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'Myth-busting' crucial to combatting relationship abuse, Women's Aid research finds

Three in five young people have experienced or know someone who has experienced intimate relationship abuse.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

DISPELLING MISUNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT intimate relationship abuse is crucial to combatting it in society, according to Women’s Aid.

A survey of 500 18 to 25-year-olds in Ireland by Women’s Aid and Red C, which included focus groups, found that three in five young people have experienced or know someone who has experienced intimate relationship abuse.

Only 16% think it is easy to spot signs of abuse and four in five believe people experiencing abuse do so in silence and may not seek support.

Sarah Benson, the chief executive of Women’s Aid, said that some of the findings demonstrated a need to ‘myth-bust’ incorrect assumptions about causes and victims, which she said can impede long-term responses to preventing and combatting abuse.

A majority of the young people surveyed believed that drug and alcohol misuse cause someone to be abusive towards their partner.

However, although substances can be an aggravating factor, they are “not the root cause of abusive behaviours”, Benson said.

“Studies show that even when using alcohol or drugs abusers can still exercise control by targeting their partner specifically and not others. Many also abuse when there is no alcohol or drugs involved,” she said.

Additionally, one in five young women and one in 11 young men have experienced intimate relationship abuse in Ireland, but nearly one-third – 29% – did not believe women were most commonly the victims of abuse.

In focus groups, that ‘gender neutral’ position was particularly articulated by young men.

“Intimate relationship abuse is a highly gendered issue,” Benson said.

“The majority of victims/survivors worldwide are women in heterosexual relationships, but men can also suffer and it can also occur in LGBTQ+ relationships,” she said.

A social analysis, and engaging in discussion about unequal power relations based on intersecting factors such as sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or class, is important to ensure that we respond to the circumstances and needs of all victims/survivors by understanding the social context in which abuse can be enabled, and which can also cause barriers to getting help.

“These can be uncomfortable conversations, but to truly achieve future generations without abuse we need to have them.”

Other misconceptions included uncertainty around whether acts like becoming jealous easily or looking through a partner’s phone were a warning sign for abuse.

Women’s Aid says that regular expressions of jealousy shows possessiveness and is a red flag for abuse, while looking through someone’s phone is an invasion of privacy and controlling behaviour.

More broadly, the survey found that most young people (81%) feel a responsibility to intervene if they are concerned a close friend could be experiencing intimate relationship abuse.

53% did not know that sharing intimate images without consent is now against the law and 50% were unaware of specialist supports for intimate relationship abuse.

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Benson said that young people are “crucial allies for anyone experiencing abuse in their age group”, but that “the findings of this national research show us that while young people feel a responsibility to look out for friends who might be experiencing abuse, they have concerns around making the situation worse and keeping their friends and loved ones safe”.

“There is an awareness gap on the causes and warning signs of abuse amongst young people,” she said.

Juliana Shiel, an advocate for Too Into You (a new Women’s Aid campaign) and survivor of intimate relationship abuse, said that “one of the hardest parts of being in an abusive relationship is getting and staying out of it”.

“It took me six tries to get out of mine, and it was the support of my friends and family that helped me stay out.

“It is likely that someone in an abusive relationship is being manipulated into thinking their partner is the only person that truly cares about them, so showing love and support to someone you think might be in abusive relationship, even if they show signs of pushing you away, is vital.”

Also today, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee announced extra funding for areas of the country and categories of victims who are not currently fully covered by support services.

A total of 18 organisations have been granted €445,000 between them to allow them to provide further services and to increase the geographical spread of support to victims of crime.

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Lauren Boland

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