Published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra

Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

The Trap: love, abuse and power

Aug 5, 2021 | Commentary, Policy, Equality, Podcast, Opinion, Research, Domestic abuse, Feature

Today the Victorian Women’s Trust launches its new podcast series, The Trap, written and hosted by leading Australian investigative journalist and award-winning author, Jess Hill, pictured, and produced by lauded documentary-maker Georgina Savage. BroadAgenda editor, Ginger Gorman, chatted with Jess about how the pod tackles love, abuse and power. 

Congratulations on your new podcast! Jess, you’ve done so much work around domestic abuse now. Why the need for “The Trap”? What will people hear that they haven’t heard before?

This series is taking listeners even deeper into the experience of coercive control, how and why it is perpetrated, and the way it’s too often perpetuated by our systems. We go directly to the motels women and kids go to hide, we record inside family violence call centres, we speak to a group of men who’ve been trying to change their behaviour, we hear from teenagers, and we interview a number of police whistleblowers. We’re grappling with so many controversial topics – what do you do with abusive men who refuse to change? What role do police and the courts have in responding to coercive control? Will an increase in gender equality see a reduction in domestic violence? I learnt so much putting this series together, and that’s after working on this issue for the best part of a decade!

Why did you choose audio to tell this story? 

There’s so much more you can do with audio – people feel more comfortable speaking off camera, and you can more easily protect their identity. But it’s also brings to life so much more than you can in print: you can hear the child’s voice, and the words they emphasise; you can hear as people’s voice begins to crack, and details that might look inconsequential on the page are suddenly loaded with the emotion of the moment. These voices are coming directly into your ears, without the visuals to distract from what they’re saying. It’s an act of communion.

You say this is a series about love. But it’s also about power. What do you mean?

We commonly hear that abuse is not love, but in our efforts to distinguish the two we forget the part that love plays in domestic abuse. How our ideas of romantic love blind us to the early signs of coercive control. How love can lead a victim survivor to rationalise the abuse, to hold tight to the potential their love once promised. How some abusive people can actually be so terrified of losing their partners that they keep them trapped through control, so they won’t leave. Love misused can be a particularly malignant type of power. But power, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It’s the particular type of power we’re talking about – the patriarchal value of ‘power-over’ – that we really need to understand and confront – in our relationships, our families, and within our systems.

You’re addressing questions we don’t ask about domestic abuse. What kind of questions?

Gosh, so many… First and foremost, we do answer the questions that still plague this issue, like ‘Why don’t they leave?’ But more urgently, we address the most important question: ‘Why doesn’t he let her leave?’ But there are also bigger questions to address, in terms of how we solve this problem. Perhaps the most controversial: ‘Will an increase in gender equality really lead to a decrease in domestic abuse?’

Often as an investigative journalist, delving into hard issues like this is scarring and confronting. How can you personally manage to go back to issues like this again and again? How does it affect you?

Honestly, sometimes I don’t manage that well. This work has definitely come at a significant personal cost. Even when I’m collaborating with other people, as I have on The Trap, I’m almost always working alone, and usually in my living room, so there’s kind of no break from it. But there are so many reasons to keep coming back to it. Firstly, it is fascinating, and teaches me something new every day. The people who survive this, and those who work in this area, are just incredible – and the camaraderie and support you get working on this topic is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Every time I get an email from someone saying that understanding coercive control gave them the language they needed to change their life – to help them leave, or ditch the self-blame… That’s like fuel. I’ve never worked on something that was simultaneously so challenging and so rewarding.

Was there a key moment in making this series for you? Or a key thing you learned? Please describe it.

There are so many, but probably the most intense moment was going out with the night crew with Brisbane Domestic Violence Service. Every night, they visit and take supplies to women and kids they’ve hidden in motels across the city. The night we went out together, we went to pick up a woman from a police station. Police had been called by her bank after she asked them to put a lock on the account because she thought her partner might be stealing from her. The bank suspected domestic violence, and called police. When the police showed up, they discovered that she had been trapped inside her partner’s apartment for two months: she had been treated like a slave, the hot water had been turned off and even the towels removed so she couldn’t shower. When we picked her up, she looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks, and she spoke so softly we could barely hear her. Over the next couple of hours, she started to joke with us, and her voice became gradually louder – she was claiming back her space in the world. It was phenomenal to be there for that – it was like watching someone come back to life. But it was also horrifying to see that this literal type of entrapment was happening in a regular apartment in an Australian city, especially knowing that stories like this are playing out across the country every single night.

There are so many systems in place that are meant to protect targets of domestic abuse (largely women and children). But too often they don’t. How do you address this in the pod?

It’s important to highlight how these systems both fail and succeed. If you highlight only where these systems fail you risk dissuading victim survivors from seeking help, and that’s the last thing we want to do. But we are asking fundamental questions about the structure of our systems, from police to family law: are they fit for purpose? What would it take to make these systems safe – can they be reformed? Feminists have a vexed history working with patriarchal state institutions like police and the courts. But for now, these are the systems we have, and I believe it’s our duty to victim survivors and their families to make them safer, while we dedicate ourselves to reimagining and reinventing them.

Is there anything else you want to say? 

I’ve dedicated the past few years to revealing the true nature of domestic abuse because it affects every single one of us. It is a corrosive element at the heart of our society, affecting millions of Australians, and hundreds of millions of adults and kids worldwide. For me, ending oppression and violence in the home, and making our systems safe for everyone, is one of the most vital feminist projects.

Pictured above: Australian investigative journalist and award-winning author, Jess Hill. Picture: Saskia Wilson

The first two episodes of The Trap available today (5 August, 2021) with new episodes becoming available weekly on all major podcast platforms. Listen and subscribe here or on your preferred podcast app. 

Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

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