I have given much thought over the past months, to what justice means, particularly in regard to male violence against women. There is a wonderful organisation called The Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) here in the UK and its aim is:
Holding the state to account for violence against women and girls.
I want to share an excellent blog written by Olenka Hodge on the CWJ site, entitled: ‘The Myth of The ‘Decent’ Domestic Violence Abuser’ I write this because violence against women is unacceptable and coercive control is unacceptable.
On the 23rd January 2020, my mum called me to tell me that, after an emotionally draining three-week court case, my ex-boyfriend John Sukhdeo had been found unanimously guilty on two counts of coercive and controlling behaviour.
The offence of coercive and controlling behaviour is defined as:
“An act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten a victim.”
“Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.”
I attended his sentencing and I will always be struck by the judge’s remarks that, despite the level of violence used against me demonstrably meeting the threshold for a custodial sentence, she did not believe it was appropriate due to a number of mitigating factors. One of these mitigating factors included ‘previous good character and exemplary conduct’, which was supported by character references that focused on his community activism and outstanding professional conduct.
In the aftermath, I frequently thought about the controversial sentencing of Brock Turner in the United States, who was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment by Judge Aaron Persky for three charges of felony sexual assault. In reaching his sentencing decision, Judge Persky drew upon Turner’s previous good character, stellar swimming performance and prestigious education. I wondered why in cases of violence against women that the accomplishments and characters of perpetrators carried so much weight and overshadowed the violent nature of the crimes committed.
Domestic abuse permeates all sectors of society. There is no race, ethnicity, class or age group within which it does not lurk. If we accept this, we must also accept that some perpetrators will be talented, respected, and even admired. We must be cautious about using their achievements and standing in society as a way to mitigate and diminish the violence and trauma they have inflicted.
I was shocked by the tone-deaf documentary on Oscar Pistorius, which struck me as a sinister attempt to award further prestige to an abuser and a murderer. Mr Pistorius’ previous sporting achievements continue to be used to overshadow the callous murder of Reeva Steenkamp. To cast or infer her brutal murder as simply another ‘trial’ of Pistorius’ life is to suggest that his culpability in her murder is in a realm of doubt. It is not. He is a murderer and that should always be at the forefront of our minds.
In all criminal cases, defendants are able to provide character references to assist in determining sentences. My perpetrator had an abundance of character references that highlighted his community awards and excellent teaching ability. These references were used as a positive mitigating factor. I do not blame or begrudge his colleagues for writing such glowing statements; I know they were written based only on what they had observed of him and I’m sure they sincerely believed every word they wrote.
In cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence we must question whether it is appropriate for colleagues – particularly those who hold ‘positions of trust’ – to ever write character references in the wake of a conviction. We need look no further than the recent revelation that a number of MPs wrote references for Charlie Elphicke, the former MP for Dover. In these references, MPs condemned his actions whilst in the next breath, asked for leniency based on his years of public service. This encapsulates the duality in court proceedings between the perceived good character versus proven criminal behaviour of a perpetrator.
I question why, during my own court case, my abuser’s colleagues felt it necessary to write references that highlighted the achievements of a man who, during the sentencing the judge remarked, had assaulted me and acted in an erratic manner threatening to crash a car with me in it. I can only assume that they believed his professionalism outweighed the harm, he caused me despite being found guilty. Or maybe they believed because he was so ‘nice’ at work that despite his conviction they were obliged to illustrate how ‘good’ he was in other aspects of his life and how out of character, his violent behaviour towards me was.
Throughout our relationship, he told me time and time again that no one would believe me. Perpetrators who hold ‘positions of trust’ are able to move through the world undetected as violent offenders. None wants to believe that a police officer, a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, a social worker or even a Member of Parliament is capable of such crimes. But they are. And we know they are. Perceived respectability does not stop domestic abuse from occurring. Perpetrators weaponise their social standing to their advantage and use it to convince their victims, all too successfully, that no one will believe them.
Highlighting good behaviour during sentencing does not lessen the violence inflicted on the victim – it makes it worse. The fact that my abuser was a great employee and an active part of his community, yet behind closed doors could humiliate, terrorise and harm me, speaks to a sociopathic level of deceit and manipulation. It should not be praised and represents the deeper, more acute danger posed by these types of abusers.
Despite being found guilty, my abuser continues to works at a local North London primary school. Where do justice and accountability reside when even post–conviction society helps maintain the respectability of perpetrators? In the year that compulsory relationships education (RSE) is being rolled out to teach children about healthy relationships it is, to say the least, ironic, but I remain unsurprised. Many perpetrators enjoy the luxury of their convictions being perceived as an aberration of their character; a terrible mistake that does not reflect who they truly are.
“I question why, during my own court case, my abuser’s colleagues felt it necessary to write references that highlighted the achievements of a man who, during the sentencing the judge remarked, had assaulted me and acted in an erratic manner threatening to crash a car with me in it”
I will be the first to admit that my perpetrator has many achievements he should be proud of, but it simply does not diminish the abuse he inflicted on me. His accomplishments should never have been used as a mitigating factor during his sentencing. What message does that send to survivors? We all know domestic abuse is a hidden crime, often occurring behind closed doors. So what possible value does an outsider’s perspective hold in cases of domestic abuse? It is inconsequential in crimes of this nature. The abuse I suffered was not an aberration of my abuser’s character –the violence and cruelty I suffered was an integral part of his character and should have been given the same (if not more) weight during the sentencing due to deep and painful impact it has had on my life.
It suits us all to believe domestic violence abusers are the very worst of society and far-removed from our everyday social circles. However, the reality is that we often know these people, love these people and, many abusers are talented, well-liked and respected members of our community. We have a responsibility to hold abusers accountable for their actions. To do this, we must accept that, despite holding someone in high esteem their accomplishments can never outweigh allegations of abuse. We have a duty to recognise how damaging and harmful this behaviour is, regardless of who commits the crime.
There are no ‘respectable’ or ‘esteemed’ domestic violence abusers. Their accolades should always be secondary when we discuss violence against women and girls. In the UK, each week 3 women are killed, often by men no one would have ever suspected. Perpetrators of domestic abuse are multifaceted: often charming, respectable and still callous and cruel. They use their positive attributes as a weapon to silence their victims and trick those around them into believing such allegations are implausible. We must not allow respectability or ‘good character’ during sentencing to be used against survivors. It is of the utmost importance we broaden our perception of who commits these crimes so that more survivors feel they are able to come forward to ensure that, when they do, they are believed and their experience is not diminished.