Opinion: There should be no hierarchy of abuse

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Photo: yavdat, via Adobe Stock

On the first page of her new book See What You Made Me Do, journalist Jessica Hill asks that we start using the term domestic abuse, instead of domestic violence. Her reasoning is that a lot of abusive behaviour isn’t physical, but it still leaves the same indelible mark on victims. I think she’s right. 

Too many women are killed as a result of domestic abuse in Australia, and we aren’t doing enough about it. Most cases follow a similar pattern of emotional abuse and controlling behaviour escalating over time to the most tragic of endings. But it always starts with a type of abuse we don’t take seriously enough and one that is harder for us to see because the scars aren’t visible. As a society we’ve created a sick hierarchy of abuse, one that puts anything other than physical assaults in the not-important basket. One that dares to tell a victim suffering the effects of psychological abuse that it doesn’t really count because he didn’t actually hit you. Yet. 

An abuser doesn’t have to hit you to make you feel powerless and afraid. Sustained psychological abuse creates lasting mental wounds and insecurities that victims have to grapple with for the rest of their lives. Victims live with the constant fear of failing to live up to arbitrary standards and the verbal barrage that would ensue from doing so. They are told they aren’t worthy of love and happiness, that they just aren’t good enough, by those who are supposed to love them most in the world. 

Just because someone isn’t walking around with a black eye, it doesn’t mean they aren’t a victim of abuse. It doesn’t mean the pain they feel isn’t real or valid. That they won’t have to live with the impacts of that abuse every day for the rest of their lives. Victims shouldn’t have to wait, and in some cases hope, for it to turn physical so that others will take it seriously. 

We would go a long way to tackling this crisis if we recognised that abuse matters from the moment it starts, however it starts; and that it doesn’t have to be physical to be abuse. 

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