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Over the weekend, the Sunday People published photos allegedly showing art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi with his hands wrapped around the throat of his wife, the TV cook and food writer Nigella Lawson, whilst out for a meal at a restaurant in London. Almost immediately, the media and the Internet exploded in a mass expression of anger at Saatchi and support for Nigella, and there’s a lot to get angry about – both what Saatchi did, and the way it’s been handled by the media and the public.
The act itself is obviously deplorable and repugnant, even despite Saatchi’s subsequent attempt to explain his actions away as part of a “playful tiff”, though he has since accepted a police caution. Then there was the fact that this incident took place in public, in front of a number of other diners and evidently in clear view of a paparazzo more intent on taking plenty of photographs of the abuse than actually intervening. The fact that a number of people on the scene were in a position to take action but did not is of course troubling, but not that surprising. Social psychologists are well aware of the phenomenon known as the bystander effect, where people will not come to the aid of those who require it. It’s also sometimes known as Genovese syndrome, after Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death in New York City in 1964 after her neighbours ignored her cries for help.
People often don’t want to intervene in potentially violent situations for fear of reprisals, but there’s an extra layer with incidents of domestic violence (which of course, this clearly was), in that many people incorrectly assume it to be a private matter, something that is not their place to comment on, let alone prevent. I’ve seen a lot of people commenting on news stories or adding their thoughts on social media sites, blaming that lack of intervention on “the state of Britain today”. Sorry folks, but this isn’t a British thing, this isn’t even a modern thing – it’s hideously universal.
Many stories have focused on the fact that this incident has highlighted that domestic violence can happen to anyone – even rich, successful, famous posh Nigella Lawson. However, speaking from my own experiences, I don’t think I know anybody who would have honestly thought that domestic violence only happens to certain kinds of people – again, it’s one of those horribly universal things. But by far and away, the thing which made my blood boil the most was the amount of victim-blaming, both deliberate and accidental, expressed throughout the many disparate responses to what happened to Nigella.
Now, I’m sure that when most people read about this incident, their first reaction was along the lines of “I hope she gets the hell out of there.” It makes total sense – we’ve seen a despicable act of domestic violence happen to someone we recognise and feel we know, and we want her to remove herself from this dangerous situation. The problem is that this completely ignores the fact that many abused partners simply don’t just up and leave. Many will get back together again with their abuser – it can take, on average, up to 7 attempts for someone to leave an abusive partner for good.
Enter Robyn Rihanna Fenty – we all know how badly Rihanna’s ex-boyfriend Chris Brown injured her back in 2009, and she left him, got all dark and mysterious and released Rated R, arguably one of her best albums. She actively cultivated the image of a strong, independent woman who had overcome adversity and made it big. And then, by late 2012, it was revealed that they had got back together. Cue the outrage. People were shocked that someone who is a role model to young women all over the world would get back with someone who beat her up. Lena Dunham said that seeing pictures of them together “cracks her heart”. “Is it OK to judge Rihanna for getting back together with her abuser?”, asked Jayne Ricco in Thought Catalog. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, no it’s fucking not.
Author Leslie Morgan Steiner recently gave a talk for TED titled “Why domestic violence victims don’t leave”. In it, she pointed out that “the question, ‘Why does she stay?’ is code to some people for, ‘It’s her fault for staying,’ as if [domestic violence] victims intentionally choose to fall in love with men intent upon destroying us.” The blame is always to be laid at the feet of the abuser, always. Of course the abused partner should seek to extricate themselves from an abusive or violent relationship – but when you attach moral judgement to that, that’s what’s wrong. We know that for people overcoming addiction, relapse is a natural part of the recovery process, and it’s the same with domestic violence. It’s not Rihanna’s fault that Chris Brown beat her up, and should he do it again now they’re supposedly back together, guess what? It still won’t be her fault.
We don’t know what’s going to happen with Nigella and her husband – she’s temporarily left their home in London with her children – but whatever comes of this, it will never be her fault. She needs support and she needs help from those around her (and yes, that includes the media), not judgment.