“The dress”, the follow-up advert, and the hidden story
"This research (among many other studies) shows that coercive control is a serious and prevalent form of abuse, which may prevent women from seeking help; yet many campaigns still focus on the physical."
by Zero Tolerance Co-director, Jenny Kemp
Last week, the world was temporarily distracted by a picture of a dress, and spent many hours debating whether it was white and gold, or black and blue. The South African Salvation Army quickly came up with a clever response to the mass of interest in “the dress”, adapting it to become a domestic violence campaign, asking ‘why is it so hard to see black and blue?’ Their advert featured a picture of woman in ‘the dress’, with a black eye, a cut lip, and bruises on her legs.
While no-one can doubt the cleverness of this lateral thinking, and while we admire the speed with which the SA adapted this popular social media topic into something more meaningful, it raised a debate in the Zero Tolerance office about why campaigns depicting physical violence are still so popular and widely-shared. We all have friends who, with the best faith in the world, and a genuine concern for women experiencing domestic abuse, shared this new dress meme V. 2. Yet we have concerns about this type of campaign, and want to remind people that coercive control and psychological abuse are even harder to see than bruising.
A March 2014 study of over 2,500 callers to the American National Domestic Violence Helpline asked callers about their experience of substance abuse and mental health coercion. Callers were asked if they had experienced any of three kinds of abuse, and the results were shocking.
Respondents were adult women who had experienced domestic violence, were not in immediate crisis, and had completed the service portion of their hotline call. They agreed to participate after hotline staff explained the surveys’ topics, and were assured that survey participation was voluntary and anonymous. Each survey—one on mental health coercion and one on substance use coercion—was conducted by hotline staff over a period of six weeks.
Results showed that these two types of coercion were common among hotline callers: 89% had experienced at least one of the three types of mental health coercion that were asked about, and 43% had experienced at least one of the three types of substance use coercion. Most of the survivors who reported any type, reported more than one.
In addition, most survivors whose abusive partners had actively contributed to their mental health difficulties, or their substance use, also said that their partners threatened to use these issues against them with important authorities – such as legal or child custody professionals – to prevent them from obtaining custody or other things that they wanted or needed. The study also shows that the more types of coercion survivors experienced, the more likely they were to seek help. The report reveals the importance of knowing about the prevalence of these experiences among survivors.
Some of the key findings include:
In response to the question, ‘Has your partner or ex-partner ever called you “crazy” or accused you of being “crazy”?, nearly 9 out of 10 women (85.7%) answered yes.
Half of the callers (50.2%) had experience their partner or ex-partner threatening to report to authorities that they are “crazy” to keep them from getting something they want or need (e.g., custody of children, medication, protective order).
Nearly three quarters of women (73.8%) thought their partner or ex-partner had deliberately done things to make them feel like they were “going crazy” or “losing their mind”.
Nearly a third of women (27.0%) had been pressured or forced to use alcohol or other drugs, or use more than they wanted.
Nearly 1 in 4 (37.5%) had experienced their partner or ex-partner threatening to report their alcohol or drug use to people in authority to keep them from getting something they want or need.
Just under a quarter of women (24.4%) had been afraid to call the police for help because their partner or ex-partner said they wouldn’t believe her because she were using, or she would be arrested for being under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
Since its inception, Zero Tolerance has never used campaign images of women showing cuts or bruises, believing that abuse is a wide spectrum of behaviour that goes well beyond physical violence, and that women deserve to be shown as empowered advocates for their human rights, not as victims. This research (among many other studies) shows that coercive control is a serious and prevalent form of abuse, which may prevent women from seeking help; yet many campaigns still focus on the physical.
So, instead of debating the colour of a dress, let’s have a serious national debate about how to fix these things, and bring about a society in which we don’t tolerate any form of domestic abuse. Black and blue is really not the issue. It’s not that black and white.
Mental Health and Substance Use Coercion Surveys, A Report from the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, by Warshaw et al. (March 2014)