Emma Williamson, Senior Research Fellow in the School for Policy Studies, discusses gendered violence


People around the World are currently engaged in 16 days of activism against gendered violence.  Communities across different nations are challenging the inequality which some men interpret as an excuse to violate and oppress those, predominately women and children, who are more vulnerable than themselves.

This image is being used with permission from J.Fleming

This is a global phenomenon which has landed in the middle of our city of Bristol. I drove past the Premier Inn on my way to work this morning.  The same hotel where last week it was revealed that a young, vulnerable, girl of 13 had been raped and sexually abused by a group of men who had been grooming her for sexual exploitation.  That building used to house Bristol Social Services.

It is possible that I have met this young woman, or someone like her, during the course of our research on the needs of homeless women or in the recent evaluation of a nearby Child Sexual Exploitation project.

She could be Jasmine, not her real name, who we first met when she was 19.

But when I got kicked out the last time, that was the only person who I could go to … but he’s on like a paedophile thing, he’s on the sex offenders for life … and he’s just not right in the head. […] Not … he never done nothing to me … or that I know about … cos he could have done it when I was asleep … but I never felt safe there. It was just horrible. (Jasmine, age 19)

When we spoke to her again, she told us

When I think back to that I do get very paranoid thinking he might have put stuff in my drink and … cos I just would not put it past him.  And … but I try not to think of it, cos I’d never find out now. (Jasmine, age 19)

When Jasmine told us about this she did so with a resignation and matter of fact honesty.  She genuinely does not know, on that occasion, if she was sexually assaulted or not.  The rest of Jasmine’s story has an inevitability about it, for example she told us about both her current and ex- ‘boyfriend’:

One time my ex-boyfriend, he hit me before … this was like proper punches to the head … never got the police involved when I should have.  But this one’s a bit different – although he’s physical, he’s like in your head.  That’s what he’s more like – he tries brainwashing you. (Jasmine, age 19)

And about how she coped with alcohol and drugs:

I know it sounds stupid, but I was just thinking a bit religiously and thinking it’s not natural, this is not what God like wanted you to do – take drugs and drink all the time. There’s got to be more to life than that (Jasmine, age 19).

Speaking with older homeless women, the vast majority of whom had experienced domestic or sexual violence throughout their lives and used alcohol and drugs as a coping strategy, demonstrates how the abuse of vulnerable girls and women continues overtime with immeasurable personal costs.

Blossom was 52 when we spoke to her:

[…] this person I’d known from last year, […] he harassed me going along the road, he wouldn’t leave me alone … he said “I need to talk to you” … and the outcome was I was assaulted […] And you see the thing is I knew him when I had nowhere to live, and I stayed there for a night.  And people don’t realise how vulnerable you are when you have nowhere to go. […] you’re vulnerable to all sorts of people.  And believe me I’ve met people that are not nice, and they take advantage of the situation. (Blossom, age 52)

Or Daisy and Ginger who spoke to us about staying in a mixed homeless hostel:

[…] the mixed [shelter], it ain’t safe in there because being women, sometimes I’d get a lot of attention from men, you know?  […] you don’t like waking up in the night getting touched or things going that shouldn’t be going on, you know what I mean?   (Daisy, age 30)

Yeah it’s mostly men, there’s only four women there.  It can be a bit agitating, cos the men there think they can just grab you when they’re drunk and do what they like, you know, but they can’t really can they? (Ginger, age 49)

The Bristol case yet again highlights the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable girls but it also challenges us all, as a society to reconsider how we respond to victims and how we all contribute to the reality in which abusive behaviours, across the continuum from wolf whistling to rape, are experienced and understood.

Whilst the media is rightly abhorred by the rape and sexual exploitation of young vulnerable girls, it doesn’t ask about the wider dynamics of gender and power which contribute to such abuse taking place.  When exploited girls talk about perpetrators as their ‘boyfriends’ it is in a context where society teaches young women to judge their self-worth on the basis of women’s objectification in the eyes of men.  Where they are bombarded by objectifying images on a daily basis in our newspapers, on TV, and on the cover of magazines.  Where senior executives from one of our national TV stations think it is ok to represent the harassment and abuse of women as tongue in cheek comedy entertainment.

In Bristol we have a council that sanctions licenses for sexual entertainment venues – whilst simultaneously seeking to educate young people in the city about respectful relationships. What we need to realise is that the violence and abuse experienced by women and children is inextricably linked to gender and inequality.  If we fail to challenge the latter, we fail to address the root causes of abuse and let victims and survivors down.

Dr Emma Williamson

Anyone who wishes to donate to a local Bristol charity which works with vulnerable women in relation to sexual exploitation might wish to donate to:




Child Sexual Exploitation: Groundhog day

Emma Williamson and Natasha Mulvihill, Centre for Gender and Violence Research

The report into the abuse and sexual exploitation of children and young people in Rotherham[i] whilst shocking, is not a surprise. The report comes in a long line of reports, inquiries, research, and reviews which are consistent in their findings. That victims have been ignored or not believed; that busy professionals have been unable (for a variety of reasons) to respond appropriately; that officials have not adequately prioritised the work of those on the front line; and that existing legislation is not being used even in cases where it could be, to tackle the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

As British actor Samantha Morton made clear in her recent interview, every incident of child sexual abuse is a life sentence for that individual, their families, and those around them.

As calls for yet another inquiry are made, maybe this is the time to take a different approach. A recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report, published in April 2014, concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that in terms of child sexual exploitation “justice cannot currently be served due to the lack of a specific offence”. The recommendation of this report was that “existing offences could be used more effectively”.  Sheila Taylor, CEO of NWG Network, in recent news interviews and her own press release, highlighted how their organisation had compiled the recommendations from 16 recent relevant reports which resulted in up to 400 recommendations. The result, she suggests is that practitioners are overwhelmed, frustrated, and struggle to implement the findings from a report before a new one comes out. Ms Taylor suggests, and we would wholeheartedly agree with her, that maybe that money would be better spent on dedicated, ring fenced, services to implement the recommendations we already have and provide the much needed victim-focused services which are clearly needed.

Too often the response to inquiries, reviews, and reports by the time they come out, however damning, are that lessons have been learnt and changes made. The scandal which we need to face is why this keeps happening if lessons have been learnt? What happens in these areas when the glare of the media spotlight disappears and victims once again become the target of perpetrators whose behaviour society allows to go unchallenged?

Our recent evaluation of a specialist service working with young people at risk of sexual exploitation[ii] is that lessons haven’t been learnt. Austerity is impacting on the ability of statutory services, the police, social services, and youth services, to deal with the cases that fall onto their desks, let alone going out and finding what are hidden and difficult cases to deal with. Too often the services for those in need, as opposed to those where there is a statutory responsibility to intervene, are restricted, where they exist, to short term interventions. It beggars belief that commissioners think that someone being groomed for sexual exploitation would be identified, supported to recognise the abuse, and disclose that abuse in the 6 week support packages currently written into so many service contracts. Those being exploited need specialist support, over a long period of time, and for there to be coordinated responses between the police and support workers. All of that costs money which is increasingly difficult for local authorities and voluntary services to find.

Given the difficulties faced by service providers with ever increasing workloads and limited specialist service providers where they can send clients, it is not surprising that victims end up falling through the net. The vulnerabilities which perpetrators target victims for, are the same that allow agencies under pressure to perceive these victims as difficult and un-credible.

Rather than waste yet more money on an inquiry, the responses to which we have heard before, maybe the government and all political parties should commit to 10 years of ring fenced funding for the establishment of a national response. This should include specialist sexual exploitation workers to support victims in every area of the country and specialist dedicated police officers in those areas to use every law at their disposal to target perpetrators so it is their behaviour under the spotlight and not that of the victim.  Where this has happened in local areas, real progress has been made.  We need the same concerted effort nationally to tackle this problem.

The authors can be contacted at nm8543@bris.ac.uk and e.williamson@bris.ac.uk 

This blog was originally posted on the PolicyBristol blog. 

[i] Jay, A. (2014) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham 1997 – 2013. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

[ii] Mulvihill, N. and Williamson, E. (2014) An Evaluation of the GDVSAP Trafficking and Grooming Project, Gloucester, UK.  Bristol: Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol.


Domestic Violence and Sexuality: a new book from the School for Policy Studies

Marianne Hester from the Centre for Gender and Violence Research outlines the important findings from a new book on domestic violence and sexuality co-authored with Catherine Donovan.MH

The book, Domestic violence and sexuality – What’s love got to do with it, provides the first detailed discussion in the UK of domestic violence and abuse in same sex relationships, and a unique comparison with domestic violence and abuse experienced by heterosexual women and men. The book examines how experiences of domestic violence and abuse may be shaped by gender, sexuality and age, including whether and how victims/survivors seek help, and asks, what’s love got to do with it? A pioneering methodology, using a sophisticated national survey, focus groups and interviews, provides a reliable and valid approach that challenges the heteronormative model in domestic violence research, policy and practice. A new framework of analysis – practices of love – is also used to explore the empirical data.

Representative surveys increasingly involve both heterosexual and same sex identities, but it is not always clear what context, including the relationship, the domestic violence and abuse took place in. The multi-method research reported in this book address these issues and enable comparison across both gender and sexuality. The survey asked about experiences and impacts of violence and abuse from a same sex partner, and also the use of the same behaviours against a partner and the motives for using them. The interview schedule was based around an exploration of a best and a worst relationship experience.

More than a third of the 746 respondents to the survey said they had experienced domestic violence and abuse at some time in a same sex relationship, and even more indicated they had experienced at least one form of negative behaviour from their same sex partners. There were similarities, whether respondents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or queer (LGBTQ), including the range of abusive behaviours experienced and the impacts of such behaviour. However there were also some important differences: gay or bisexual men were significantly more likely than lesbian, bisexual or queer women to experience physically and sexually abusive behaviours. Risk factors for potential abuse and heightened impact included age, lower income levels and lower educational attainment, and were more marked than gender. Age also intersects with sexuality such that being newly out can position somebody as younger and therefore more vulnerable to abuse regardless of their biological age. The findings suggest that violence and abuse in same sex relationships is characterised by power and control by one partner over the other, and not by mutual abuse.

Based on the interviews the book suggests there are two relationship rules operating in relationships characterised by domestic violence and abuse: that the relationship is for the abusive partner and on their terms; and that the victim/survivor is responsible for the care of the abusive partner, and the relationship. These rules reflect heteronormative ideas about gender: masculinity associated with setting the terms for relationship and femininity associated with caring. However, the rules are established through practices of love enacted by both partners in ways that confuse recognition of domestic violence and abuse and expectations about gender. Thus abusive partners enact behaviours associated with masculinity (making key decisions) and femininity (expressing need and neediness); and victim/survivors enact behaviours associated with femininity (providing care and nurture) and masculinity (being responsible for the abusive partner/relationship and feeling emotionally stronger than the abusive partner).

Only a few of the LGBTQ participants in the research who were victim/survivors of domestic violence and abuse sought formal sources of help, and fewer than tends to be the case with heterosexuals. LGBTQ individuals expected to be self-reliant and/or to draw on informal and private sector sources of help. Counsellors and therapists were the most popular formal source of support for victim/survivors in same sex relationships. Gay men were more likely to access health services. Generally there is a gap of trust between LGBTQ victim/survivors of domestic violence and abuse and mainstream agencies, and LGBTQ people do not expect a positive response. The small minority of LGBT individuals who reported to the police did so because they experienced an escalation in the domestic violence and abuse against them.
The book concludes by providing a new practitioner tool (the COHSAR wheel) for working with victim/survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence and abuse in both same sex and heterosexual relationships. There are recommendations for raising awareness amongst LGBTQ communities and for training amongst mainstream and specialist domestic violence and abuse agencies about domestic violence and abuse in same sex and/or trans relationships.

Book: Catherine Donovan and Marianne Hester (2014) Domestic violence and sexuality – What’s love got to do with it? Bristol: Policy Press.

HB 978-1-4473-0743-3
UPSO 978-1-4473-1163-8
EPDF 978-1-4473-0745-7