Woman in domestic-violence refuge
Susan Meiselas / Magnum

The Shadow Pandemic

How do we help domestic-violence victims who stay with their partners?

Updated at 9:50 a.m. ET

Call it the “shadow pandemic,” as the United Nations did. As families around the world were forced into lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus, they were given a simple message: Stay home, stay safe. Yet the ubiquity of domestic violence means that for millions of people, home is anything but safe. As one charity put it, “Abusers always work from home.”

Over the past few months, the coronavirus and the measures needed to contain it have made life almost intolerable for those with controlling or violent partners. Counseling services have been withdrawn or moved online; supportive friends and relatives are physically out of reach. Schools, here in Britain and in much of the world, are still partially closed. Millions of workers are unemployed or on furlough, waiting to find out if their jobs still exist. Families are trapped together, racked by money worries, boredom, loneliness, and drug or alcohol use.

As a result, there has been a spike in calls to domestic-abuse help lines, and charities predict an increase in victims seeking support as restrictions loosen and it becomes easier to leave an abusive home. Like the coronavirus, this is a global problem. Just as China was the first place to report deaths from a new respiratory disease, it was also first place to report an uptick in domestic abuse driven by lockdown measures. In New York—which was, in American terms, affected early by COVID-19—there was a decline in help-line calls once lockdown began, as victims realized they could not leave home, would likely further endanger themselves by seeking help, and might expose themselves to the coronavirus if they stayed in a communal shelter. (In the United States, domestic violence accounts for 20 percent of all violent crime, according to Department of Justice statistics, and there were reported spikes after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.)

Here in Britain, the pattern was similar. In April, the British charity Women’s Aid collected stories from those affected by this shadow pandemic. “I am a key worker who is around Covid positive patients, so I don’t feel like I can go home and stay with my parents,” one woman said. Another told the charity, “My biggest concern is that my child may be given back to our abuser if I were to become seriously unwell with the virus or not survive.” The British government has acknowledged the problem, announcing that it will fund 1,273 new spaces at refuges. The money is undoubtedly welcome. Last year, two-thirds of refuge referrals were declined, and the sector has endured years of budget cuts.

A situation this grave deserves proper attention. But compare these two figures: £76 million and £66 billion. (That’s about $96 million and $83 billion.) The first is the amount of emergency funding the government pledged in May for vulnerable people, including domestic-violence survivors, children, and victims of sexual violence or modern slavery. The second—the one measured in billions, not millions—is the government’s own estimate of the cost to the British economy of domestic violence in a single year. This includes health, policing, and court costs, as well as lost productivity and the long-term effects on children who experience or witness violence.

When you consider the size of the problem, the British government’s extra financial support seems tiny: To steal a phrase from the late astronomer Patrick Moore, it’s like throwing a baked bean at a rhinoceros. The Domestic Abuse Bill, which is now making its way through Parliament, is similarly necessary but limited. It proposes appointing a domestic-violence commissioner to scrutinize current services, ending the “rough sex” defense in murder trials, and giving the state a legal duty to provide housing to those who suffer abuse. The biggest reforms are to the family courts, where suspected perpetrators will be banned from cross-examining their victims. There will be separate entrances for each party, as well as a new type of restraining order for domestic abusers, with criminal sanctions if the order is broken.

These efforts are based around the same assumption: that victims leave. But only 30 percent of domestic-violence survivors who seek help use a refuge, according to the Labour lawmaker Jess Phillips, drawing on figures from the charity SafeLives. “Most women don’t think their partners are beyond redemption,” she told me. But those who stay—the majority—get very little support, as do their partners. Britain’s biggest charity working with perpetrators, Respect, has an annual income of £1.5 million, a tenth of the income of the biggest women’s charity in the sector, Refuge. In most cases of domestic violence, the state offers victims a menu with only one option. If they don’t take it, they’re on their own.

After years of austerity, the British government has recently taken an interventionist turn, pumping money into the economy to save jobs and companies. Unprecedented times call for new thinking: Surely now is the moment to look at the roots of domestic violence, as well as its consequences? Yes, refuges are vital, and underfunded. But the current situation is as if our only solution to the obesity epidemic were gastric-band operations, without ever talking about food. “I would never say perpetrator work should happen at the expense of survivors,” Jo Todd, the chief executive of Respect, told me. However, “if we want to solve the problem, just patching up survivors is not going to do it. We need to look at the cause.”

As a concept, domestic violence didn’t exist before the 1970s. Until then, it was called wife beating—if it was discussed at all. Second-wave feminism sought to change that. In 1971, Erin Pizzey founded Britain’s first women’s shelter, in a run-down house in west London; within four years, there were 28 more. In 1973, the Labour Party lawmaker Jack Ashley became the first person to use the words domestic violence in Parliament, telling the House of Commons that he wanted “to draw the attention of the House to a subject cocooned in prejudice and buried in fear … Thousands of men in this country are subjecting their wives to physical brutality. Some are psychopaths, some are alcoholics, and some are sadists. All of them must be stopped from indulging in gratuitous violence.”

Ashley’s speech was brave and necessary. He outlined the extent of the abuse and the police’s lack of interest in addressing it: He recounted the stories of a woman left blind after a particularly brutal beating detached her retinas; a woman, eight months pregnant with twins, who was kicked in the stomach until one of her babies was born dead; a woman “flung across the room like a rag doll.” This violence should not be excused or dismissed, Ashley argued: “A criminal assault on a wife must be treated exactly the same as a criminal assault on a Member of Parliament, a police officer, or a member of the Royal Family.” If it was necessary, he said, men “must be given psychiatric treatment, but the first priority must be to protect their wives.” Patching up the victims proved to be an enormous task; perhaps it is no surprise that we never addressed the perpetrators.

There are now more than 500 refuges and support services in Britain, including nine for men. But that is still not enough to meet demand, and finding a place is particularly hard for women with more than two children, or foreign nationals whose visas mean they are not entitled to public funds. Austerity following the 2008 financial crisis has meant that budgets have been cut across the country over the past decade. Because refuges are often run by charities acting on government contracts, the slashing of official spending has curtailed the extent of the support being offered.

Domestic-abuse charities have understandably highlighted the risks of staying in a violent household, citing the three British women killed by a current or former partner every fortnight—a total of roughly 80 women a year. Yet those cases are only a tiny part of the overall picture. In 2018, 2 million people in England and Wales reported being victims of domestic violence—1.3 million women and 695,000 men—and police made 225,714 arrests. Domestic violence accounts for a tenth of all recorded crime here, according to police figures.

Emily Alison is one of a growing number of voices pushing for a broader approach. She argues that the narrow focus on deaths, which feature prominently in charity campaigns, is distorting our perception of the broader problem and hampering our resolve to tackle it. Alison, a psychologist and professional counselor who grew up in Wisconsin and now lives in England, frames the problem this way: “The solution is not more money for fire hoses; it is having more smoke alarms in the first place.”

Alison has made a career out of trying to understand some of the least sympathetic people in our society. Through her company, Protagoras, she has worked with more than 1,000 perpetrators of abuse, guiding them through therapy designed to address both their behavior and its motivations. She also trains the specialist police officers who interrogate suspected murderers, rapists, and terrorists; her research found that threats and intimidation were ineffective compared with the less palatable option of building a rapport with them.

Her work on domestic violence has led her to a similarly contentious conclusion: We are reluctant to invest in either material or psychological support for perpetrators because diverting money, and empathy, to violent men (and an overwhelming number of abusers are men) makes us uneasy. And we don’t want to talk about dysfunctional relationships in case that looks like blaming battered women for the abuse they suffer. Instead, campaigners—and the media—stick to the cases in which there seems to be a clear victim and villain. “We’ve got to stop high-risk, high-harm cases, obviously, because they’re the ones that end in death,” Alison told me. “But my problem is that as a sector, and as a society, we concentrate on that.”

Instead, she wants Britain to embrace what she calls “the gray.”

(Susan Meiselas / Magnum)

So what would a broader, deeper method of tackling domestic violence look like? Is there any way we can stop the fire, instead of fighting the flames—or sweeping up the ashes? The answer starts with education: teaching young people how to avoid dysfunctional relationships, and teaching adults how to deal with them.

Alison has also developed a series of programs, one of which runs in a women’s prison in northern England. It recognizes that most female prisoners are not just offenders but also victims—their lives are often so saturated with abuse that they struggle to recognize it. Her most controversial programs, though, are also the most pragmatic: One, for example, supports women who do not want to leave their abuser, and helps men with “safety-net” strategies to manage their behavior.

The principle underlying all this work is one that is shared with the mainstream women’s movement: Domestic violence is a social problem, and it is nourished by deep-rooted beliefs about gender roles and ideas about control, privacy, honor, and shame. When Alison runs programs for teenagers, she tells them a story about a visit to an ice rink in northern Wales when she saw a group of youngsters, about 14 or 15 years old—two girls on the ice and four boys at the side—trash-talking each other. One of the girls, “with a face like thunder,” moved away from the boys, and then skated back toward them at full speed and punched one of them in the side of the head, so he dropped like a stone to the ice.

She recounts this sequence of events, and then she asks the teenagers in her program a simple question: What do you think the other kids did?

The answer is: The other kids laughed.

“Reverse the genders, and that’s not okay,” Alison told me. “Even though at 14, 15, they’re about the same size. But that was the attitude to it—that it was a joke. And the young girl turned around and skated off like, yeah, don’t mess with me.” Watching the scene, Alison couldn’t help but mentally fast-forward a few years, imagining the same boy and girl as a couple with a young baby, arguing after a few drinks. “Then that girl decides, this is how I’m going to deal with this argument, I’m going to punch you in the head. And the person who’s most at risk is her. She’s at risk because no one has ever said, ‘That is not how you solve your problems.’”

Educating children about healthy relationships—through programs such as Alison’s, or through improved compulsory sex and relationship education in schools—is easier than getting adults to unlearn their assumptions and question their past behavior. The mixed success of perpetrator programs demonstrates this only too clearly. These try to expose the excuses that we all make for violence, when it happens within the context of a heterosexual relationship, because of the historic legacy of treating “wife beating” as a private matter. (In Britain, only straight male perpetrators do group therapy, for this reason; women and gay men usually get individual counseling.) “Our culture tells men that, throughout history, they are the ones with power and status, [and] that includes power and status over their family and partner,” Jo Todd of Respect told me. Some men, she added, are “randomly violent,” but for others, there isn’t an uncontrollable anger-management issue: They would never hit their boss, or someone in a bar fight. “They’re choosing not to control themselves at home,” she says. “What’s that about?”

Most British perpetrator programs follow the so-called Duluth model, named after the city in Minnesota where a new approach was pioneered in the 1980s. They offer 10 to 30 weekly sessions, hosted by a male and a female facilitator, so participants can see the two sexes working together as equals. The men are forbidden from referring to their partners as “the wife,” or “the missus,” or anything other than their names. “If you empathize with someone, it’s hard to hurt them,” Todd said. “If you objectify them, it’s easier.”

At the end of last year, I went to meet a man who had been through a Duluth-style program in Bristol, a couple of hours from London on the train. Charles—I agreed to use only his first name—grew up with an alcoholic father who died when he was 13, and that same year, he watched a fellow pupil shoot a teacher in his classroom. (In Britain, where gun laws are tight, this was an extremely rare event.) After his father’s death, Charles became aware of an edginess he struggled to control. He channeled it into rugby, and then heavy drinking. He woke up one morning at university to discover that he had trashed his room and punched his flatmate.

The Duluth model emphasizes that domestic violence should be seen in the context of traditional gender roles, which discourage men from showing vulnerability and can lead them to turn feelings of shame or frustration into anger and violence. That made sense to Charles, as did the fact that we tend to excuse male violence: After he hit his flatmate, his friends reassured him that he shouldn’t worry, because he was a “nice person.”

Charles is now a dentist, and he still has that rugby player’s build, strong and broad at 6 foot 1. He quit drinking after he punched his friend, but throughout his 20s he still felt there was “something in him” that he had never quite addressed—and that the people around him didn’t force him to confront. At 31, he entered a relationship with a new woman and they had a daughter together, “the best reckless thing I’ve ever done.” But the relationship began to break down, and his girlfriend talked about moving away, to the north of England, with their child. He felt as though he was constantly on edge, close to exploding. The perpetrator program helped him manage his emotions and made him realize that the relationship was hopelessly dysfunctional, so he ended it. (His ex-girlfriend moved away, but he maintains regular contact with his daughter.) “Luckily for me in terms of my conscience, I never hit her,” he told me of his ex-partner. “But what I’ve learned about in this group, here, is not about being holier-than-thou.”

Before I left, Charles told me how much the program had helped him. Unfortunately, though, he wouldn’t be continuing with it. Its funding had just been cut.

Even as we hold Charles up as a success story, it is important to remember that he wanted to change. He didn’t have to attend the program as part of a court order, and he had a steady job and no criminal convictions. That was not the case for many of the other men in his group, who were either required by court orders to attend or attempting to rebuild their lives after prison. British jails are chronically overcrowded, and that’s only part of the problem with the criminal-justice system. Continued use of short sentences doesn’t help: Six months in prison is enough to make a man unemployable but not enough for him to complete a course designed to address his behavior. Already isolated and shamed, these men are in desperate need of support from other sources. Many domestic abusers try to go back to their previous relationships. But once they are out of prison, there is little help on offer—after a botched privatization and years of crisis, probation services have just been taken back into government control.

Alison told me the story of a man she worked with who was convicted of a serious assault involving a weapon. When he was released, he went to live with a family member, a two-hour drive away from his job, his twice-weekly probation meetings, and his court-ordered community service. He was not allowed contact with his ex-partner but could visit his children four times a week. Unable to manage the constant travel, the man began sleeping in his car, becoming more disheveled and paranoid at each of his various appointments. “This person needs to be housed,” Alison said. “But the attitude of [state] services was: He shouldn’t have done what he did. We don’t support single men, so it’s tough … Even if you removed the ethical obligation to him, as a human being, that situation was making him so much more dangerous to his partner and children.”

Perpetrator programs are controversial. Critics accuse them of being feminist propaganda—asking men, like participants at Alcoholics Anonymous, to agree to a belief system in exchange for help. On the other side there is Refuge, the charity that descends from Erin Pizzey’s first British home for “battered wives” and that is now the biggest provider of accommodation to domestic-violence victims in Britain. It has said it will not endorse or participate in any perpetrator programs. “‘Less’ violence is simply not good enough,” its chief executive, Sandra Horley, wrote in 2016. “Of course, in an ideal world we would tackle the problem of domestic violence from both sides. Our world is far from ideal.” (Refuge did not respond to an interview request.)

The questions are not just ideological, either: There is little useful data in either direction about the effectiveness of the programs. In 2017, Britain’s Ministry of Justice scrapped a sex-offender treatment program called SOTP after evidence emerged, thanks to a whistleblower, that it was actually increasing reoffending rates. Gene Feder, a professor of medicine at the University of Bristol, has completed an initial pilot focused on how to identify perpetrators and victims who would not be picked up by the criminal-justice system—for example, through children’s social services. He is now running a full-size randomized controlled trial over the next two years, following 350 men and their partners, seeking evidence on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a modified Duluth-style intervention. There is still a great deal we don’t know, since research to date has focused on heterosexual relationships with a male perpetrator and a female victim. Feder listed the lack of research into, and support for, female perpetrators, as well as gay men, lesbians, and transgender people. All of this work falls into what Emily Alison calls “the gray.”

Todd, whose charity has been running perpetrator programs for nine years, told me that they could only help those who were “ready, willing, and able” to seek help. Alcohol problems, poor literacy, a chaotic lifestyle, homelessness, membership in a gang—all of these were barriers to change. (It is also harder sometimes to get through to the nonviolent abusers, the coercive controllers, because they can’t see the tangible effects of their behavior, in the form of bruises and broken bones.) “We compare it to giving up smoking,” she said. “Some people are not interested. Some people really want to, but things get in the way … Maybe something goes wrong, stress, bereavement. Then there’s people who manage it and quit and never go back to it.”

For her part, Phillips, the Labour lawmaker, has changed her mind on perpetrator programs since her days working at Women’s Aid. “I used to hate them,” she told me. Too many were poorly designed and delivered, she found, “a rogue’s gallery to make money for crappy providers.” But the model championed by Respect has changed her mind, suggesting that high-quality community services can demonstrate good outcomes. The problem, as Phillips now sees it, is that intensive programs are incredibly expensive—and too many people would be eligible for them. When refuge places are hard to find, where does the money come from to give therapy to thousands upon thousands of men?

Instead, we punish them, and that leads us to ineffective—or even harmful—approaches. Professor Belinda Winder, who leads the Sexual Offences, Crime, and Misconduct Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, says that SOTP in particular was based on a model of owning one’s actions, which made perpetrators defensive and withdrawn. “The stuff that people wanted to work—taking responsibility—didn’t,” she told me. “Guilt can be positive. But if you think about what people do when they’re ashamed … shame is a really negative state to induce.”

Our collective desire to punish perpetrators—or, at least, our unwillingness to extend empathy to them—also influences their material conditions. Alison’s programs aim for 70 to 77 percent of offenders to have a positive outcome, defined as a full or significant reduction in abuse and not having social-care involvement in the family. She hopes that even when her facilitators cannot change participants’ behavior, they can still monitor the men involved, reducing their risk profile.

But her story of the man sleeping in the car demonstrates the sorts of material challenges these men often face. If we truly want to know the effectiveness of a therapeutic intervention, we should also ensure that offenders have suitable housing, a reliable income, and a steady job. Feder told me that “many of these guys are so damaged by their lives: anxiety, depression, PTSD.” Rachel Louise Sydner, in her best-selling new book on domestic violence, No Visible Bruises, recounts a phrase that is often used by those who work with perpetrators: Hurt people hurt people. Meetings that bring together police, social services, housing officials, education specialists, drug and alcohol services, and others to share information on individual high-risk cases have been an important innovation in helping victims in Britain. But across the country, there is nothing comparable for perpetrators—what Alison calls a “wraparound service.” To many people, that would feel like sympathy for the devil.

Will we ever do more to tackle domestic violence than simply patch up its survivors—and only as long as they are willing to tear up their lives and start again? What do we have to offer the 70 percent of victims who never use a refuge? The shadow pandemic of domestic violence is both appalling and overlooked, horrifying and mundane. It may be raging in the house next door, in the home of a child at your local school, between people you know. According to statistics, it is. A problem measured in billions of pounds and millions of lives deserves more than an emergency bailout. It deserves proper attention to its causes as well as its consequences. Almost 50 years after the first “battered wives” found a safe haven from the violence they experienced at home, the best way to build on the success of the refuge movement may be to understand its limits.