comment: Sandra Horley in guardian.co.uk, Wed 10 Oct 2012
My experience at Refuge tells me how brave Anna Larke was to take her abuser to court – I hope other women will do the same
On Tuesday the comedian Justin Lee Collins was sentenced to 140 hours of community service for subjecting his ex-girlfriend to a prolonged campaign of harassment, causing fear of violence. I am, of course, pleased that Collins was found guilty of harassing Anna Larke but 140 hours of community service and an order to pay £3,500 is a small penalty to pay for the fear she has experienced.
As chief executive of the national domestic violence charity Refuge, I have worked with victims of domestic violence for over 30 years. Domestic violence comes in multiple, ugly forms and can involve extreme physical brutality – black eyes, broken bones, bruises. Such physical abuse can be devastating – even fatal. Every single week two women are killed by current or former partners in England and Wales.
But domestic violence is also non-physical. It can be verbal, emotional, psychological and financial. The government recently announced its plans to amend its definition of domestic violence by including the phrase "coercive control" to reflect this. Let me be clear: domestic violence involves the repeated, habitual and random use of intimidation, whether by physical or verbal aggression, to force a woman to submit to her partner's demands. Domestic violence is systematic, purposeful and patterned behaviour designed to gain control of a woman.
Most women I meet through my work tell me that the effects of emotional and psychological abuse are just as – if not more – damaging than slaps and punches. The scars left are deeper, and take longer to heal. And because this kind of abuse is largely invisible, victims are often disbelieved when they find the courage to disclose it. All too often, society turns a blind eye. People think that if it doesn't result in a swollen eye or a broken arm, it's not a "real" crime. But we should never underestimate the impact of psychological and emotional abuse.
Anna Larke experienced exactly this kind of behaviour at the hands of Justin Lee Collins. She was subjected to vicious tirades of verbal abuse. She was ordered to close down her email account and Facebook page. She was forced to write down details of her previous sexual encounters. She was controlled, monitored, manipulated. Her freedom was curtailed. She lived in fear.
Every single day Refuge supports hundreds of women who have shared Anna Larke's horrors. And we know that what starts as verbal and emotional abuse usually escalates into worse. Research has consistently shown that excessive jealousy, extreme controlling behaviour, stalking and harassment are often predictors of serious injury or homicide. They are not about a man "losing his temper" or "flipping out". They are part of a pattern of abusive intent which can – and does – end in tragedy.
The severity of Collins's crime was not reflected in his sentence. Sadly, this is not unusual. It speaks volumes about the poor quality of training given to our judiciary system on the complex risks and dynamics of abuse.
We need to ensure that all those charged with a duty to protect vulnerable women and girls – whether they be police officers, judges, teachers or doctors – know how to spot the signs of abuse and respond appropriately to both victims and abusers.
Into the future, we need to see more men like Justin Lee Collins being held to account. Above all, we need to congratulate Anna Larke for taking her tormentor to court – it was a brave and positive step. I hope that her actions will encourage other brave women to come forward. Arresting and prosecuting perpetrators sends a strong public message that such abuse is unacceptable, criminal behaviour, and will not be tolerated.