While being very busy recently with my new job, I’ve been delighted that part 1 of my new series of blogs Explaining Coercive Control to People Who Don’t Quite Get It has already been read over 7,000 times. Part 1 of the series was called Busting the myth that incidents of physical violence are the most important aspect of domestic violence & abuse. You can read it here. I will be writing part 2 of the series soon.
You might be interested in listening to my recent appearance on the Crime Analyst podcast ‘Deconstructing Coercive Control and the Impact on Children with Dr Emma Katz’, available here.
However, today I want to write about a pressing topic in the UK media at the moment; the question of how, if at all, popular forms of entertainment feed into our high rates of domestic violence and abuse. I wanted to give this some consideration, having been invited onto BBC Radio 4’s AntiSocial programme to discuss the recent controversy around the song Delilah.
The episode of AntiSocial aired live on Friday 10th February 2023 from 12 noon UK time. You can listen to the episode here.
What is Delilah about?
According to media reports from a few days ago, the WRU (the national rugby association of Wales) has ordered guest choirs not to include the 1968 Sir Tom Jones hit Delilah in their pre-match performances. (Fans themselves have not been banned from singing the song.) This is a major story because, aside from Jones being a national icon in Wales, Delilah is a popular anthem for Wales rugby fans, and it is also sung by some other sports fans in the UK (particularly fans of Stoke City FC). It has also been used in Strictly Come Dancing.
The song’s lyrics consist of an unnamed male character’s narration of the day he murdered a woman called Delilah. The male character feels entitled and possessive towards Delilah, whom he has presumably been in a relationship with: ‘she was my woman’, ‘my, my, my Delilah’. The song takes the male killer’s point of view. It is a vehicle for him to provide a self-justifying narrative of why he carried out his abhorrent killing. What the song describes is not unusual behaviour, sadly; approximately 2 women every week are killed by their current or former partner in the UK. Around half women murdered by their partner or ex-partner are killed less than a month after they have separated.
The male character stands outside Delilah’s house. He already has a knife with him. Through the windows he thinks he sees her having a sexual relationship with another man. He waits until daybreak when the other man leaves and then he knocks at Delilah’s door. He perceives her to be laughing (a nervous laugh as she sees the expression on his face?). He stabs her with the knife and kills her.
As is typical of men who carry out femicide, the male character portrays the woman he kills in a negative light. He describes her as being ‘no good’ for him and as being responsible for him feeling ‘lost like a slave’. He claims she was ‘deceiving’ him. He rhetorically asks of her ‘why, why, why Delilah’, which is very much a version of the common perpetrator phrase ‘see what you made me do’, putting the blame on her for his brutal actions.
The song is ambiguous about the exact status of the relationship between Delilah and her killer at the time of the killing. However, we know from data and research into femicides that most men who kill their ‘partners’ do so around the time the woman is trying to end a ‘relationship’ with the killer, or soon after she has ended it. The male character in the song describes standing on the street outside Delilah’s house, suggesting she was living apart from him in her own house.
That Delilah could be his ex-‘partner’ would fit with what we know about femicides. Femicides often involve a boyfriend/husband entrapping a woman in a ‘relationship’ that is dominated by coercive control; and, when the woman tries to break free, the boyfriend/husband escalating his abusive behaviours. Stalking is often involved in this escalation. (The male character standing outside Delilah’s house watching her for hours certainly qualifies as stalking.)
The boyfriend/husband then plans the femicide. (Contrary to popular thinking, most femicides are pre-planned and premeditated, not spontaneous). Finally, he carries out the femicide, framing his actions as being those of a ‘good man pushed too far by a wicked woman’. In Delilah, the male character already has a knife with him when he knocks at the door – presumably he’s had it all night – but his self-justifying narrative carefully crafts the scene to make it seem as though Delilah caused and deserved her own murder by laughing when she opened her front door to him. He claims that he ‘just couldn’t take anymore’ and that he had ‘lost his mind’.
This narrative serves to disguise the fact that the male killer is so extremely over-entitled and controlling that he thinks he has a right to kill a (female) person. Such femicides are not about men ‘losing control’; or about them being ‘provoked’ by evil women, or ‘seeing red mist’. Rather, they are the ultimate act of control: Such abusers kill to make sure the victim never gets to live a life away from their control.
The media often reinforces the claims, excuses and self-justifying narratives of abusive men who have killed their partners and/or children. To try to combat this, helpful guidance has been produced about how fatal domestic violence and abuse can be more responsibly reported by the media. Unfortunately, this guidance is often not followed.
The Delilah controversy
On 1st February 2023, the media reported that the WRU was requesting that guest choirs preforming at its stadium should not include Delilah on their play lists.
Chief Constable Dr Richard Lewis tweeted his approval of this decision. His tweet has been viewed 3.5 million times at the time of writing, with several thousand people leaving comments.
The song depicts the murder of a woman by a jealous partner
For context, approx 2 women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner
It’s time to sing something else
When I glanced at the comments under the tweet, my impression was that they were mostly disagreeing with the decision, characterising it as the song being ‘banned’ and framing it as an issue of ‘censorship’, ‘cancel culture gone mad’, etc.
Several people told the Chief Constable to ‘focus on catching burglars’ instead of engaging in a conversation about the cultural drivers of men’s violence against women. These comments draw on the narrative that men’s domestic violence against women is not really a policing matter; that, instead, it is ‘private’ or ‘family’ matter. Sometimes, the police themselves believe this, seeing dealing with MVAW as very low status work compared to, say, catching armed robbers.
Many people suggested that a song is just a song, and songs can do nothing at all to influence the perpetration of crimes like domestic abuse and murder.
Is this true?
The role of culture in domestic violence and abuse
People have long debated how the media and popular culture influences the actions of individuals and communities. It is clear that the effect is not straight forward. Culture is not directly transmitted into people’s minds in a passive way. People do not automatically act out the cultural content that they engage with (e.g. watching a violent movie doesn’t make every viewer carry out an act of violence).
However, our cultures, including the forms of media and entertainment we engage with, are the seas in which we all swim; they are part of the landscapes of our lives. Domestic violence and abuse does not take place in a vacuum, completely cut off from the societies and cultures in which people live.
Pieces of media tend to become popular insofar as they reflect behaviours and attitudes which large numbers of people can relate to, or which make sense to them. Would the Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey series have been such mainstream hits if the gender roles were reversed and it was the female characters who were as dangerous, demanding and assertive as the male leads are in these stories?
Would Delilah be as popular a song with such long-lasting mass appeal if it depicted a woman stalking and killing a man in the same circumstances and with the same set of self-justifications that are assigned to the male character in this song? I very much doubt it.
Authority, decision making, leadership, use of violence, possessiveness and ownership are all culturally permissible for males in ways that they are not for females – and the endorsement of Delilah is an example of something that reinforces these double standards.
More generally, as societies, our songs are far more awash with narratives that promote unhealthy and dangerous notions about love than we might realise. Just take a look at this Twitter thread of examples. Is it any wonder that people often struggle to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships?
Lundy Bancroft provides an excellent discussion of how our cultures often encourage controlling male abusers. See his book Why Does He Do That?
So, do songs, movies, etc., directly cause the millions of cases of domestic violence and abuse that occur each year? Do they directly cause the 100 and more femicides that men in the UK carry out each year? Directly: no. But indirectly, yes, I’d say they are a contributing factor, for sure.
The continual hum of songs such as Delilah playing in the backgrounds of our lives may help certain ways of thinking to come together and solidify in some people’s minds. They may give little boosts of confidence and validation to men who have already formed dangerously high levels of entitlement and possessiveness, encouraging them to further pursue the horrific paths down which they are travelling. They may encourage women to engage in the victim-blaming of other women who’ve been abused.
Furthermore, let us remind ourselves that all that has happened in the last few days is that Delilah has been dropped from the official playlist of a large sporting event. No one has imposed any bans on anyone listening to or singing the song: Fans may carry on singing it if they wish to. All that has happened is that the song has been delisted in favour of other songs sung by guest choirs that may now have greater airtime in its place. This gives people the opportunity to enjoy and form emotional attachments to new songs.
Overall, my view is that it is healthy for societies and for individuals to reflect every once in a while about the kinds of entertainments with which they engage, and whether those are contributing to our societies being humane places, or not.
In particular, is popular entertainment helping to facilitate a situation where a woman can exit an intimate relationship with a man without fear of being harmed by him? Or, alternatively, is it contributing to the status quo?
The fact is that breaking up with a man is often a very dangerous time in a woman’s life.
Do we want this to still be the case in another 5, 10 or 50 years, or do we want it to change? Do we want it to become far, far rarer for women to be in danger when trying to end a relationship with a man? I think that change will require (among other things) a shift, over time, in what is culturally popular in societies.
Goodbye for now
I discussed these issues and more live on BBC Radio 4’s AntiSocial programme. The episode of AntiSocial featuring me aired on Friday 10th February 2023 from 12 noon UK time. You can listen to the episode here.
I hope to write the next part of my series Explaining Coercive Control to People Who Don’t Quite Get It very soon. Subscribe to ensure you receive this to your inbox.