Victims are never to blame for coercive, abusive ‘relationships’

// 8 September 2008

In this guest post, Cara Grayling tackles our victim-blaming culture

This article on how the manager of an NHS eating disorders clinic managed to get away with coercing several young women patients into “relationships” for 20 years states

The investigators blamed poor management, missed opportunities and the

reluctance of his victims to come forward as the reasons for Mr Britten

“grooming vulnerable patients”.

By “poor management” and “missed opportunities” they mean, I assume, that four other staff members knew about this.

What is to blame:

  • The culture of disbelief. Especially since the victims were young women with eating disorders – they have a mental illness and are therefore unlikely to be believed, because, you know, all women, especially ones with mental health problems, are crazy and delusional, or liars.
  • The masculine culture of entitlement that says men “have needs” and are entitled to do anything to have sex, including coerce and abuse.
  • Rape culture, that insisting men do the pursuing and “persuade” women to sleep with them.
  • The culture, especially bad in medical circles, that authority figures are always right and not to be questioned. (Which may explain why some of the staff members who knew about the abuse did not do anything. They may have feared for their jobs.)

Britten is described as a “predator”, but essentially he was just doing what our culture says that men do.

Who is not to blame:

The survivors, for not coming forward

They would have known that they were unlikely to be believed. That their abuser was respectable and nice men don’t do that, so they would be dismissed as fantasists or liars.

They were recovering from eating disorders, and so probably did not have the mental and emotional energy to go through the investigative process, which would inevitably scrutinise their character.

It’s probably not as if coming forward would have achieved anything, as most likely Britten would have been cleared. The women couldn’t have known there were other victims anyway, and even if they suspected it, couldn’t have known who they were.

Oh and can people stop the patronising “vulnerable” fetishisation? Surviving mental illness and this abusive relationship makes the survivors pretty strong and tough, actually.

The only purpose calling women vulnerable serves is to belittle those with mental health problems and portray them as weak victims.

This does not empower women in this position. What we need is for them to be able to say no to advances by overentitled, unprofessional, creeps and to report it. We need to believe women when they report misconduct, abuse, and rape. We need to stop believing that respectable, professional men would never abuse their power, and that women are liars. We need to stop blaming victims.

Comments From You

Anne Onne // Posted 8 September 2008 at 6:41 pm

The reluctance of his victims to come forward? Tthe reluctance of his victims to come forward??? THE RELUCTANCE OF HIS VICTIMS TO COME FORWARD?

Gee, why wouldn’t women come forward about abuse or rape? Could it be because people will question that they were ever abused or raped? Could it be because people will try to tell them they were not raped or abused, or that they asked for it, and that even the police and the judicial system, who are supposed to be on their side, would go to great lengths to question their character and judgement and imply that they were somehow at fault? Could it be that unless a woman was/is a teetotal straitlaced virgin, society suspects that she wanted it, and was lying?

I would hope that as many woman come forward as possible about abuse and rape if only to keep hammering in the idea that this is a big issue that will NOT go away, but women who do not come forward are not to blame for anything. They are not to blame for what Happened to them, and they are not to blame if their abuser or rapist strikes again because the abuser or rapist is the one who is choosing to abuse or rape.

You forgot to blame the culture which encourages health professionals (among others) to look the other way in cases such as these, and encourages them to side with abusive or dangerous colleagues rather than exposing them. I can understand the need to work cohesively as a team, but there is a very real current inability to address problem colleagues, and a secrecy that would put the army to shame.

Josie // Posted 8 September 2008 at 6:47 pm

Thank you so much for a wonderful post. I am a survivor of an abusive relationship and I would be first in line to commend anyone who speaks out about similar in defence of the survivors. I fully agree that we need to move away from disabling language such as “victim” and “vulnerable” and use more positive language that puts the emphasis on just how damn hard it is to end a relationship like this, possibly even more so to call out an abuser who is in a position of power and “respectability”. We CANNOT talk about this enough – society has such a very long way to go in terms of properly supporting and respecting survivors of abuse.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 8 September 2008 at 11:19 pm

My article on ‘Vulnerability’ challenged the same mindset wherein consistently women who have experienced male violence are always defined as being ‘vulnerable.’ Women are not vulnerable but they are targets of men who (rightly) believe they are entitled to rape and control women. The women who suffered at the hands of Britten were not ‘vulnerable’ but they were disadvantaged because unlike Britten they were not male. Not being male automatically means their characters and creditability are immediately suspect. Even more so when they were dealing with eating disorders.

Society needs to take a long hard look at how men are socialised into enacting violence against women and this includes using pyschological abuse and misuse of their power. But then society is still governed by men for men and this is one reason why women are routinely blamed and held accountable for men’s violence committed against them.

Leigh // Posted 9 September 2008 at 1:01 pm

What bloody awful phrasing! Although it is a paraphrasing by the BBC, so do we have an evidence that the investigators used the term “reluctance of his victims to come forward” though?

But, of course the BBC should have had the sensitivity to say something like ‘a culture of disbelief deterring the victims from coming forward’ or ‘victims being intimidated into not coming forward’. They may even have meant that, but not had the sense to say what they meant.

john b // Posted 9 September 2008 at 2:18 pm

I might be getting the wrong end of the stick here, but surely “vulnerable” has got to be the appropriate word here? (I don’t like it much as a word, but the concept that the victims were temporarily not in a position to give the informed consent they’d otherwise be able to give is relevant).

The man in question asked his victims to have a relationship with him. Unless the victims had been ‘vulnerable’ in that sense, it wouldn’t have been abuse, it would have been dating. But they were, so it was abuse, and it wasn’t dating.

(agreed with commenters that most survivors of abusive relationships aren’t ‘vulnerable’ in the sense used here, and shouldn’t be thus described…)

Harpymarx // Posted 10 September 2008 at 11:00 am

But it’s also about having power and control about these women.

Having been through the psychiatric system on a personal basis and active in the mh user movement I came across cases of male professionals in positions of power who abused that power and trust where women were sexually assaulted and raped but cos they were labelled with a mental health problem they weren’t believed and lets face it, it is easier to dismiss these women and turn a blind eye and blame it on their “diagnosis” then to challenge and be on the side of the powerless.

But there is a culture of victim blaming endemic in these institutions (and in society overall). I recall telling a member of staff (I trusted her) that I was being beaten up by my boyfriend and her reply…”Poor man, you must be giving him a hard time”. That response put me off telling anyone else for a very long time cos I blamed myself.

It also didn’t surprise me years later to be told that one of the male nurses in that hospital was sexually assaulting women patients… and the staff turned a blind eye. And when they did get rid of him they sent him to another hospital!

sianmarie // Posted 10 September 2008 at 1:02 pm

it’s all been said but just wanted to add my thanks for a thought provoking and important post.

AC // Posted 10 September 2008 at 5:00 pm

I work in the domestic violence sector, and there is so, so much emphasis on women (usually women, but applies to men too) to come forward, to talk about their relationship, get help and then leave; or ideally, just leave, regardless of how hard that is, what poverty/homelessness that leads them in to. The most common question I get is “why don’t they just leave?” – to which I always respond “why aren’t you asking me ‘how could someone do that to the person they are supposed to love’?” The victim blaming seems endemic – even from people trying to help – and stops us as professionals from doing what we need to do about challenging perpetrators, and actually getting people to think that what they’re doing is wrong, and entirely their responsbility. Though this is pretty hard, so you can see how much easier it must be to focus on/blame the victims/survivors. Of course they should get help if they can, that’s what we would always want, so that they can move on, get support, etc – but if they don’t, or can’t, then that must be seen in the context of the abuse they have experienced/are living with. Sometimes it just feels as though the perpetrators are invisible, that these people are the victims of something out there called ‘domestic violence’, not a person, an abuser.

Cara // Posted 11 September 2008 at 2:11 pm

Thanks so much for the comments, everyone!

Anne Onne, you are quite correct – I did address that in the bit about authority figures always being right :-)

Jennifer Drew, yes, I read your piece and so probably have it to thank at least partly for that point! So thanks. And I agree completely with your comment.

john b – the argument is not that these women were temporarily incapable of giving informed consent. This may be true of some people with mental health issues, but certainly not all – the majority are capable, and it’s kind of patronising to view it otherwise. The point is not whether they could consent, it is that this man had a position of authority and power over them. That is why medical professionals are never allowed to have relationships with patients, teachers are not allowed to have relationships with students, or bosses with employees – even if both parties are over the age of consent and quite capable of consent in general, the power dynamic means the risk of abuse is just too great.

Also, notice how *men* with mental health issues are not called vulnerable? No-one cares when for example David Helfgott, who was schizophrenic, married his carer (iirc) although he probably was incapable of meaningful consent at the time.

As other commenters have also explained, this moves the focus from the actions of *men* onto those of women. Even if they really *are* “vulnerable” (e.g. severe learning disabilities or very young) that is no excuse for anyone to abuse their power and take advantage of it, again, it’s the actions of the man in question that are the vital ingredient. Without that, there would be no abuse.

And as you note – most women who survive abusive relationships are not vulnerable in the true sense of the word. They are just normal women.

Of course as Jennifer Drew said, all women are at a disadvantage compared to men.

Leigh, true, no there is no evidence the investigators actually phrased it that way – the way the BBC reported it was really what I was complaining about.

Harpymarx – exactly, of course it is about power and control. And quite, women with mental health problems are even more seen as crazy and liars than women in general.

I am so angry for you – “poor man, you must give him a hard time”?! WHAT?!

And about the abusive nurse, he didn’t even get disciplined, just moved? Jeez.

Every time I think the misogyny in the world can’t shock me any more…

AC “sometimes it just feels as though the perpetrators are invisible” – exactly! That just sums it up really.

Women are made to feel under threat all the time, of violent street crime, sexual assault, domestic abuse and so on – yet no-one seems to mention that MEN commit these crimes! If we do dare to mention this, we are called EVIL MAN-HATING FEMINISTS!

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