Thoughts on Charles Saatchi’s ‘Playful Tiff’

Many are already aware of the whirlwind of speculations and discussion surrounding Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson over the past few weeks. The glamorous couple – Saatchi is an advertising magnate and art collector and Lawson is an internationally famous TV chef and author – were dining at their favorite London restaurant when they entered into a heated argument. Over the course of the half-hour conflict, Saatchi grasped Lawson around the neck four times, sometimes with both hands, tweaking her nose and pushing his hands into her face. He then stormed off, leaving Lawson visibly shaken and in tears – but not before passersby and other diners at the restaurant snapped crystal-clear photographs of the incident.

The attack was public and Saatchi was clearly identifiable, and after about a week of public speculation about his behavior he accepted a ‘caution’ from the London Metropolitan Police. Cautions are given to people who admit to minor crimes in lieu of an arrest; in order to receive the caution, Saatchi would have had to legally admit the offense, and the caution could count against his character in future trials. Oddly enough, after accepting this official caution, Saatchi continued to deny the attacks in the press. He referred to his grip on Lawson’s throat as part of a ‘playful tiff,’ shrugging off the fact that she looked upset as the result of her hatred of arguing. And, in a tabloid interview a few weeks later, Saatchi purportedly broke the news to Saatchi that he would be divorcing her for her failure to publicly defend his reputation.

Now, it’s true that many questions about the situation may go unanswered for a while. We don’t know whether Saatchi had a prior history of physically abusing Lawson or his past wife. We don’t know what Lawson is currently thinking or plans to do in the future, and it would certainly be inappropriate to make assumptions about the course of action she intends to take. But what is eminently certain is that Saatchi and Lawson were arguing in a restaurant, and Saatchi apparently felt that it was acceptable – both as a matter of private morals and public conduct – to grip his wife’s throat multiple times to make a point. And this fact, and its subsequent publication in major media venues across the world, helped focus and direct public attention to the problem of domestic violence once more. Unpacking the response to this public demonstration of violence can go in many directions at once, and author Leslie Morgan Steiner already has a great piece at ModernMom analyzing the conflict from her perspective as a DV survivor. I’d like to add a few of my thoughts.


1. Right off the bat, everyone needs to understand that strangling is serious. Saatchi can dismiss his actions as ‘playful’ however much he wants, but anyone looking at the photographs can see that the fight was anything but lighthearted. In her piece, Steiner points out that strangulation is a particularly ‘animalistic’ act – and a particularly lethal one, given that it only takes a few seconds to kill someone by strangling them. In fact, as Steiner also notes, researchers at Johns Hopkins University who have assessed the biggest risk factors for intimate partner homicide place a history of strangulation on par with gun ownership in terms of the red flags it presents. What’s more, in this particular situation Saatchi not only ‘choked’ Lawson, but did so in a public place, in view of any number of restaurant patrons and passersby. Physical force intended to frighten someone or make a point is never OK – and that’s something Saatchi doesn’t seem to understand – but on top of that, the specific nature of strangling and the public nature of his attack mark the assault as much more than a ‘tiff’ that he can just shrug off. Maybe Saatchi never laid a hand on Lawson previously, and this physical violence just happened to emerge in public first. Or maybe there is a history of abuse that no one wants to reveal. Either way, no one should take Saatchi’s declarations that the assault wasn’t a big deal and that he abhors violence against women as a sign that we should ignore this particular action of abuse.


2.   Nigella Lawson is not an anomaly. It is all-too-easy for people to shrug off domestic violence as a problem that only affects invisible people, the poor and uneducated who ‘don’t know better’ or can’t leave. Just a glance at the comments sections on articles about the incident reveal such gems as “Her husband should realize that he is a lucky person on this planet to have such a beautiful and talented wife” and “What IS she doing with this ugly old man??? She is still relativelly young, beautyful, smart and able to provide for her self” (sic) – as if only ugly, stupid, poor women face domestic violence.

Carol Sarler, a writer for the UK’s Daily Mail wrote a presumably well-meaning piece in which she made the following case: there is no reason to believe that Nigella Lawson is a battered wife since she is “perfectly affable, quietly ambitious and wholly able to stand on her own two feet”; Lawson is wealthy enough to leave if she wanted to; “the idea that Saatchi has somehow managed to strip her of self-esteem and independent thought is frankly laughable”; and consequently, it is anti-feminist and degrading to label Lawson a victim. It’s true that there is plenty of academic criticism out there about the use of the term ‘victim’ as opposed to other more empowering language like ‘survivor.’ And it might have been fine if Sarler had limited herself to making that point, rather than passing the sweeping judgment that only some women are cut out to be victims of domestic violence while others are strong enough to leave. To draw the conclusion that because Lawson is wealthy, educated, successful, and projects an outward appearance of absolute confidence, she can’t possibly be at risk from her partner does exactly the thing that Sarler claims society should be trying to avoid: it does a “grave disservice not just to this couple but also to the real victims of real horrors that happen daily behind closed doors.”

The truth is that domestic violence has a sweeping and indiscriminate reach, as this CNN opinion piece points out. It cuts across society on any number of axes, from race to educational attainment levels to physical attractiveness to, yes, wealth. And while it may be true that women from better socioeconomic backgrounds have certain tools in their arsenal against violence that others may not – education on intimate partner violence in school, a family support system to fall back on, the financial resources to leave – it is also true that many of the factors preventing a poor woman from leaving an abusive partner also prevent an incredibly wealthy woman from doing the same.

Let’s put aside the fact that it is incredibly hard to leave an abuser, someone who you love and who claims to love you, and start an entirely different life without the same interpersonal ties you have been accustomed to. Practically speaking, it is still difficult for a wealthy woman to separate from an abusive partner. Abusers frequently use economic coercion as a way to gain power in a relationship, forcing a victim to account for all of her expenses and placing limits on how much money she has available, and so it is entirely possible that a woman who appears very wealthy simply does not have the disposable income to start a new life elsewhere. And a rich abuser who can afford the best lawyers in the country has even more of an edge when it comes to leaving — he has the power to take the children, the pets, or the property, or at the very least to draw out divorce proceedings in a protracted and reputation-tarnishing legal battle.

None of this is meant to imply that Saatchi necessarily used these tactics to prevent Lawson from leaving, but at the very least, all of the commentators expressing their disbelief that a wealthy and successful woman could possibly stay with an abuser need a reality check as to the real nature of domestic violence. It’s not something that only lurks on the wrong side of the tracks, but is rather something that can pervade every walk of life in a unique and devastating way.


3. Domestic violence still isn’t taken seriously enough. It’s no secret that lots of domestic violence cases never end in a trial, simply because prosecutors don’t think they have enough evidence or are suspicious that victims will become uncooperative witnesses. The charitable interpretation of the low prosecution rate for domestic assault is that because these actions often take place behind closed doors, there just isn’t enough evidence to go ahead with legal action in a system which is already pressed for time and resources. But in this case, there was clear evidence — photographs explicitly documenting the abuse at the time that it happened – and Saatchi still got away with a police caution and nothing more. Yes, no one knows for sure what the argument was about, and no one knows for sure whether Saatchi has harmed Lawson in the past, and no one knows for sure whether his claims that strangulation is simply a common playful gesture in their relationship are true. But isn’t the point of a trial to iron out those sorts of facts, with the jury serving as fact-finder? When the police decide that the situation is too murky or personal to pursue further even in the face of clear photographic evidence that an attack happened, they send the signal that all of the private cases behind closed doors are even more permissible under the eyes of the law.

Or, imagine this. If Saatchi had been dining with a male friend and business companion and had put his hands on his friend’s neck even for a bit, causing the same kind of reaction in him that he caused in Lawson, he would be more than the subject of tabloid speculation and titillated discussion. Even if he tried to pass off the strangulation as a ‘playful gesture’ he and his business partner frequently engage in, it is still likely that he would have had to deal with more legal trouble than a police caution. And if he had done the same to a complete stranger he had been conversing with – well then, that would just have been a case of clear assault, no questions asked. Why is it that Saatchi was allowed to hurt his wife and receive little more than a slap on the wrist for his actions, but would almost certainly have at least been brought before a court for doing the same to a stranger off the street?


It’s true, as Leslie Morgan Steiner points out in the blog post I referenced earlier, that the public outrage over Saatchi’s actions demonstrate that society has come a long way from assuming that domestic violence is a private matter or that the victim somehow ‘deserved’ the abuse she received. But it is equally true that we have a long way to go. One can only hope that it doesn’t take a long string of high-profile celebrity domestic violence incidents in the future to create this much-needed change.