A critique of a Christian book on domestic abuse

I was asked to review a recently published book about domestic abuse by a feminist campaigner, Natalie Collins: “Out of control: couples, conflict and the capacity for change”. I was troubled by my impression of this book, because this is such an important issue, and the book does have some good and useful aspects. However its adoption of radical feminist ideology and the information it uses to argue for a this stance are questionable, in my opinion. I’ve gone into more detail on the Premier Christianity blog.

There is a lot of statistics and research cited in the book, though often from newspaper articles and reports rather than academic research. So I started to check the citations and investigate to find out how well the information has been represented.

To fact-check a whole book would require three books to do so. And no book, nor article, is perfect. However I give a few examples here because they were used to argue for quite an extreme position. I do not believe that the ideology promoted in the book is justified by the research and statistics used. I believe that a more even-handed look at the relevant data and research would be cautious about using an ideological model such as radical feminism to explain the causes of abuse or identify solutions.

Fact-checking selected stats in ‘Out of Control’:

  • The book states: “Research has found that far from being small, shrivelled up, old and ugly [does anyone really believe this?], it is well-educated and highly paid women who are much more likely to be subjected to abuse than lower paid women, particularly if they earn significantly more than their partner.” I don’t think this is a good representation of what the newspaper article cited says, and the research itself isn’t cited.
    In any case, there’s plenty of information to bring it into question. A 2015 Office for National Statistics report that is used elsewhere in the book also contradicts this claim. It states: “Women with a degree or diploma were less likely than women with other qualifications or no qualifications to be a victim of any domestic abuse in the last year,” and “women living in the lowest income households (less than £10,000) were much more likely than those within higher household income brackets to have experienced any domestic abuse in the last year.”
  • In a chapter that gives horrifying details of sadistic abuse, Natalie says: “You may think the abusive behaviour listed here is extreme. Something that few women are subjected to. Sadly, that is not the case.” She cites 2014 Office for National Statistics numbers that “30% of women have been subjected to this kind of abuse.” She doesn’t mention the figures for men.
    In fact, the previously mentioned ONS report says: “27.1% of women and 13.2% of men had experienced any domestic abuse since the age of 16, equivalent to an estimated 4.5 million female victims and 2.2 million male victims.”
    However – this definition of domestic abuse includes abuse from other family members, as well as partners. If the report gives the lifelong figures for partners only, I can’t find them.
    For abuse from partners only in one year, the ONS says: “6.5% of women and 2.8% of men… reported having experienced any type of partner abuse in the last year, equivalent to an estimated 1.1 million female victims and 500,000 male victims.”
    Of these: “Female partner abuse victims were more likely to experience non-physical abuse (emotional, financial) (63%) than to experience physical abuse such as force (29%), or threats (45%). Male partner abuse victims were also more likely to experience non-physical abuse (56%) than force (37%), or threats (31%).”
    So 319,000 women and 185,000 men said they had had experienced physical abuse from a partner during that year – in other words, just over one in three of the people who reported physical abuse from a partner in this survey were male. The book says that the “one in three” statistic is incorrect.
  • The book uses the shocking data that of girls aged 13-17, 72% said they had experienced emotional violence. However, the NSPCC report cited says 51% of boys reported the same.
    This definition of ‘emotional violence’ included ‘made fun of you’ and ‘shouted at you’. Other forms were rarer: 11% of girls and 4% of boys said a partner had threatened them with violence to do something they didn’t want to do; 1% or less of both sexes said they’d experienced this regularly. 30% of girls and 13% of boys had been told who they could see and where they could go by a partner: 7% of girls and 3% of boys said this had happened regularly.
  • Clearly the above statistics show a gender difference in victims of domestic abuse. But is it enough to justify the author’s decision to exclude men from the statistics she uses the book, which she says is a “pragmatic decision based on the vast majority of situations where someone chooses to perpetuate domestic abuse”?
    She cites ONS statistics to suggest a bigger gender gap: for example, that 44% of female homicide victims compared with 6% of male victims are killed by their partner or ex-partner.
    The use of homicide statistics to discuss the incidence of domestic violence is questionable, but this is also a misleading representation of the numbers, because overall in any one year, more men are killed than women: elsewhere in the recent ONS 2015 report it records that just under two-thirds of homicide victims were male.
    In fact, the ONS says 81 female victims aged 16 or over were killed by their partner/ex-partner; 19 men were killed by partners or ex-partners, in the year ending March 2015. So, one in five people killed by their partners were male.
    Natalie cites a campaigner who claims that women who kill male partners are “nearly always” victims of his violence or abuse. There is no evidence given to support this claim.
  • There are a range of ‘treatments’ that have been designed for perpetrators of domestic abuse. But only one is mentioned favourably in the book, an approach that uses gender-based, feminist principles to re-educate men and according to Natalie, “challenge their beliefs of ownership and entitlement”. She describes this method as “proven to be effective.”
    She cites a blog, but these statistics are from a report with claims of startling improvements: 30% of the women said that before the training, their partner had made them do something sexual they didn’t want to do; afterwards, none experienced it. Before the programme, 87% of the women reported that they’d been slapped, pushed or had something thrown at them; after the programme only 7% reported this.
    Sounds dramatic, but upon investigation, again, sadly these statistics do not “prove” anything.
    The study compares what a group of women say about their partners, before and after this feminist re-education. But in the “before” group, the statistics included between 94 and 97 women; the ‘after’ group had between 61 and 62 women.
    In other words, it’s possible that the third of women who had been forced to do something sexual had all dropped out. There’s no way of knowing from what’s said in the report, which is why another academic described these particular statistics as “useless”. Research that has been published in a reputable academic journal would carefully apply statistical tests to try to discern the significance of the results. This is not present in this report.
    Sadly, other analyses of treatment programmes for male perpetrators, that is more thorough in comparing ‘like with like,’ found that feminist programmes such as these, as well as other kinds of ‘treatment’ such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), show only a small effect in reducing violence against women.
  • For traumatised victims of abuse, the book claims that CBT, talking therapy, and prescriptions drugs “doesn’t work”, whereas EMDR and the ‘rewind technique’ does. She cites Dutch psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk’s interesting book for these opinions. He has an unusual perspective about trauma, and promotes yoga as a treatment.
    For the sake of those who need help – therapists trained in CBT or ‘talking therapies’ can be trained in the “rewind technique” or EMDR, and people vary in what they find helpful. So please don’t be put off. Therapists may have a range of techniques that you could find benefit from.
    But I am confused as to how Natalie comes to her conclusions on the basis of the book she has cited to justify them.
    To use Van der Kolk’s own words:
    “finding words to describe what has happened to you can be transformative, but it does not always abolish flashbacks or improve concentration, stimulate vital involvement in your life or reduce hypersensitivity to disappointments and perceived injuries.”
    He also notes:
    “There is no one “treatment of choice” for trauma, and any therapist who believes that his or her particular method is the only answer to your problems is suspect of being an ideologue rather than someone who is interested in making sure that you get well.”

Such issues are a tiny snapshot of all of the research and studies published on the subject of domestic abuse, or trauma for that matter. There is plenty more information that could be used to argue for various positions on the causes and solutions. Such is the case for any kind of research into social issues: I believe that caution is the best policy.

As I say in the main blog for Premier Christianity: I believe there is much to learn from what Natalie says about what churches should do practically in situations of abuse. However, I hope this aspect of what she is saying can and will be disentangled from her ideological positions.

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