Domestic Violence: Telling it like it is

Domestic Violence: Telling it like it is

Words by Michael Roddan for The Citizen.

[Trigger Warning: Domestic violence]

Every week in Australia, a woman is killed by her partner or a previous partner. In fact, intimate partner violence is the top ranking cause of preventable and premature death among women aged 15 to 44. Violence is more likely to kill a woman than smoking and obesity combined, or illicit drugs and alcohol abuse.

Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of this violence. Although both men and women face the risk of violence in their lives, women mostly face the threat of violence in the home from men that they know, while men face the threat of violence in public from men they do not know.

To elaborate, the most common place for women to suffer violence is in their own homes or those of their partners. Government statistics show that when a woman is physically assaulted, she knows the perpetrator in more than seven out of 10 cases.

1. Why do we call it domestic violence when, in fact, it’s men’s violence against women?

“The names chosen to describe and explain forms of interpersonal violence will never perfectly contain the phenomenon,” concedes Michael Flood, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong.

Such violence in society has long been given labels such as ‘domestic violence’, ‘family violence’, ‘men’s violence against women’ and ‘intimate violence’, along with newly-emerging terms including ‘relationship violence’ and ‘partner violence’.

Other experts push the definition further. According to Pennsylvania State University Sociology Professor Michael P Johnson, “intimate terrorism” is how we should imagine domestic violence.“Any term both includes and excludes,” says Dr Flood. “I prefer the term Men’s Violence Against Women. It identifies most victims of family violence as women and it identifies overwhelmingly the perpetrators of that violence.”

Embracing Johnson’s language allows domestic violence to be portrayed as it truly is, says Dr Flood. “Violence is both an expression of a man’s power over a woman and the means through which that power is maintained.”

In cases of domestic violence, physical aggression is often the start of a wide range of violent behaviour. Typically, says Dr Flood, a man starts by threatening his partner with the use of violence against her, or against their children. He sexually assaults her and intimidates her, sometimes by destroying property or showing weapons.

But his violence is psychological, too. He isolates her, monitors her behaviour and increases her emotional dependence on him. He undermines her self-esteem, with insults and emotional manipulation until she feels she has no options outside the relationship. The more alone she feels, the more likely that the abuse remains concealed. Over time, the perpetrator denies his violence and blames the victim for the abuse. This is the picture of “intimate terrorism”.

2. When did domestic violence first surface as a public issue?

The single most important factor in taking up action against domestic violence has been the expanding influence of women in society, propelled by the post-war feminist movements.

Only in the early 1980s did governments actually begin seeking policy solutions to domestic violence, in a response to the feminist movement’s activism and raising awareness of the issue, notes RMIT justice and legal studies lecturer Anastasia Powell.

With the silence surrounding domestic violence finally ruptured, state, territorial and federal governments all developed explicit policies addressing domestic violence, either aimed at reducing violence against women or involving more focussed action plans.

“Feminist activism has made a profound difference,” adds Dr Flood. He points to successes such as the creation of women’s refuges as a safety net for victims, as well as the push to outlaw rape in marriage and other forms of violence that previously were not deemed criminal acts.

Up until this point, violence between intimate partners was simply labelled a “domestic” and was considered a private, individualised matter that was often blamed on the victim.

Dr Flood considers that a measure of the movement’s success was its ability to shift public attitudes.

“Now we see it as a crime,” he reflects. “The problem remains, but we’ve made real gains in terms of services, criminal justice and the community’s attitudes.

“We’re talking about a social problem rooted in gender norms and gender relations, and it’s hard to shift gender attitudes but there has been progress.”

3. What can the statistics tell us?

No woman is immune from encountering violence: domestic violence crosses all classes and communities.

However, it doesn’t touch them evenly and some women are more at risk than others. What is important to remember, says Renee Imbesi, the manager of VicHealth’s Preventing Violence Against Women Program, is that men’s violence is dictated by a strong belief in gender roles (cultural norms about what is a masculine role in society) and weak support for gender equality.

Across cultures, wife abuse is more likely in couples with a husband who dominates the decisions and economics of the family, says Dr Flood. “Men raised in patriarchal families with traditional gender roles are more likely to become violent adults, to rape female acquaintances and to batter their intimate partners than men raised in more egalitarian homes.”

Dr Flood’s research has found higher rates of intimate partner violence, including homicide, in rural areas and even higher in remote areas, compared to cities.

He also found that children who were raised by violent parents were more likely to inherit their violence. Called ‘intergenerational transmission’, children who witnessed violence, or were victims of violence themselves, were more likely as adults to have violent attitudes and to perpetrate violence.

Economic and social disadvantage plays a part, as men in blue-collar occupations and with lower levels of education have statistically poorer attitudes towards violence than other men. Rates for reported domestic violence are higher in these areas.

Issues of poverty may initiate marital tensions or make it harder for women to leave violent or bad relationships, argues Dr Lori Heise, lecturer in social epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

However, her more recent research has found the connection between violence and household poverty is unclear, with some studies finding no effect.

The body of statistics underscores one inescapable fact: some men are more likely to use violence than other men. Dr Flood says men who do not adhere to patriarchal and hostile gender norms are less likely to assault an intimate partner, either physically or sexually.

“The most significant predictors of men’s perpetration of intimate partner violence are their own patriarchal and hostile gendered attitudes.”

4. What is the cost of violence against women?

Violence against women and their children in Australia, discounting unreported violence, is estimated to cost $US14.7 billion a year, according to a study by consultants KPMG. This puts the financial cost at 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product, or GDP, equating to around $US6500 per capita.

This figure is comprised of both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are found in services provided to prevent, tackle and resolve domestic violence. Money goes into providing shelters and refuges: family violence is also the major reason for use of all homelessness services in Australia.

The cost of policing violence against women is climbing, too. Dealing with family violence accounts for nine per cent of total NSW Police hours – about 625,000 hours a year. Victoria Police filed 1000 family violence incident reports a week last year. Added to this are child protection costs and, longer term, the cost of crimes committed by children from abusive households.

The indirect costs of domestic violence are harder to measure. These are the intangible costs – the pain, suffering and premature mortality of women and children who are subjected to violence. It is estimated that roughly half of all costs are indirect.

Domestic violence costs business around half a billion dollars every year, says Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, who argues that business has been missing from the conversation. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, two-thirds of women who experience domestic violence are in paid work.

5. The problem with the statistics

Much of the data on men’s violence against women in Australia comes from women’s refuges and the Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Study, the last of which was released in 2005. The data and research on violence against women is not extensive or sufficient enough to point to an easy solution.

“Evidence-based violence prevention results are pretty poor,” says Michael Flood. “We certainly don’t know what does or doesn’t work in prevention.”

The Personal Safety Study is flawed by the way it collects data on violence, he argues. Although it does well to collect data on instances of physical aggression – such as kicking, punching and sexual violence – it is limited in its conception of violence and the impact of that violence.

Indigenous women face violence at five times the rate of non-Indigenous women in NSW and more than 11 times the rate in South Australia. Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory are 80 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault than a non-Indigenous woman.
“Many victims report the physical violence they suffer is less damaging than the relentless psychological abuse that cripples and isolates them.”

A better study, he believes, would acknowledge that violence shouldn’t be defined by separate (though connected) incidents, but reflect the part those incidents play in larger circumstances where someone controls or isolates a victim.

A new Personal Safety Study is due to be released soon, having canvassed a greater range of questions and more about the impact of violent acts.

“The next round of data will be much richer,” says Dr Flood.