalties. The text on the poster is not about someone choosing to physically harm her, but about the “World Cup leaving its mark.” In fact, not even the tiny print at the very bottom of the poster mentions a responsible perpetrator. All language is passive. You need to connect the dots to a perpetrator yourself, if you are in fact so inclined. And in a world where victims blame themselves and onlookers also blame victims, that is really, really far from good enough.
The worst problem of all, though, is that the poster does seem to apply blame to someone other than the World Cup. It applies blame to the victim.
Don’t let the World Cup leave its mark on you. Don’t let the World Cup leave its mark on you.
According to this poster, someone who is abused by a partner “because” of the World Cup has let it happen. According to this poster, it is the potential victim’s responsibility to ensure that she doesn’t let it happen. According to this poster — which, again, does not so much as include a mere mention of a perpetrator — it can only happen if she lets it.
Heads up, West Yorkshire Police: victims don’t let themselves be abused. Whether it’s the first time the abuse has been committed or the one thousandth time, it is never the victim’s fault. The victim never lets it happen. The perpetrator is at fault. The perpetrator lets it happen. The perpetrator makes it happen.
And yes, it would be a much better world where all victims of abuse were free to leave the perpetrators at the drop of a hat. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where many victims don’t have anywhere to go, any way to support themselves financially, any emotional support from friends and family, any understanding that the abuse is not their fault, or any guarantee of safety from the perpetrator once they do leave.
And while a world where victims of abuse could freely leave is a world that is much more ideal than this one, even in that world, victims who stay would not be letting the abuse happen. Not to mention that if we’re already working on creating much more ideal worlds, I’d really rather aim for the truly ideal one, where victims don’t need to leave because there aren’t any perpetrators.