By her own admission, comedian Becky Lucas gets anxious when she goes more than a few minutes without cracking a joke.
So talking about abusive relationships is still a tricky proposition, even though she’s been doing it for years.
“People have a bit of a preconception about who ends up in relationships like that,” she told AAP.
“You feel embarrassed that you’re someone that’s in an abusive relationship, as bad as that sounds.”
Breaking down the stigma that victims of domestic violence feel was one of the driving forces behind the stand-up’s uncharacteristically sober 2016 documentary Big Bad Love.
When she found out one of her closest friends had suffered years of violence and abuse at the hands of her partner, Ms Lucas wanted to examine how abusive relationships begin, how to spot them and why it’s often so hard to break out.
“I knew about them and I had maybe even judged other people for being in them but it really can happen to anyone,” she said.
“That was always the message we were trying to get across.”
About 50 women have been killed in Australia this year, five of them in the past two weeks, including 21-year-old high school water polo coach Lilie James, who died of horrific head injuries in a bathroom at a Sydney private school in October.
Advocates and politicians have called for urgent change amid an “epidemic” of violence against women.
The federal government on Friday announced extra funding to support services for young men to tackle the root causes of domestic violence.
Early intervention education aimed at potential perpetrators is essential, but Ms Lucas believes handing young women the keys to get themselves out of abusive situations is hugely important.
That’s something the Port Adelaide Football Club, where the Brisbane native shared her experience with a group of high school students on Thursday, is putting into practice.
The club’s ‘Empowered’ community program aims to give young women the opportunity to explore what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like.
“If they are in an unhealthy relationship, they then have the tools or awareness to be able to come out safely, which isn’t easy, and also have support services in place,” Port Adelaide community engagement general manager Jake Battifuoco said.
A big part of the program’s focus is unpacking gender stereotypes that reinforce a power imbalance in relationships – something helped by the growth in interest in AFLW and women’s sport more broadly.
Students are also taught about the signs of coercive control and how to stay safe online.
For Ms Lucas, who has been in a coercive relationship herself, the documentary was a wake-up call about just how ubiquitous they are.
“A few months later, (the producer) contacted me and said ‘this is really hard for me to admit, but I think I actually had a boyfriend who was doing all of that stuff as we were making the documentary’,” she said.
“Even as someone who was so aware of it and learning about it and talking about it, you still want to ignore those things in someone because you just want to be loved.”
Ms Lucas believes the more young women know the signs, the more likely they are to notice them in their own relationships and feel confident speaking out.
One hallmark of abusive behaviour is a partner accusing a victim of wrongdoing early in a relationship.
“They kind of create this feeling in the relationship that you did the wrong thing and now their behaviour is justified – their control – because you did the wrong thing,” she said.
As well as identifying the signs in their own relationships, the program helps girls spot when friends are caught in a coercive situation.
Having a support group to turn to that can identify the patterns of abuse is vital, Ms Lucas says.
Awareness is growing, but she believes people still struggle to grasp how hard it is for a victim to extricate themselves from an abusive relationship.
“The big thing is people going ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ and I think we’re all guilty of thinking that,” she said.
“But I think it’s good that it’s starting earlier and earlier because I wish I was taught a bit more about this when I was young. It would’ve helped.”
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