The war at home

 
 

In the wake of a recent controversy between music stars, Rihanna and Chris Brown, Peter Molloy offers a fresh appraisal of stereotypes about young people and domestic violence.

There’s a state-funded advertisement campaign displayed on bus shelters around Dublin at the moment, which rather neatly summarises a common misperception about domestic violence. Take one of the posters as a example. In front of a gloomy photograph of a knocked over chair and shattered crockery, a subtitle bluntly informs the reader that; “He punched her in front of the children. Again”.

You might be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that any stereotype derives from the poster’s express usage of the male personal pronoun to identify the attacker. After all, isn’t this just another repetition of an age-old prejudice that domestic violence is something inflicted by men, not suffered by them?

As easy as it is to reach that assumption, you’d still be wrong. In reality, at least one other poster in the series pointedly identifies a woman as being the perpetrator of violence. In any event, some of the most recent Government statistics confirm that females are almost twice more likely to become the victims of domestic violence than their male counterparts. So what’s the quibble?

The problem with the posters isn’t that they illustrate depressingly familiar notions of domestic violence being unique to women, or to heterosexual couples, but rather that they unintentionally transmit a view of inter-personal violence as being a middle aged couple with children.

Have another think about Exhibit A above. What’s interesting isn’t that it was a man that did it, but that everything else about the imagery – the broken china-ware, the kitchen table – all point to a resoundingly domestic setting. This is a mature, working couple – probably married – certainly with children, occupying their own house. And so the usual scripted backdrop for domestic violence is set. The only problem is that things don’t quite always work out like that.

In the early hours of a Sunday morning this month, that fact was rather dramatically illustrated inside a Lamborghini sports car parked in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. What inevitably became the salient media take on the saga that ensued was the fact that Chris Brown, entertainer and singer, had launched a brutal assault on his girlfriend, singer Rihanna. Much more disturbing, however, was the little-remarked upon point that it was Chris Brown, 19, who stood accused of using his fists, and even his teeth, to lay about his partner.

“A lot of people think ‘domestic violence – you’re older, you’re married, you have kids’”

This was domestic violence all right, but not as we think we know it. Rather than a drink-sodden, abusive husband laying the law down at home, or a harping, angry wife, this was a fresh-faced 19-year-old attacking a 20-year-old. As unpalatable as it is, the reality is very clear. Domestic violence isn’t something that solely confines itself to those with a ring on their finger and a mortgage, but rather is a very real, very nasty phenomenon that clatters away on the fringes of most segments of Irish society.

We know that many young people drink; that they smoke, drive too fast, have sex, take drugs, and fling themselves early into nearly every other activity of adult life. Violence directed at loved ones forms no particular exceptions to that rule.

“A lot of people think ‘domestic violence’ – you’re older, you’re married, you have kids’”, explains Christina Sherlock, from the Women’s Aid domestic violence support organisation. “That’s not the case at all – if you are in an intimate relationship, you’re at risk at this kind of violence”.

“It can happen regardless of age or martial status”, continues Sherlock, mentioning a recent survey conducted in Northern Ireland amongst university students.

“It was very interesting around both the numbers of young women who said that they either had experienced it themselves or knew people who had. Young people still had these conceptions about ‘what this woman did to deserve this.’”

Sherlock was guardedly positive about whether or not the lurid and very public nature of this month’s incident might help in increasing public knowledge of this lesser known aspect of domestic violence. “It’d be hard for us to measure. I suppose because they’re such high-profile, young stars, I imagine it would maybe bring it to the attention of younger women, and perhaps because they’re boyfriend and girlfriend [that could help raise awareness].”

Although this gruesome incident cast a shadow over the bright glare of fame of these young celebrities, perhaps it may shed some light for those in a similar position to have the courage to speak out.

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