This blog first appeared at the Independent. I’ve reprinted it here as it follows on nicely from a discussion in the comments on my last piece.
When a man was beaten or abused by his wife in 17th and 18th Century England, his community would call upon a traditional intervention. The victim would be ritually humiliated, sometimes by being strapped to a cart and dragged through town, or by the whole neighbourhood surrounding his house and beating pots and pans and singing songs of mockery. The tradition was known as the Skimmington Ride, and it was echoed in many other countries. In France, a man would be forced to ride through town backwards on a donkey, holding its tail.
The Skimmingtons are now a detail of history. So too, for the most part, are the comic stereotypes of a hen-pecked husband, cowering in fear of a rolling pin, which long formed a staple target of club comics and saucy seaside postcards. It would be tempting to think the attitudes underpinning them have faded too. Unfortunately this is not the case.
In recent weeks, Coronation Street has featured the volatile relationship between lovable lad Tyrone Dobbs and his heavily pregnant and abusively violent fiancée, Kirsty. The storyline has followed a familiar pattern from both fiction and case study: sporadic but increasingly violent incidents, the abuser balancing mornings of apology and remorse with moments of coercive menace; the victim self-blaming, justifying and excusing the attacks, hiding the bruises and their explanation from friends and family. It’s an old story, the only quirk here being the genders of the protagonists.
Debates about the precise prevalence and severity of female on male intimate partner violence, compared to its male on female equivalent, can quickly become dehumanised and demeaning. It should be sufficient to note there is a wealth of evidence that men make up a notable proportion of domestic abuse victims and that in some cases, the abuse can be severe or even deadly. Last week Ian McNicholl talked to the media about how his own horrific experiences had informed the Corrie cast. His ex-girlfriend is now serving seven years for grievous bodily harm.
This is classic soap treatment of a sensitive and controversial topic, and seems to be performing as expected. Mankind Initiative, the charity which has advised the producers on the issue and which is running the helpline advertised at the end of each show, say they have been inundated, and have needed to install an extra phone line to cope with the calls.
The other valuable service of such soap opera plots is to raise awareness among the public at large. If social media is any guide, Corrie has succeeded in getting the nation talking about the subject. The majority of the messages are sympathetic, but they are interrupted by a substantial minority which veer from the depressing to the downright disturbing.
When Tyrone was assaulted for the first time, I collated just a tiny sample of the tweets from viewers on Storify. They make for grim reading. Two distinct trends emerged. The first was to urge Tyrone to hit her back (often in more colourful language). Leaving aside the morality of using defensive violence or retaliation against anyone, far less a heavily pregnant woman, it must be noted that this is extremely bad advice. The Mankind Initiative and other charities explicitly warn against it, not least because it is likely to result in the arrest of the man, not the woman. There have been too many cases of male victims being arrested when the police arrive, even without making efforts to defend themselves.
The other second running theme was rather more blunt. It could be best summed up in three little letters: L, O and L. Of course laughing at the misfortune of others is one of the engines of the internet, but it is striking just how many such messages specifically attacked Tyrone’s masculinity. Tyrone is a “pussy” or a “faggot” who needs to “grow a pair.” Thus we see the ancient tradition of mocking and shaming male victims of domestic abuse, the brutal policing of patriarchal norms, brought bang up to date; the 21st Century reboot of the Skimmington Ride.
Of course Tyrone is fictional, his woes dreamed up by scriptwriters. The one man in six who will face partner violence at some point in his life is all too real. Many of the mocking tweets will be read by someone who has faced or will face a similar situation. The reactions may go a long way to explaining why men are less than half as likely to report their abuse as women, and indeed why the Mankind Initiative report that many calls to their helplines come not from victims themselves, but from their concerned mothers, sisters and daughters.
Awareness of, and attitudes towards male victimisation have improved considerably over recent years. Resistance to the issue, from an unholy alliance of gender traditionalists and certain strains of feminism, is thankfully on the wane. Coronation Street is performing a valuable role in getting us talking about this topic. Let’s hope viewers are willing to listen.