Originally published: 19.07.13
This post is inspired & made up from a collection of women’s voices. I want to express my appreciation for all who offered to share their thoughts & experiences with me. This post is dedicated to you.
I decided to write this post – about women who abuse other women – months ago. But I found it so difficult to start because, within feminism, this seems to be a subject that we are deeply uncomfortable with.
There are over 100 different forms of abuse where women abuse women including: stalking, bullying, sexual abuse, domestic abuse. Abuse also happens online by women against women. This includes – harassment, cyber-bullying , Gaslighting, mobbing, verbal abuse. It also happens within feminism. And yet…..feminism is deathly quiet on the issue. The anger & volume that we collectively use to denounce male violence is noticeably absent when it comes to women that abuse. I want to find out why – not only why women abuse other women, but why feminism is not able to engage about it.
My own experiences are rare & fall within a continuum. On the ‘smaller’ end of the scale (for me personally) there have been incidents via social media. The impact upon me was relatively minor – because I am in a resilient space – but it has left me deeply troubled about those involved. The behaviour of one woman in particular reminded me of the same behaviour from the man who abused me in childhood. This has been a gradual & disturbing realisation. So I’m confronting this head-on. And yet I do so with trepidation.
I wanted this post to go far beyond my own limited experiences. I asked women online to contact me via twitter or email to share their experiences of abuse by women. Here are some of those contributions (*all names have been changed to protect anonymity)
Alice* experienced abuse from her mother.
“She was raised by abusers, and having no insight, became just like them. She took pleasure in hurting me any way she could, whether criticizing my appearance, the way I did things, or the things I didn’t do. ”
Beth* experienced violence from her mother.
“My mother expressed her internalised hate and directed it towards me – for anything and everything. My father was sexually abusing me at the time – which she was aware of – and it was almost as if she resented me for it. I was beaten, humiliated and gas-lighted every day.”
Claire* experienced domestic violence and abuse from her ex-partner Donna*.
“The first time she physically assaulted me, I was so shocked, I could barely speak. She back-handed me so hard that it knocked me off my feet, and she caught the corner of my face with the edge of her ring. My ex is a serial abuser. She had assaulted members of her family, previous partners and other women she was close to. She fitted into the classic abuser role, just as an abusive man would. But I treated it differently, I think. I’m not sure of all the reasons for this, but certainly homophobia played a part.”
So why do women abuse? Do the reasons differ from men who abuse?
Eve* works for a women’s support service.
“(regarding a recent training course on female perpetrators)….the research they were presenting to us also said that women who abuse have much higher rates of direct experience of trauma, and that the trauma they experience tends to be more severe. also was very challenging, I think in a way we felt it was creating another ‘cycle of abuse’ theory, but I suppose it was actually an unsurprising finding given the gendered nature of violence full stop.”
The reasons that Eve* shared above – that women who abuse experience abuse and trauma – are reasons also attributed to men who abuse.
Those that contributed to this post provided many reasons and motivations, as do many websites such as Women’s Aid and NSPCC. I decided to compare it to the reasons that are offered regarding why men abuse (these reasons are NOT comprehensive). There may be one reason or a collection of reasons that influence abuse. The comparison is on the table below.
|Men who abuse||Women who abuse:|
|Experienced abuse themselvesExperienced traumaGain pleasureFind abusing joyous
Mental ill health
Coercion (by other men)
Patriarchy (seek to affirm men’s position)
Power (to retain & increase it)
|Experienced abuse themselvesExperienced traumaGain pleasureFind abusing joyous
Mental ill health
Coercion (by men)
Patriarchy (internalising & surviving)
Power (to gain it)
Although women’s position in society is seen as lower in comparison to men, the reasons for abuse are similar. Clearly, men are in an automatic position of power that women are currently unable to attain, but the reasons for abuse seem to hold a similar pattern for men & women. Alice* explains her perspective on this:
“I guess there’s a parallel between my mother and the sort of women who enjoy abusing (women) online – both of them get a thrill of power by being mean to someone else. In the end it’s all about feeling powerful.”
The impact of abuse by women seems to link into the impact of abuse by men. Here are some examples shared with me:
Lost contact with family member who abused. Impact upon identity. Low self-esteem. Problems trusting others. Relationship problems. Negative impact upon physical health. Feeling unlovable. Choosing not to have children in case the behaviour repeats. Self-harming. Developing mental ill health. Substance misuse/addiction. Suicidal thoughts. Suicide attempts.
Alice* shared the impact of her mother’s abuse:
“I’ll always have the scars on my psyche. I’ll always find closeness and intimacy difficult. I’ll always feel, deep down, that I’m unlovable. But I’ve learned to live with it and at least I’m not continuing the cycle.”
How society responds to abusive women.
I find society’s attitude to women who abuse both incredible and predictable. We demonise: partly in response to our ideas as to how women “should” behave: nurturing, caring, loving, gentle, and maternal. Women are depicted as evil (less often said about men). Women who abuse are mentally ill (though more often said about men). The media seems to need to ‘reveal’ the woman’s previous sexual partners, criminal past (if relevant). The media also pays greater coverage to women of colour, women experiencing mental ill heath, lesbian & bisexual women, older women, mothers, working class women. In short, society responds exactly how you expect it to respond in a capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy.
How feminism handles abusive women
Feminists react/respond (in part) to women’s position in society – our response is often influenced by our own internalised sexism/gender roles. Like society, feminists don’t want to believe that we (as women) are capable of what we often decree as male behaviour.
I asked women who identify as feminists why they think that feminism finds it difficult to discuss women who abuse.
“I suppose that can take the form of seeing female perpetrators as helpless victims, or placing them as inherently born ‘evil’ etc because the idea of contemplating how a woman could reach the point of perpetrating those crimes is too difficult :/”
I think this is a key issue within feminism. Surprisingly, within a group that challenges gender norms of what it is to be a woman and a girl, we – as a collective – seem to internalise those norms when it comes to abusive women. Maybe this boils down to “if she could abuse others, then so could I” – & that is just too painful to contemplate.
“I don’t know why people excuse female abuse. Certainly no one noticed or cared what was happening to me. I think emotional abuse gets dismissed more easily than physical abuse.
You can’t show people your emotional bruises and scars like you can the ones on your body.
And women tend to be more emotional than physical abusers, which helps them get away with it.”
Alice’s* point is important – women who abuse tend to do so emotionally/psychologically more so that physically. This type of abuse is not only harder to identify as survivors, but also as supporters of survivors. Furthermore, within feminism, there can be a tendency to excuse such behaviour: women who abuse are internalising oppression/abuse.
“What I DO resent, is that it tends to only be brought up as a derailing tactic when we’re talking about male VAWG.”
“I think (male VAWG) is a key issue. And even when it’s not intentionally derailing, I think many feminists probably do think it’s something we can work on after we’ve ‘solved’ male VAWG”
Both points above are at the crux of this matter for me. The truth is male violence is much more prevalent than abuse by women & therefore is often at the forefront of feminist activism. Yet whenever feminists discuss male violence, the topic is often derailed – mostly by men – regarding levels of women who abuse. So I appreciate the need to keep male violence in focus, especially when engaging with people who do not identify as feminists. Am I naïve to think that within feminism itself, there is space to discuss both? The last point – that we will work on other issues after we have ‘solved male VAWG’ – is dangerous in my opinion. It results in many women being silenced and being side-lined & I really hope that this point is not a true reflection of collective feminism.
“I don’t know if feminism is reluctant to discuss it, I think it’s more that male violence is a feminist issue framed by patriarchy, whereas I think female violence against other women is not (at least, not in the same way). I struggle to see it as a “feminist issue”. I say that speaking from my own experience, obviously.”
Violence and abuse against women IS a feminist issue, irrespective of whether the perpetrator is a man or a woman. Why am I focussing on feminism and not society as a whole? Because as feminists, we place ourselves in this position: people outside of feminism will not necessarily seek to defamiliarise & deconstruct the systems that oppress women and so many groups of people. We try to & we have a responsibility to address all of these issues, including abusive women. We cannot allow this subject to be hidden. I know & agree that women & girls are more likely to experience abuse from men and boys, but abuse by women happens. Many women are affected by abuse perpetrated by other women. As women, as feminists, we need to recognise this. Furthermore we have to make our space safe enough for women to share this. Because right now, women aren’t sharing.
So, where do we go from here? I end this post wishing I had more time, more suggestions as to how feminism can make space for all experiences of violence & abuse, irrespective of the sex of the perpetrator. I hope all of the above helps to start the discussion.
This post raises more questions than it answers. My final question is this: how do we make feminism a space where we can talk openly & critically about women who abuse? Because what we are doing – right now – is just not good enough.
Links & agencies.
Wanted: the female serial killer – feminist analysis on Rose West and other women who murder. By Debbie Cameron.
*note – many women support services supports survivors of violence and abuse irrespective of the sex of the perpetrator.
Violence and abuse support services:
www.rapecrisis.org.uk – Rape and sexual violence support services for women and children
www.womensaid.org.uk – Domestic Violence support service for women and children
www.broken-rainbow.org.uk – Provides support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* (LGBT) people experiencing domestic violence.
napac.org.uk – Support, advice and guidance for adult survivors of any form of childhood abuse – sexual, physical or emotional
www.respond.org.uk – Respond provides a range of services to people with learning disabilities, including both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse
www.ashianasheffield.org – Aims to help prevent murder and serious harm to black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee women in England, Wales and Scotland as a result of domestic abuse and forced marriage and honour-based violence. Also supports children and young people.
Mental health and emotional well-being support services:
www.mind.org.uk – mental health charity for people affected by mental ill health
samaritans.org – 24-hour support for anyone experiencing distress, despair or suicidal thoughts.
Services for reporting professional abuse:
www.popan.org.uk – WITNESS is a charity that aims to promote safe boundaries between professionals and the public to prevent abuse.
Professional Boundaries (guide) – A guide for people who have experienced abuse of power by professionals