This month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, to raise our awareness on the topic, we sat down with Dr Mardi Elizabeth to learn more about her work as a DV support worker and her PhD in Everyday Coercion.
Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month is an annual event held each May to raise community awareness of the social and personal impacts of domestic and family violence and the support available to those affected. The key aims of the month are to:
- raise community awareness of domestic and family violence and its impacts;
- promote a clear message of no tolerance of domestic and family violence in Queensland communities;
- ensure those who are experiencing domestic and family violence know how to access help and support;
- encourage people who use abuse and/or violence to take responsibility for their abusive behaviour and seek support to change.
You can learn more here: https://domesticviolence.com.au
If you or someone you know is being impacted by domestic and family violence, we encourage you to report it to police or access support services, as per below:
- If the incident is happening now or there is immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000)
- For non-urgent domestic and family violence matters, contact Policelink any time on 131 444
- If making a phone call or visiting a police station isn’t a safe option, you can request contact with police online for non-urgent domestic and family violence at: https://www.police.qld.gov.au/domestic-violence
A range of material and support services are available https://www.qld.gov.au/community/getting-support-health-social-issue/support-victims-abuse/domestic-family-violence
Mardi, please introduce yourself…
Hi, my name is Mardi, or more specifically Dr Mardi Wilson. I live in the bush out behind The Channon with my partner and my dog-baby. I am passionate about socio-political issues and how they impact people’s lives and strive to do what I can to contribute to positive and progressive change. I am a sociological researcher, writer, podcast co-host, and for my 9-5 role I work for a domestic violence service at which I support people who have been victim to men’s use of violence, I’ve been working for this service for 5 years. Alongside that, I’ve spent a good chunk of my twenties researching and writing my PhD dissertation, which focussed on sexual violence that is normalised within a context of heteronormativity. Basically, that means I studied how society makes certain behaviours, like pressure, persistence, and ‘not taking no for an answer’, seem like normal behaviour for men within sex, when, really, coercing past non-consent is sexualised violence and should not be considered a part of ‘normal’ sex. Sexual refusals, or unwillingness to have sex, should be accepted and taken seriously, not problem solved.
The Sex and Consent podcast (@sexandconsent) is where you can find my research, and surrounding topics, unpacked and explained in an easy-to-understand way.
Would you describe yourself as a rebel or an activist?
I don’t know if I am badass enough to call myself a rebel, so probably activist.
When we’re talking sex what’s the difference between consent, willingness, and compliance?
Think of (genuine) willingness as what is needed by all parties for sex to be consensual. This willingness could be because you have physiological desire for sex with that person, or the willingness could be because your partner is going away on holiday and you know you won’t get to see them for two weeks and want to connect on that level before they leave, even if you’re not super aroused. We can be willing to have sex for different reasons, the important thing is that the willingness to have sex is genuine and self-motivated by some form of desire/interest/want/reason to have sex.
Compliance, on the other hand, is something that can happen at the result of coercion. For instance, if a someone asks another to come home with them, and they say ‘sure, but I don’t want to have sex tonight’, to which the other said ‘that’s fine, let’s just cuddle’ (very common scenario), but then once in bed together the person who initially agreed to the boundary starts to instead escalate sexual activity. The person who didn’t want to have sex might resist, maybe saying they are tired, or by not reciprocating, but the person instigating the sexual activity continues to apply pressure until the unwilling person ‘gives in’, or complies. This is not genuine consent, because the person was unwilling and their eventual participation was compliance as a result of coercion, rather than self-motivated participation. Unfortunately, patriarchal gender roles have normalised male persistence, and the result is that consent has often been viewed as a kind of ‘basic agreement’. This is certainly not consent in the way it’s more commonly thought about today, where affirmative consent is becoming the standard and requires clear and positive signs of willingness, rather than eventual compliance.
Sex is multi-faceted, and its definition is different for each induvial: whether it’s with your partner, or with someone new, what are your tips and techniques for eroding boundaries and creating open conversation so that sex is safe and pleasurable?
So, with the idea of ‘eroding’ boundaries, while I get what you mean, in that I understand the question to be more like ‘how do we ‘break down walls’ of insecurity when talking about sex’, I actually think in sex we need to be more conscious of respecting boundaries, rather than eroding them. Eroding boundaries in a sexual context happens all the time, hence the premise of my PhD. In my research I called this ‘everyday coercion’, which basically means the ‘everyday’ normalised ways that people push past, ignore, or override another’s boundaries in sex. To counter this, we need to encourage a culture in which boundaries are not eroded but acknowledged, whether they are given verbally or non-verbally, and accepted, rather than seen as an obstacle to overcome.
Socio-culturally, there are many avenues we can take that would lead to safer and more pleasurable sex. For example, we need to drastically improve our approach to sexual education and messaging, including normalising linking sex with pleasure, particularly that of girls/women and trans and gender diverse people. Male pleasure has for too long been the central focus of mainstream sex whether it’s been depicted in pop-culture, or spoken about in the classroom. There is such a lack of understanding of the anatomy of a vulva, for example, that many men cannot point out a clitoris on a diagram, even though around 75% of women primarily (or only) have clitoral orgasms. No wonder tonnes of women aren’t orgasming during sex! Not to mention that everyone uses the word vagina in place of vulva, when the vagina is specifically the canal, and the vulva is the external part of the sex organ (it’s like calling the penis and testicles just a penis, instead of using their separate names to specify different parts!). If women’s pleasure was celebrated, instead of shamed (as it is with phenomena’s like ‘slut shaming’, or ‘purity culture’ that imposes abstinence upon girls and women), sex could be much more enjoyable.
To make sex safer requires a socio-cultural shift in how we portray gender and sex. In Australia 97% percent of sexual assaults are committed by men. Whether women, other men, or non-binary folk, are the victim, the perpetrator is almost certainly going to be a man. We need to address what makes men feel as though they are entitled to erode, override, and ignore boundaries. We need to stop perpetuating the narrative that men should be sexually dominant, and that men need to have a lot of sex, and with many partners, to be ‘men’. We need to untie masculinity from sexual ‘prowess’. Studies show that a lot of younger men have sex to impress their mates rather than because they want to experience pleasure and connect with a partner, particularly in one-night-stand contexts. They are motivated to push for a sexualised interaction by envisioning telling their mates about it, because it gives them status. If a man feels entitled to sex (based on rape-myths like ‘because she came home with me’ or ‘because I paid for dinner’), and also fears that if he doesn’t ‘close the deal’ he will be less of a man, then he is more likely to use coercion. For sex to be safer, this attitude and belief system needs to change. And that’s called dismantling the patriarchy! It’s a big job.
So, while having open conversations is a great way to individually enhance safety and pleasure, there is a lot to be done on a broader scale. We need people, particularly men, to want to have the conversations, to want to respect their partners boundaries, to want to contribute to safer and more pleasurable sex.
What’s your advice on how to raise sexual concerns with one’s partner?
It depends on the concerns, but I really do see a lot of benefit in speaking up if it is safe enough to do so. This can be done anytime during or afterward, whenever it feels right for the person who was made to feel uncomfortable. If what they did wasn’t malicious but made you uncomfortable for a personal reason, then I think explaining it can be great for building awareness and trust between partners. Oftentimes the other person will be really glad they know so they can avoid it happening again. If someone reacts badly to you disclosing something or expressing a concern, it could be a sign to re-evaluate your relationship with them, or to seek support from a professional and talk it through.
If it’s more along the lines of simply not enjoying a certain (otherwise consensual) act, there are plenty of ways in the moment to guide someone to doing something you find more pleasurable. You can give tips in a way that is constructive not critical, for example, saying ‘softer/harder/slower/faster/deeper’, so on, are ways of communicating what you want in that moment, and also can sound pretty sexy. Likewise, ‘a little higher/lower/to the left/to the right/I liked what you were doing before’ are perfectly normal ways to communicate in sex, and if we don’t tell people what we like, how will they know? It can be daunting to give instructions or let someone know that they’re not quite hitting the spot, but in my opinion it’s actually for the greater good of everyone’s pleasure for us to get used to asking (appropriately) for what we want/how we want it during sex. Especially for vulva and vagina owners, as, like I said before, there has been less interest and mainstream knowledge about their pleasure (the what/where/how), so, if you are vulva/vagina owner, don’t feel bad about speaking up.
You work at a domestic violence service, and work with victim-survivors of a range of types of abuse; coercive control is a term people may be becoming more familiar with, and it can sometimes be difficult to recognise. What are some of the questions to ask to recognise and address coercive control in a relationship?
So, a lot of people associate domestic abuse with physical violence. This is of course can be a part of it, but there are other ways of abusing someone that can be just as terrifying, or even more terrifying, than physical violence. Also, a perpetrator of abuse rarely just uses physical violence without other types of abuse being used as well, such as emotional, psychological, sexual, spiritual, or financial abuse.
Coercive control refers to a pattern of behaviours used over time to incrementally gain control over another person, often affecting their sense of self-worth, confidence, and autonomy. Usually the perpetrator – (and in a heterosexual relationship it is typically the man using coercive control toward a woman, but coercive control occurs in same-sex and gender diverse relationships as well) – will go to great lengths to bond their partner to them by doting on them, appearing as loving, thoughtful, and generous, (sometimes referred to as ‘love bombing’). An abuser showing this side of themselves makes it a lot harder for the victim to leave when they start experiencing his abuse, because they want to be with the person they’ve fallen in love with. As the abuse becomes more and more prominent, and they consider leaving, the abuser will show glimpses of that loving, funny, trustworthy version of himself, reigniting her hope that their relationship could get back on track. After creating this bond, the abuser typically tries to isolate the victim, either geographically or socially. If he can dissuade her from maintaining relationships with family and friends, she has fewer people to tell, and fewer people to call out his behaviour. There is a range of behaviours, like gaslighting, alternating punishment with reward, and enforcing trivial demands, that an abuser can use to keep a victim preoccupied with modifying their behaviour, and having less time to focus on his. These tactics, such as gaslighting, interfere with her sense of reality and keep her exhausted and walking on eggshells. Physical violence, or threat of physical violence, can be used in a regime of coercive control, but it doesn’t have to be. Other threats, such as threats of harm to children or pets, or threats to expose certain information, or threats to ruin someone’s life financially or reputationally, can be as affective or more so.
Signs that someone might be experiencing coercive control could be that they withdraw socially, or are physically present but seem preoccupied or unable to relax. If someone seems to be running things by their partner a lot, or checking if they can do something or spend something, this can also be a sign. If you’re worried about someone you know, listen for hints of any of the above behaviours when they talk about their relationship. For instance if they relay an argument they had with their partner and it strikes you as very one-sided, malicious, degrading, or it seems that the potential perpetrator is making her feel guilty for doing normal things, or is jealous and possessive, these can be indicators that he is controlling toward her.
As for what to do about it, the most important thing is not to abandon someone just because they/she isn’t doing what you think she should. A lot of people think ‘why doesn’t she just leave if he is abusive’, but leaving can be difficult, scary, and in fact extremely dangerous. When the abuser feels he is losing control, he can go to greater lengths to reclaim it. This is often when we see men murdering their ex/partners, when they leave. So, letting someone know that you’re there for them if they need to talk, and creating a safe space without judgment or unsolicited advice giving is one of the best things you can do for them. Offering to talk to a service or get some information for them could also be helpful. Let them know that you see what he is doing and that it’s not OK, because a lot of victims of coercive control have been made to believe that their partner is justified to act the way he does. And, often, they don’t see him being held accountable at any point. By believing her/them and offering your support, you are showing that what he is doing to her is not invisible, and that can go a long way.
There’s a whole bunch of buzzwords in our dating lexicon these days like "gaslighting," "love bombing," "trauma," “backfooting,” but the overuse of words can sometimes make them lose their potency. If we’re hearing these words, what are your tips for unpacking and exploring the distinction between hurt feelings and toxicity?
You’re right, these terms are being used more commonly to describe ‘garden variety’ behaviours that may be hurtful, or selfish, but may not be part of a regime of abuse. Overuse of a term can water down the meaning, in that when gaslighting is purposefully being used to disrupt someone’s sense of reality and make them feel as though they’re ‘going crazy’, it’s serious, and should be treated as such. Likewise, backfooting is a technique an abuser uses to put someone on the defence in a way that is beneficial to him, as she then has to prove why his accusation isn’t so. An example of this, and one commonly used by abusers, is to accuse a woman of cheating/flirting/being dishonest, so that she must then prove to him that she didn’t/why she would never/how much she likes or loves him, etc. The long-term impact of this is that she will modify her behaviour to avoid these accusations. She may avoid talking to people alone to avoid the accusation of flirting, she may avoid going out without him to avoid the accusation of cheating. This tightens his grip of control over her.
However. I think that the use, or overuse, of these terms represents a growing awareness of the types of behaviours that commonly occur in abusive contexts but which have long gone unnoticed, and I think it’s a positive that such behaviours are exposed. While gaslighting is particularly dangerous when done in a methodic, purposeful way, it’s also really toxic when it’s done in a normalised ‘everyday’ way to avoid accountability, which happens all the time. Of course, some people totally misuse these terms to describe behaviours that don’t quite match the actual definition. But, on the most part, I think that people, particularly men, have been doing a lot of love-bombing, gaslighting, and backfooting for a long time without being held accountable. Labels are powerful. Being able to label a problematic or dangerous emotional or psychological tactic is very useful and validating. Being able to recognise love-bombing, for example, could be the red flag that saves someone entering further into what could become an abusive relationship, and without it becoming more common in our lexicon, people may not hear of it. So, yeah, it can water it down, but I also think it creates awareness.
On February 17 this year, state and federal education ministers in Australia unanimously agreed to mandate holistic and age-appropriate consent education in all schools from "foundation" to Year 10 to be rolled out in 2023: what are your thoughts on this?
Will it create the change that’s so desperately needed? It is certainly important to encourage a respect of boundaries/refusals, i.e. non-consent from a young age, and encourage kids retain their empathy, especially boys, who often have it stamped out of them by patriarchal ideations of masculinity. In fact, I wrote an article about this very topic for SBS Insight just last year. However, as I have touched on in a previous answer, a lot of the change that needs to occur is not simply teaching people that they should ‘get consent’; it’s actually about completely dismantling the way we see gender as a binary construct and assign certain traits and roles to masculinity and femininity that perpetuate crappy stereotypes that normalise sexual violence. Not only do binary notions of gender set up problematic roles of the ‘pursuer’ and the ‘gatekeeper’ within heterosex, it completely invisibilises the experiences of LGBTQIAP+ people and the diverse ways that gender can be expressed. I am pro-rape prevention efforts, such as sexual consent education, but it just needs to be more than telling people to get consent. A lot of people know what consent is, or have heard that they should ‘get it’, but when sexism, misogyny, rape culture, and so on, are all still so prevalent, consent isn’t prioritised. We need an attitude shift.
Supremely important is that consent education needs to focus (and I am sure it will, or at least I’m hopeful it will) on all the different ways consent and non-consent can be communicated other than simply a verbal question and answer. People often think that ‘getting consent’ is simply this question-answer. In reality, most humans are adept at reading body language, non-verbal cues, and indirect verbal prompts to get a sense of whether someone is willing or unwilling to proceed in a sexual interaction. Of course, verbal communication is a great tool to use during negotiating consent, especially if you’re not sure what someone else’s body language is signifying, and you think maybe they’re uncomfortable, or, if they seem keen but you don’t know what sexual acts they’re keen for, but it shouldn’t be presented as the only tool. Presenting verbal communication as the only valid tool in doing consent puts a lot of pressure on the non-initiating person to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and studies show that saying a direct no to an offer is not only difficult, but not necessary to communicate a refusal. We say no in a variety of ways, verbal and non-verbal, and those are understood in line with regular patterns of communication. Prioritising verbal communication gives some people an excuse to ignore non-consent when it is communicated in other ways, like silence, passivity, moving away, non-reciprocation, and so on.
Too much focus on the question-answer style of consent also reduces consent to an event which ignores that consent is a process that spans the entire duration of the sexualised interaction. Instead of just one event of consent, such as a question and answer, we should consider consent the process of observing all types of communication, verbal or non-verbal, throughout an interaction. Just because someone consents to one act, doesn’t mean they are willing/consenting to do another, and, even if someone does initially consent, they have the right to change their mind at any time, and have this change of mind respected. Seeing consent as a process allows for change of mind.
I do hope that the consent education rolled out in schools will contribute toward the attitudinal change that is needed to see a downturn in sexualised violence, but there will need to be considerable quality control in relation to the facilitators/teachers of these programs, because if someone who is supposed to be teaching such things misses the point themselves, then it won’t be passed on effectively. But yes, I do hold hope! Chanel Contos has done a fabulous job campaigning, and with her and the rest of the team at Teach Us Consent leading the charge I feel heartened.
As women we all have different styles of desire; how is your work helping to liberate female sexuality from the confines of cultural myths and limitations?
I like to think that I contribute to validating and encouraging women to self-determine their lives and experiences through my PhD, through my role working with women individually and domestic violence support groups, and through my podcast platform.
Having information, and accurate information, is so necessary when working through the confines of problematic and limiting cultural myths. Consider, like I mentioned before, that a lot of women don’t orgasm internally, that is a very freeing fact to know. A lot of women get the impression from porn, movies, society in general, that they should be orgasming from penetration, and when that doesn’t happen for them, many think that there is something ‘wrong’ with them. They may spend time, money, energy trying to achieve something that just isn’t what their body does, and then feel disappointed when it doesn’t happen. Knowing that it’s, in fact, very common to experience only, or primarily, clitoral orgasms can help women understand that every body is different and that they are totally normal. And that’s just one example, there are so many ways of being in relationship, having sex, and, as long as it’s consensual and respectful, there’s nothing wrong with us exploring what we are into, even if it isn’t considered the ‘mainstream’ way of doing sex and relationships.
Honestly, knowing what coercion is, and that it is not (or at least shouldn’t be!) considered a part of ‘normal’ sex, was such a huge liberation for me. I wish I had been gifted with that knowledge, and known how to identify and label certain behaviours, when I was younger as I would have spent a lot less time feeling confused about sexual interactions. Sometimes I felt guilty, like ‘how did I let that happen again?’ when I had intended not to sleep with someone and then it ‘just happened’. I thought I had terrible self-control, but it wasn’t my self-control at all, it was that men were ignoring my boundaries and pressuring me past my non-consent. Knowing, and integrating the knowledge, that I deserve to set boundaries, and to have them respected, has empowered me to be less conscious of ‘offending’ or disappointing someone. I am more comfortable with holding people to account if they push or devalue me. Whereas, when I was younger, I found it very difficult to become assertive in fear of someone losing interest in me, becoming annoyed at me, or considering me ‘a tease’. Those things are still totally possibilities, but I now look at a guy differently if he responds like that, I see him as sexist and entitled. In saying that, it is absolutely not a girl/woman’s responsibility to have to become assertive, boys and men should be respecting unwillingness/refusals when they are first given.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I am hoping to turn my PhD into a book, but I just need to find the time to write a book proposal! That and continue to establish our podcast and find other ways to connect with people, educate, and create change.
You can find Mardi on Instagram @Mardi_Elizabeth