Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Abuse in Colleges

CW: domestic violence

Living at college is a unique social experience – one where you are constantly surrounded by people who are morbidly curious about your every hook-up and casual fling. High-density living invites relationships to be formed quickly and intensely over your shared love of midnight toasties and binge-watching Scandal. Despite one in four women reporting experiences of physical, sexual, or emotional violence by an intimate partner, university students often view their relationships as immune to these confronting statistics.

Domestic violence (DV) is broadly identified by three behaviours: control, manipulation and isolation. DV is often a slow build-up of abusive behaviours: snide ‘jokes’ about one’s appearance, expecting full access to a partner’s texts at any given time and using private disclosures of trauma or mental health issues as ammunition in arguments.

All of these culminate into one partner conforming to the standards set by the other, under the constant threat of physical, sexual or emotional violence.

DV can be hard to spot – even by one’s closest friends – because often both the abuser and the abused will try to hide all the signs. What I’ve found terrifying about DV is how a passing remark or a ‘caring’ gesture was, in retrospect, a clear warning of abusive behaviour.

But, what terrifies me the most, is seeing my friends suffering from DV in their relationships.

‘He’s not violent. He just lets off steam. He would never hit me.’

‘They just get so jealous sometimes.’

‘I just need to tell him where I am. He gets so anxious when I don’t text him.’

‘I’m not a victim. I love them.’

The crux of the issue is determining the subtle difference between the acts of a caring partner and a controlling abuser. Questioning why a ‘loving’ partner needs to grant permission for your friend to have a night out. Or why that partner never gives your friend space to breathe – constantly texting, dropping by their room without warning, or never letting them be alone.

The idea that DV is limited to physical aggression alone is an insult to DV survivors, because what it truly boils down to is a conditioned response of relentless and immobilising fear.

Fear of upsetting the abuser as well as a fear of losing them. It’s about manipulating someone into believing that the emotional abuse they suffer is love. That punching a wall during an argument is okay. That if their abuser uses guilt to force consent, then it’s not rape.

In a college environment where rumours spread like wildfire, victims feel trapped. A DV victim will likely share friends with the abuser, and the abuser will generally be well-liked in the community. By leaving the relationship or revealing DV, victims risk receiving scrutiny from their friends, peers, and even administration. They open themselves up to victimisation: pitied by their friends and vilified by opinionated bystanders on Facebook. So they stay in their relationship, rationalising the abuse.

This article is in no way trying to help you identify DV situations. Quite the contrary. This article is simply a reminder that you should never assume a relationship is healthy, and should be alert to any differences you may see in your friends.

Victims are not always outwardly vulnerable or withdrawn, and abusers are not the Machiavellian villains we portray them to be. The sad truth is that you probably know someone who is experiencing DV in their relationship. It’s likely that these victims and abusers are your friends and the people you admire. They are probably friendly, outgoing, and always up for a wild Thursday night. They might be the shoulder you cry on and the ones you walk home with from disastrous exams. They might be in positions of power ­– they might be your senior residents, your RAs and your rescom.

That’s what is scary.

It’s scary to think someone you know is capable of hurting another person. It’s scary to think one of your friends is silently suffering.

It would be be easier to forget your O-Week friend who suddenly withdrew after they found a partner, or to ignore the screaming matches you hear from your neighbours every weekend. It would be easier to forget the offhand comments your best friend makes about their partner that make you uncomfortable.

Being a friend and a contributor to a college culture of safety is not easy.

We need to acknowledge that it is within our power to break the DV cycle through awareness, and the support of our friends. Take the time to catch up for coffee with your friends and listen. You may end up changing their life.

Notes:

While statistics for domestic violence focus almost exclusively on hetero relationships, it is important to recognise that same-gender relationships are also susceptible to domestic violence. There may be fewer statistics, but that does not make DV in the LGBTQIA* community any less significant.

If you have been affected by the content of this article, please reach out to one of the following services:

Domestic Violence Crisis Service
24-hour crisis line: 02 6280 0900

1800RESPECT – National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service
24-hour information and support line: 1800 737 732

Lifeline
24-hour crisis line: 13 11 14