Exceptionalising Intersectionality in Texts for Domestic Abuse Survivors

In 2015/16 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the second time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support. 

By Abigaël Candelas de la Ossa

In May, I attended the International Gender and Language Association (IGALA 9) conference in Hong Kong to speak on a panel called “Constituting and responding to sexual violence”.  The conference was excellent, and the panel included great contributions on gender-based violence, social media evidence in rape adjudications, police interrogation tactics, and emotion in courtroom cross-examination.

My paper looked at how abuse is defined in support texts that are produced by an NGO which supports women survivors of domestic/sexual abuse; and in particular, how these texts talk about violence perpetrated against people who experience intersecting forms of oppression – for example, as Black and as lesbian. Sexual violence disproportionately affects sociodeomographic groups who are multiply oppressed. Unfortunately the legal system tends to focus on overt physical and verbal resistance as the threshold for deciding what counts as violence and abuse. At present, the law in England and Wales recognizes that physical violence or the threat of physical violence could be coercive, but does not necessarily recognize non-physical forms of violence such as emotional manipulation as also rendering consent invalid.

I gave examples of some of the practices used by the NGO that are exemplary and could be more widely adopted by people who support survivors, such as the way they define sexual/domestic violence in terms of patterns of coercive control. This definition centers survivors’ own experiences of sexual/domestic violence as involving a range of coercive and controlling behaviours which may or may not constitute criminal offences or involve physical violence. Some of these behaviours may be normalized, such as controlling the clothing someone wears, their access to money, contact with friends and family, or use of prophylaxis. Recognising these patterns as constraining someone’s ability to meaningfully consent or withhold consent to a sexual act contrasts sharply with the more limited statutory definition of sexual offences used in England and Wales.

Focusing on abusers’ patterns of coercive control helps contextualize survivors’ actions as rational strategies to reduce harm, and navigate situations of constrained choice, which should not be treated as indicating consent. This view recognizes survivors’ agency while also acknowledging the coercion that survivors experience. In this context, the NGO’s definition is both important and powerful in centering many survivors’ own perspectives and experiences. However, intersecting experience is described as a “special circumstance”, and survivors who experience intersecting forms of oppression are advised that their communities may reject same-sex relationships, perhaps implying that minoritised identity is “the problem”, rather than the structural barriers to support faced by people who are multiply oppressed.

I suggested that support agencies can improve the support that they provide to women survivors by framing the barriers that survivors face in accessing support as social and structural problems, instead of as “special” or “exceptional” circumstances. Focusing on what Liz Kelly calls women’s “space for action” could also help strengthen and clarify the texts’ discussion of constrained agency.

The panel discussion that followed our papers – on how researchers working on language, gender, and the law can work with practitioners to address injustices  in the legal system – was both energizing and inspiring; and it was thrilling to build new dialogues and plans for collaborative projects. I am grateful to the Sociological Review Foundation for making it possible for me to take part.

Originally posted 9th June 2016.

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