“He could make you feel as though you were the only woman who had ever existed, he was so charming. He would take me for long walks and hold my hand. He was so attentive, as if his whole world was wrapped up in you.”
Hazel, a 24-year-old hairdresser, is just one of the formerly abused women who feature in Sandra Horley’s latest book ‘Power and Control: Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers’.
The chief executive of Refuge has drawn on her 39 years of experience working in women’s services to gather stories that challenge our preconceptions of abusive men.
While Hazel’s partner Jimmy won her affections through charm, their relationship soon turned both physically and emotionally abusive, with Jimmy dictating when Hazel was “allowed” to leave the house and “knocking her around” while she tried to care for their young baby.
His outward charming persona masked the extent of his abuse to Hazel’s friends and family, making it harder for her to leave.
When Hazel tried to tell her mother about Jimmy’s behaviour, she was told “to be forgiving and try harder to make it work”.
Family didn’t seem to comprehend her reality. After all, how could someone so “romantic” possibly be an abusive man?
Horley published the first edition of ‘Power and Control’ in 1991 and while the latest version includes new accounts and statistics, it’s also a stark reminder there’s been little progress in ending domestic abuse in the past 25 years.
It’s currently thought that one in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, while two women are killed every week by a current or former partner.
Horley coined the term ‘Charm Syndrome Man’ to describe abusive men who display “charming” patterns of behaviour after hearing stories like Hazel’s time and time again.
“The details and extent of the abuse were different, yet when I asked women ‘what was he like when you first met?’ the answer was the same: ‘He was a charmer’,” she told HuffPost UK.
“Whether their partners were builders or barristers, in more or less the same breath as they described their humiliation and pain, they talked of the loving, caring, charming side of the men who abused them.
“‘He could charm the birds out of the trees’ was a phrase I heard over and over again. Charm was, and still is, a common technique of control used by men who abuse women, not just in the eyes of their partners but in the eyes of many people they meet.”
According to Horley, men often use charm to manipulate the women they abuse, systematically showing glimpses of the “charming side” the woman first fell in love with, alternated with abuse. This alluring side of his persona will often make women feel “isolated and confused”, particularly if a woman’s friends and family have been seduced by the same charm.
“We all care what people think about us, especially friends and loved ones, and if Charm Syndrome Man has them all convinced he’s a model partner they often ask ‘are you sure you’re trying hard enough?’, or ‘are you sure you’re not over-reacting?’” she explained.
“Many women end up playing along with the fiction rather than risk their friends taking his side and thinking less of them. If at the same time the abusive man is telling his partner that ‘it is you who makes me do this’, she may start to believe that she is actually to blame for the abuse. Of course, this is utterly incorrect – the man alone is responsible for his behaviour – but if nobody believes her, a woman can fall ever more deeply under her partner’s domination.
“I have heard countless women tell me that eventually, after years of abuse and years of gaslighting, they became a different person entirely, from outgoing and sociable to withdrawn and alone.”
Charm is a constant theme throughout Horley’s book, but abuse takes different forms for each of the women featured.
While some are subjected to financial abuse – where their partner bans them from having a bank account, making it difficult for them to leave without becoming homeless – others experience ongoing emotional abuse that destroys their confidence.
Other women share stories of extreme physical and sexual abuse. One particularly shocking passage tells the story of a woman whose husband raped her soon after she gave birth to their first child. His force ripped her stitches apart, but she was too embarrassed to go back to the hospital for help.
Despite decades of supporting abused women, Horley does not feel desensitised to hearing these stories.
“I never cease to be shocked at the myriad of ways men abuse and control their partners. I spend a lot of time listening to women who feel let down by the police, or social services, or the courts,” she said.
“Ultimately, the only reason I am still doing this job is because of the women. It is their stories of courage, bravery and survival that keep me going.”
It is not just in private circles that charm can overshadow abuse, but also in the public eye.
Johnny Depp’s appearance at Glastonbury this year was shrouded by controversy and not just because he flippantly suggested assassinating President Donald Trump.
Depp’s cameo on stage followed his very public divorce from Amber Heard, in which she successfully petitioned for a restraining order against her husband, accusing him of domestic abuse.
Many critics, including HuffPost UK blogger Selene Nelson, suggested Depp was only able to secure the gig because of public “unwillingness to believe” he could be an abuser.
“The consensus when Heard’s allegations surfaced was that Depp, with his sad eyes and quirky character, couldn’t possibly be abusive,” Nelson said.
Johnny Depp at Glastonbury.
Commenting on the Depp debate, Horley said people often think that domestic violence “only happens in poor families on council estates, but the truth is that domestic violence affects women of all ages, classes, and backgrounds”.
“Abusive men are just as likely to be lawyers, accountants and judges – even celebrities – as they are cleaners or unemployed,” she said.
“Domestic violence is everybody’s business and we all have a part to place in ending it. That starts by insisting that domestic violence is not acceptable and that there will be serious consequences for anyone who commits this appalling crime.
“If we do not all take that stand, men will continue to get away with it. A man’s fame, or reputation, or career, should not come into it. No man has the right to hit a woman. As a society, we have a right and a duty to challenge it.”
According to Horley, abusive men have been presenting themselves as the caring, life and soul of the party since time began, but the weapons they use to control women have become more sophisticated.
The book details how abusive men now use technology to monitor women – something that Horley would not have even comprehended when writing the book’s first edition in the ’90s.
“In a world where you can install GPS into cars and smartphones and control a bank account from a laptop at home, it is easier than ever for abusive men to exercise control over women invisibly and from any distance,” she explained.
“Technology moves fast and keeping track of the evolving nature of tech-enabled abuse is one of the major challenges facing domestic abuse experts today.”
Technological abuse can be hard to detect for abused women themselves, but Horley says there are a few signs to look out for.
“Does he always seem to know where you are, or who you’ve been meeting or talking to? Does he have access to private information you haven’t shared with him?” she said.
“Perhaps he sends you photos of places you have visited, or happens to be waiting for you at a venue you planned to be at, as if he read your schedule or diary. All of these are very clear warning signs.”
Technology may have provided abusive men with another tool to control women, but it’s also helped to raise public awareness about domestic abuse.
We can now share stories about domestic violence more easily than ever before thanks to social media and the inclusion of the topic in TV and Radio, (plus subsequent media coverage), has raised its profile further.
Yet despite storylines such as Rob Titchener’s abusive behaviour in ‘The Archers’ sparking public praise, Horley remains frustrated that women are still being abused by men.
“I am still having some of the same conversations that I started to have nearly four decades ago: about the police not doing enough to protect women; about there not being enough funding for specialist services; and seeing the myths that cloud the issue of domestic violence so readily repeated,” she said.
“Of course, there have been lots of positive developments too. Unlike when Refuge set up the world’s first women’s refuge in 1971 – when rape in marriage was still legal – this country now has a national network of support services, legislation to hold perpetrators to account, and efforts have been made to improve police response. But it is not enough.
“Refuge still hears stories of women who have been dismissed or disbelieved by police officers. The conviction rate, if you look at the number of cases reported to the police, is below 10% – and fewer than a quarter of women ever report their abuse to the police in the first place.”
It’s important to note that it’s not just women who are victims of domestic abuse, with some reports suggesting one in every three victims are male. But Horley sees domestic violence against men and what she terms as “woman abuse” as two separate issues.
The reasons why a woman abuses a man are different from why men abuse women, so Horley believes both issues must be isolated and tackled separately. Refuge does support a small number of men who have experienced domestic and sexual violence through outreach programmes, but its main focus has always been helping women.
Horley believes the figures of domestic abuse against women remain so high because we have yet to address the root cause of woman abuse: gender inequality.
“Men continue to abuse women because society lets them get away with it,” she said.
“They are simply replicating in their relationships what they see in society: women denied economic parity, women treated like sex objects, women told where they can and cannot go and how they should or should not dress.
“While the current levels of gender inequality in this country remain, we will continue to see domestic violence. For as long as there is an imbalance of power between the sexes, it is inevitable that it will be abused by some men.”
With that in mind, it seems education and prevention is key to decreasing figures.
“Children of all ages must be taught about gender equality and learn that healthy relationships are based on equality and respect,” Horley agreed.
“They must understand what domestic violence means and learn that domestic violence is a crime.”
Inevitably, charm will often run out for abusive men who use it as a weapon. Hazel and the other women featured in the book managed to escape their partner’s abuse thanks to the support of Refuge. In recent years such services have been dramatically hit by government cuts, but it’s clear their existence is worth protecting.
“Women tell us that Refuge is often the first organisation which will believe, or even listen to, their story,” Horley said.
“The 300-strong Refuge frontline team ensures women are safe whilst empowering them to make their own decisions, often for the first time in years, about their future life.
“Every day I hear of women whose lives have been transformed by the support Refuge provides. It really is no exaggeration to say our services save and transform lives.”
‘Power and Control’ by Sandra Horley is out now (Vermilion, £12.99).
- Refuge– Domestic violence help for women and children – 0808 2000 247
- Visit Women’s Aid– support for abused women and children – or call the National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247
- Men’s Advice Linefor advice and support for men experiencing domestic violence and abuse – 0808 801 0327