By Hana Elramly
As of March 2020, the world was hit by a ‘double pandemic’; Covid-19 and a surge in domestic violence cases across the globe. In France, a 30% spike in intimate partner violence (IPV) was documented in 2020. IPV refers to “sexual assault by a current or former intimate partner and includes sexual coercion […] marital rape and sexual assault”. This violence can present itself physically or emotionally (ibid.). Although gender roles commonly ascribe to men the role of perpetrators of physical and emotional violence on women (but not exclusively) – in the context of intimate relationships or beyond – they do not explain the spiking increase of domestic abuse cases that occurred during the lockdown.
The common understanding is that long-term relationships are stable, healthy, and bound for eternity. Hence, it is generally assumed that domestic violence is a distant, uncommon, and rare phenomenon that occurs within the context of unstable relationships. In fact, most movies led us to believe that violence in relationships mostly takes place when drugs and poverty are involved, ignoring any other independent causes. And although poverty, deprivation, and addiction are leading causes of domestic violence, they are not the only ones. This period of isolation shed light on this often normalized and marginalized issue, especially within long-term relationships.
When I began to read posts and news articles about the increase of domestic violence during the lockdown, I was personally perplexed. I was unable to grasp the exact reason as to why this would happen, other than the boredom of isolation. I believe it is important to find explanations to this puzzle beyond the common assumption that sets poverty, drugs, and instability as the root cause for domestic violence. So, how did the lockdown further trigger domestic violence cases? This is why I ask myself this question again but within an academic context, to push myself to further understand the underlying reasons behind these rising case numbers.
Stuck under the same roof
Men and women did not have to endure the same mental challenges throughout the pandemic. Men being the assumed breadwinners, commonly endure the financial burdens and liabilities while women are found trapped in their home and constantly having to uphold the housewife role, possibly on top of their own career. The unequal gender roles and expectations were therefore highly accentuated for most couples during the lockdown, with the mental load being unequally distributed and often unacknowledged. Consequently, it was during isolation that conflicts, gender asymmetries, and disagreements heavily resurfaced as a result of mounting stress, boredom, miscommunication, and frustration.
The first explanation to this surge of IPV cases relies on the implicit theories of relationships. Freedman and his co-authors (2018) discuss two types of beliefs that shape relationship outlooks and behaviours: destiny and growth beliefs. Individuals with high growth beliefs tend to present as advocates of maintenance and constant effort in order to make a relationship work. Contrastingly, those with higher destiny beliefs seek a soulmate that is to be their perfect match . The authors also explain that strong destiny beliefs combined with negative emotions towards a partner in a long-term relationship can result in interpersonal violence.
In such, the forced proximity imposed by ‘stay at home’ orders, curfew, and lockdown may have triggered such violence. Because victims of domestic violence had no escape outside the home, their partners’ negative emotions– associated with frustration and the feeling that there still is a better soulmate out there for them – may have been projected through violence. Needless to be said, this is not a valid justification of the abuser’s action, nor is it the only one.
Trapped in social media bubbles
The second argument focuses on the impact of art and social media throughout the lockdown. When people were forced to stay at home, they sought distraction and connection to the outside world. And for that purpose, no tool is a better fit than smartphones. In fact, platforms like TikTok and Instagram, and even porn websites turned into daily life necessities during quarantine. And because their users lacked the mental stimulation they are accustomed to – such as going to the workplace, running errands, or meeting friends – they heavily absorbed the content they were exposed to.
Although these platforms serve the purpose of connecting people or spreading knowledge and information, they can also advocate for toxic and violent behaviours and ideas. Some content that circulates online promotes gender-based violence, whether implicitly or explicitly. While certain content incites hostile sexism and encourages men to resort to violence, others promote benevolent sexism in women and men. Several depictions – in movies, music and social media – romanticize toxicity in relationships and lead consumers to normalize such narratives. This content can implicitly shape views because, like fiction, it is so detached from the reality of the pandemic we are trying to escape, making it easier for readers to delve into the world they present without criticism.
The same goes for porn consumption which spiked during lockdown. In fact, revenge porn consumption and production skyrocketed, especially at the hands of abusive partners, perpetuating hostile sexism. The same goes for women who consume porn produced under the male gaze. They are more likely to romanticize abusive or unrealistic sexual encounters or even relationship models as a whole and ascribe to benevolently sexist views. As Robin Morgan puts it “Porn is the theory, rape is the practice”.
The eternally happy couple
As Shelly Budgeon (2008) explains, the nuclear family structure is generally seen as the epitome of success, one that binds individuals together for a lifetime. This structure is rewarded and encouraged by the state and society on an economic and social scale. Unlike in friendships, romantic partners are expected to navigate through their issues in order to maintain their union. In fact, some religions ban divorce, and some states make its process extremely costly for that reason. In such, the common couple culture gives leeway to perpetrators of domestic violence because the health of long-term relationships is rarely evaluated as are friendships for instance.
Gender asymmetries strongly persist within the institution of marriage, especially during conflict. Studies show that most perpetrators of domestic violence show behaviours of over-control and jealousy. This desire to fully control a partner stems from the patriarchal notion of family and relationships. And when violence occurs within a marriage, the same victim-blaming methods rape victims suffer take place. In fact, several countries still exonerate husbands who kill their wives under the umbrella of honour killings. Even more so, in non-European countries women are shamed and blamed for being victims of domestic violence through the use of shame and distorted religious discourse, especially when it occurs out of wedlock.
In such, victims who find themselves trapped under the same roof with their abuser have a hard time escaping their violence, as they are most likely to encounter other forms of emotional violence by the society they seek help from. This is even more so the case in countries where the common ideology and the lacking state infrastructure fail to assist victims in escaping violence and perpetuate the cycle onto them instead.
Intimate partner violence is not a new phenomenon, but one that has recently taken the form of a pandemic. So, how did the lockdown further trigger domestic violence cases? Common depictions of IPV present it as an extreme case scenario driven by poverty, addiction, and frustration. However, the Covid-19 pandemic shed further light on the reality of the situation with a sky-rocketing number of cases. With isolation, boredom, and financial pressure being the evident explanatory causes in this scenario, this paper aimed to direct its focus at more deeply rooted ones. It uses implicit theories of relationships, the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, and Shelly Budgeon’s Couple Culture to further understand this phenomenon.
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