Society

How Britney Spears's Conservatorship Highlights Women's Economic Abuse

Just like Britney, millions of women are victims of coercive control without access to their own finances. But what exactly is economic abuse and what can be done to prevent it?

By Rhea Cartwright

5 July 2021
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ritney Spears is once again in the middle of a media frenzy. The thirty-nine year old mother, who has been in the spotlight for over three decades, has spent the past thirteen years living under a conservatorship. The legal structure, often known as a guardianship, is when a person’s personal, economic, and legal decision-making power is ceded to others.

A conservatorship aims to protect the interests of the individual when they are deemed incapable of looking after themselves. In the case of Britney Spears, the world complicitly witnessed her hugely public unravelling in which she was abhorrently hounded by paparazzi while she navigated a divorce and lost custody of her sons.

As it would anyone, the series of events unsurprisingly affected her mental health which led her to become a conservatee in 2008 after being committed to a psychiatric ward. The sole, but hugely problematic, difference being that hers was a very public affair in which the world voyeuristically expected to see her every move through the insidious tabloid culture of the time.

“The controlling elements of conservatorship often masquerade under the guise of marriage, a relationship or post-separation agreements.”

It means that since 2008, Britney Spears has not had any control of her own finances. She is prohibited from spending any of her estimated $60 million wealth without first getting permission from her all-male conservators and every purchase she makes has to be logged. Despite the large figures relevant to her pop career, the notion of economic abuse is why so many women around the world identify themselves with Britney.

Conservatorship is a formalised term for control. Once again, she is the metaphor which highlights how patriarchal structures operate and what is happening to Britney is happening to millions of women globally. In many cases, the controlling elements of conservatorship often masquerade under the guise of marriage, a relationship or post-separation agreements.

Irrespective of the sums in question, with money often comes power or an abuse of power. According to Refuge, 8.7 million people report experiencing economic abuse – and 1.6 million saw this begin as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is defined as a form of abuse in which a person is deprived of food, housing, property, money, or any other financial resources to which a person is legally entitled.

At the crux of economic abuse is ownership and entitlement. It is a means of coercive control facilitated by gender inequality that positions men at a social and economic advantage which is supported further by traditional gender norms. It’s not to say that men can’t be victims, it is just far less common as women cannot typically achieve the same dominance.

Just like any other form of abuse, economic abuse often begins with daily microaggressions that aim to chip away at someone’s character. Broader than financial abuse which centres on the control of money and finances, economic abuse manifests in also depleting social resources, support networks and having restrictions on any future education or career opportunities.

Behaviours within economic abuse interfere with the ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources. Acquire could be interfering with/sabotaging partner’s education, training and employment; preventing partner from claiming welfare benefits. Use could be demanding receipts, checking bank statements; keeping financial information secret; making partner ask permission to use car/ phone/utilities; threatening to throw partner out of home. Whilst maintain could be refusing to contribute towards household bills and the cost of bringing up children; spending money set aside for bills; generating costs such as destroying property that need replacing; using coercion/fraud to build up debt in the victim's name.

Staggeringly, 95% of women struggle to leave abusive relationships because of the lack of economic independence. Onlookers and bypassers often ask “Why didn’t that woman just leave?” but the harsh reality is that society and its constructs collude to make it entirely impossible for most women to do that. The financial infrastructure built by the abuser often makes it unimaginable for women to leave their situations and are essentially trapped into staying in a marriage or relationship which becomes impossible to escape.

“I spoke to so many victims and survivors who couldn’t even open the fridge and help themselves to food. One survivor in particular was made to eat her food out of a dog bowl on the floor. We can’t speak about economic abuse without talking about the psychological impacts of women being made to feel worthless,” says Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs who is the founder and CEO of Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA).

“It’s easy for one person to take control in a society that is built on systems that prioritises men,” she adds. Banking institutions for example, have a long history of not recognising women as equal and were unable to buy on credit until the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 outlawed discrimination against women seeking to obtain goods, facilities or services, including loans.

“Behaviours within economic abuse interfere with the ability to acquire, use and maintain economic resources.”

Further disheartening is that once a woman leaves an abusive relationship, the economic abuse can still prevail. Lucy*, is a mother of two who separated from her partner when her children were toddlers.

“We once had a massive argument about money and he pressured me to quit my job and my studies because it was costing too much in childcare in the short term. Even though my earning potential at the time was higher than his and we could actually afford the childcare, he wasn't prepared to make any lifestyle sacrifices to make things more comfortable.”

Something as arbitrary as posting on social media has caused Lucy’s ex-partner to reduce his financial contributions for his children.

“It is crippling knowing that the money he gives me to look after our children can be weaponised. If I’m on ‘good behaviour’ he might increase it or offer to pay for something like their winter coats but I hate having to ultimately rely on him.”

“Economic abuse is fundamentally damaging to a woman’s life and her children’s life,” says Farah Nazeer, CEO of Women’s Aid who says that cultural awareness and change is critical to help women who are trapped. “Statutory services such as the police, courts, health providers, teachers and schools have to culturally embrace and understand this issue with training and education to take action,” explains Nazeer. Until recently, economic abuse wasn’t widely recognised as it came under the umbrella of “non-physical” abuse. Police officers ranked economic issues nearly the least important factor when assessing risk in domestic abuse cases despite them being identified in just over a third of intimate partner homicides analysed by the Home Office.

“Women’s economic development and wellbeing is the foundation of women’s empowerment.”

According to a recent YouGov study, around a third of all women with a partner are entirely (6%) or somewhat (29%) financially dependent on their partners and three in five say they wouldn’t cope well financially in a break-up. Lack of financial independence and literacy, as a result of economic abuse or otherwise, has severe consequences for women and their futures.

Thankfully, organisations such as SEA and Women’s Aid are hugely active in bringing more awareness to economic abuse and the revised Domestic Abuse Bill now recognises economic abuse as part of the statutory definition for the first time. Banking institutions are also making vast improvements to help victims and survivors. Natwest has partnered with domestic abuse charity, SafeLives whilst the Co-Operative bank is working with Refuge.

Women’s economic development and wellbeing is the foundation of women’s empowerment. While pre-existing societal structures already threaten to challenge that empowerment, economic abuse exacerbates it further and has debilitating long-term ramifications.

Britney Spears may not be the paradigm of the 'average woman' but we are distinctly able to identify elements of her heart-rending reality either in our own lives or in that of those among us. The all-American, girl-next-door is now a vehicle for women to examine and highlight their own experiences of control. With continued governmental, institutional and societal change, one can only hope that the future of economic abuse and its survivors is altogether more promising.

If you are affected by domestic abuse, you are not alone. You can access free and confidential support from Refuge’s 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247 and digital support via live chat, Monday to Friday, 3-10pm via nationaldahelpline.org.uk. To find out more about economic abuse, visit charity Surviving Economic Abuse for help and information.

Name has been changed to protect identity

The Short Stack

Economic abuse causes economic harm and more work needs to done to protect women from entering or staying in dangerous situations.

By Rhea Cartwright

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