I’ve written before about how culturally we have a vested interest in ensuring women don’t report incidents of male violence. With 1.2 million incidents of domestic abuse every year in England and Wales, and 500,000 sexual offences (the vast majority of which are perpetrated by men against women), pursuing justice for all perps and all victims would be a societal nightmare. The justice system simply would not be able to cope with the number of men needing to be investigated, tried, sentenced and imprisoned. More than that, the economy would collapse if so many men were taken out of the system.
If every rape in England and Wales (97,000 a year) was prosecuted and every rapist was sentenced, then there would be chaos. How would our prison system cope with another 90,000+ men behind bars for a minimum of five years (two years with good behaviour)? We can’t imagine what justice for every victim would look like. We just can’t!
As a result, women’s silence is immensely valuable.
Recently, however, I’ve come to think of this as not just the state and society passively being invested in women’s silence on male violence. Instead, I’ve come to believe that the state and society is actively gas lighting women, in order to maintain our silence on male violence.
To give you a definition of gas lighting, I turn to this excellent editorial in Teen Vogue, about how Donald Trump is committing this abuse against an entire nation:
"Gas lighting" is a buzzy name for a terrifying strategy currently being used to weaken and blind the American electorate. We are collectively being treated like Bella Manningham in the 1938 Victorian thriller from which the term "gas light" takes its name. In the play, Jack terrorizes his wife Bella into questioning her reality by blaming her for mischievously misplacing household items which he systematically hides. Doubting whether her perspective can be trusted, Bella clings to a single shred of evidence: the dimming of the gas lights that accompanies the late night execution of Jack’s trickery. The wavering flame is the one thing that holds her conviction in place as she wriggles free of her captor’s control.
To gas light is to psychologically manipulate a person to the point where they question their own sanity,
So how are society and the state committing this abuse against women?
Every day, women are sent messages that the violence committed against us, the day-to-day assaults and violations that we grew up with, don’t really matter. We’re told that they don’t really count. That they’re not that serious and they’re not that bad. Worse, we’re told that they’re probably our own fault.
Trump is a good example to start with. After the recording of him boasting about committing sexual assaults was released, the backlash against women began. We were told that his comments were just ‘locker room banter’ and therefore not to be taken so seriously. We were sent a clear message: groping women by the pussy was just something that lads do, and we’d be silly to get upset by it.
Never mind that women know how serious it is. Never mind that women know this, because it happens to us all the time. We were being oversensitive. We were being, dare I say it, hysterical.
That was two months ago. Since then, the narrative around Trump’s admitted assaults has changed again. Now they’re allegations of which he is innocent before proven guilty (wade through the replies to this tweet). Women’s reality is once more challenged. A man openly boasts about sexual assault. He couldn’t have made his boast clearer. And we’re told that even though he actually said it out loud, it’s still not true. It’s still not that bad. It’s still women complaining about nothing. He can still be President.
Another recent example is found in the devastating report on violence against girls in schools. The report revealed that:
- almost a third (29%) of 16-18 year old girls say they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school
- nearly three-quarters (71%) of all 16-18 year old boys and girls say they hear terms such as "slut" or "slag" used towards girls at schools on a regular basis
- 59% of girls and young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college in the past year
The report also exposed how, time and time again, teachers respond to girls reporting this kind of sexually aggressive behaviour with the answer ‘boys will be boys.’ As Laura Bates said in this BBC interview:
"We do also hear from girls who report this type of harassment or even unwanted sexual touching to teachers only to be told, 'Boys will be boys,' or, 'He probably just likes you.’"
What this tells us is that from a very young age, girls are sent the message that the violence committed against them isn’t that bad. It’s just something that boys do and that girls have to learn to put up with. We’re taught from the beginning not only not to expect justice for the violence committed against us, we’re not even to think of it as actual violence.
Can you see how this is an act of gas lighting?
Let me spell it out. Women are abused by men. Girls are abused by boys. We feel uncomfortable, angry, hurt or afraid. We don’t like what has been done to us. We start to think of it as violence.
But then we’re told that it’s not. We’re told it’s locker room banter, or boys being boys. We’re told that it’s not that bad after all. We were told it was our fault, if anything did happen.
And so we start to think that perhaps we were oversensitive. Perhaps our feelings were wrong - an overreaction. Perhaps it was us, after all. And so we live with what’s happened to us, and we keep on living with it, because it keeps on happening.
I’ve had personal experience of this. That sense of violation, and then questioning my own reaction. Was it my fault? Did I lead him on? Am I overreacting by thinking of this as assault? I wrote about that specific thought process after the Dave Lee Travis conviction, when a lot of men were very invested in denying that his actions were violent, let alone criminal.
If everyone is telling you that what happens to you is not really violent, is not really criminal, then you start to doubt your own reactions to it. How could you not?
And once that doubt creeps in, there’s no way you go and report. So the status quo is maintained and violent men can continue to violate women with impunity.
This is the kind of societal gas lighting that tells women our experiences of violence don’t matter. But there is a more direct way in which the state itself gas lights women survivors of male violence - again to maintain that status quo and deny women justice for the violence committed against us.
Recently I spoke to a friend about her experiences of dealing with the criminal justice system in England after reporting a violent ex. I use her story with her permission.
During the abusive relationship, her ex would tell her that she was overreacting to his violence. I won’t go into details here, but suffice to say these were severe and extreme acts of physical violence. He would call her oversensitive, and say she took his actions too seriously. He was gas lighting her - telling her that her experiences and her reactions to those experiences were not only invalid, they were not real.
Another example was how when she tried to speak to him about his behaviour, he would tell her that it was ‘in the past’ - even if that “past” was only a few days before. Again, he was using manipulation to deny her experience.
What my friend found when she went to the police was a repeat of this exact same gas lighting.
From officers telling her that she’d be better off not pursuing the case and talking to her friends instead because it would be too hard to prosecute, to other officers expressing empathy with her ex, she faced a constant battle to mentally hold on to her reality, her real and lived experience. As time went on, the statute of limitations for some of the accusations passed. She was told by the CPS, just as her ex had told her, that these things were ‘too far in the past’ to do anything about.
With the statute of limitations passed on one aspect of the case, she is now faced with a reality where legally, nothing can be done to prosecute certain incidents committed against her. Legally, it's as if they never happened. She has no recourse to justice left and he will never be charged for what he did.
That, right there, is how the low conviction rate for crimes against women is an example of the state’s gas lighting. We know what is done to us. We may even tell the police what is done to us. Time moves on, nothing happens, and suddenly it’s too late. With no justice in sight, women are forced to accept that, according to the state, what happens to us isn’t so bad. We’re left, floundering around, asking in desperation whether we were, in fact, wrong to take it seriously. Whether it really was so bad as we thought it was.
Because, the state forces us to ask, if it were so bad, if it were as frightening and horrifying and devastating as we experienced it to be, then surely something should have happened? Surely justice should have been done?
It’s truly disturbing. Everywhere women live with the knowledge that men have committed violence against them, and yet time and time again men are never convicted. They commit these awful crimes, and nothing happens to them. In that ‘nothing’ is the pressure on women to accept. In that ‘nothing’ is the gas lighting statement: what you thought happened to you didn’t happen in the way you thought it did, wasn’t as bad as you thought it was, because if it were then surely he’d be in jail.
This brings me back to the beginning of the post. There is an epidemic of male violence in this country. Every day, hundreds of women are raped, abused and assaulted by men. For every woman to receive justice is too much for society and the state to cope with. So there exists a need to ensure women and girls keep their silence. And that need is met by endless messaging sent to women, telling us that the violence committed against us is not only normal and inevitable, it’s also not as bad as we think it is. It’s boys will be boys. It’s locker room banter. It’s just get over it and talk to your friends if you’re upset, it’s too hard to prosecute.
This is an act of mass gas lighting. It denies women justice and maintains a gendered power structure where men as a class can oppress women as a class, using violence as its ultimate tool and threat.