Police described it as one of the worst examples of domestic abuse they'd ever seen, and last April it led to the UK's first ever conviction for coercive control involving a female offender. Now, the story of Alex Skeel, 23, who survived an abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Jordan Worth, has been turned into a documentary.
Abused By My Girlfriend, which is available on iPlayer now, examines domestic abuse from the under-explored vantage point of male survivors. Skeel, a football coach from Bedford, was starved, burned with boiling water and knifed by Worth, in what he described as "a nine-month campaign of physical abuse". She would put makeup on him to cover the marks and sought to control all aspects of his life. At one point, doctors told him he was 10 days away from death.
The couple were teenagers when they started dating, and had been together for three years when Worth first scalded Skeel with water, but insidious forms of abuse had already begun to emerge: "Her telling me not to wear the colour grey or that she didn’t like my hairstyle," Skeel wrote for BBC Three this week. It's a pattern of coercive control that we're more used to hearing recalled from a female perspective.
"When she was telling me, 'I don’t like the colour grey,' or 'I don’t like those shoes,' I’d think, 'Okay, I won’t wear them,' because I wanted to impress her," Skeel said. "But, in reality, she was moulding me into who she wanted me to be. It undermines your confidence. And you’re fighting a battle that you’ll never win."
The abuse ended last year when a police officer visited the pair at home, where they lived with their two children, to follow up on a previous visit and question Skeel. "All the horrible truth came out. My injuries were so severe by that point, and I was so gaunt after all the weight loss. I’d denied everything up until [then]. But I couldn’t go on any longer," he told BBC Three, adding that he'd "be in the ground" if it wasn't for the police's intervention. "I could feel my body shutting down. I’d lost five stone in weight. Afterwards, doctors told me that I’d been 10 days from death because I’d been denied food for so long and my injuries were so bad."
Worth, who Skeel believes was motivated by "pure jealousy", pleaded guilty in court and was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in April 2018, becoming the first woman in the UK to be convicted of coercive and controlling behaviour.
By its very nature, domestic abuse is shrouded in secrecy and victims are often deterred from speaking out because of the stigma and ignorance that surrounds it; on top of this, cultural assumptions about violence and masculinity in relationships mean that, just like women, male victims rarely come forward. (A man who was killed by his violent wife in 2015 apparently hid the abuse because he was "embarrassed", his former partner told the BBC last year.)
Yet over a third of domestic abuse victims between 16-59 were estimated to be men in the year ending March 2018, according to the latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales. And the gulf between this statistic and the number of men who report the crime is vast: one in six men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetimes, but just one in 20 will ever seek any help, according to data from the ManKind Initiative.
By sharing his story, Skeel hopes to raise awareness of domestic violence and break down the barriers that prevent male victims from raising the alarm. "There’s a lot of stigma that prevents men from speaking out and often police don’t take violence against men seriously. Men are often left out of domestic abuse campaigns. It’s wrong. What has gender got to do with it?"
Viewers who watched the documentary on BBC One on Tuesday night praised Skeel's bravery in sharing his story publicly.
I’ve just watched the documentary “Abused By My Girlfriend” and the amount of negativity over twitter like “Grow a Pair Your a Man” You people wanna feel ashamed of yourself. It’s people like you why men feel embarrassed/weak to open up. No man should be made to feel like that!— Amy Riley (@ar_jpg) February 19, 2019
Watching ‘abused by my girlfriend’ and honestly, he’s so brave for doing this documentary. Showing that it’s not just women who suffer from domestic violence and hopefully more men will start to speak out if they’re being abused— Rheanna (@rheannahazel2) February 19, 2019
a few minutes into abused by my girlfriend on @BBCOne and I'm already gobsmacked .. no one should have to suffer at the hands of another let alone someone who is suppose to love you, brave lad facing this head on & showing other men out there that they have a voice— carmelina pedalino (@angel_darkest) February 19, 2019
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.