Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Domestic Violence

I read an editorial in the newspaper yesterday. It was either written by the author of Violence In Our Homes: Protecting The Vulnerable or about that paper. The paper is a WA Labor Discussion Paper concerning domestic violence in Western Australia.

The paper states that Labor is committed to a raft of things associated with reducing domestic violence. Labor, as is any political party or politician, is committed to being elected. They see this as an issue they can use to get elected. If the community does not actively support the issue via votes, then it'll be dropped without hesitation in favour of the next issue that the political party or politician is 'passionately committed' to. This is an important issue, and it's up to us to inform ourselves on it, and often to deal with ourselves. Even if we are fortunate enough not to experience domestic violence personally, I can guarantee you that some of your friends, relatives, work colleagues, or someone you know will be. It would help if we could help them in a meaningful way, and that can only come about through understanding and education. Thankfully that is one of the recommendations of the paper.

My interest in domestic violence (from an academic perspective) has increased after my involvement with a women who has recently emerged from a long-term abusive relationship. I found the knowledge gained in researching Beyond Fight-or-Flight enabled me to understand, and at times explain, what was going on. I was astounded how well theory fit with experience; how theory informed experience; and how theory could help experience.

I thought I'd just share a few thoughts raised by the paper.
Historically, violence against women was explained and excused as a manifestation of traditional male authority. Consequently, domestic and family violence came to be regarded as a private matter that was unsuitable for outside interference. Although 98% of people today agree that domestic violence is a crime, a culture of silence pervades the issue. Both perpetrators and victims hide domestic and family violence and often the community turns a blind eye. While steps have been taken to increase public awareness through legislative reform, educational campaigns and media advertisements, women may remain reticent to report or pursue prosecutions of violence.
The editorial made a comment that isn't fully explored in the paper. It referred to how we label this experience/crime, 'domestic' violence. It suggested that the very label changed the perception of the violence. It was domestic, in-house, private, a family matter.

Words matter. Labels matter. They shape our perception, and therefore our behaviour. The Canadian military (if memory serves) no longer refer to PTSD as a mental disorder or condition because soldiers did not tend to seek treatment for a mental disorder or condition. To experience a mental disorder or condition is to be weak for a soldier. So, PTSD is now referred to as a 'combat injury', which it is. Soldiers have no problem seeking help for an injury. They understand an injury. There is no stigma attached to an injury.

The first thing I'd advise the authors of the proposed report is to change the name. 'Protecting the Vulnerable' - the self esteem of those who suffer abuse is already at a very low ebb, now they are being labelled as 'vulnerable'. Weak. It's similar to the use of 'victim' to refer to those who have survived sexual assault. They are no longer 'victims' but 'survivors'. Both terms may be accurate descriptions, but we as human beings invest emotional meaning into terms. A victim implies being helpless, a survivor implies strength. My friend is not a victim of abuse, she survived abuse.

Children who are exposed to domestic and family violence learn abuse from a young age and are more likely to continue patterns of violence.

Here we have our first contentious issue - the heated debate over physically punishing our children. Physical punishment is violence. The violent behaviour has a different motivation (hopefully), but the behaviour is still violence. Violence being used to punish and to change behaviour for the better. This violence is sanctioned by law as long as it is confined to family members. It's not too much of a leap to then extend the idea from your children to female partners.

I recall playing pool in a pub in the 1990s. A challenge was accepted from a male and female couple. I got talking to the women, who explained that her boyfriend hit her on the odd occasion, but that it was OK because she deserved it. I did not agree; possibly a little too loudly, and possibly a little too sarcastically. I might have referred to her boyfriend as Maynard G. Krebs, the hippie character from the TV series, The Many Loves of Dobbie Gillis (who incidentally was fashioned on the hippie character, Shaggy, from Scooby Doo). The boyfriend had a little beard on his chin like Krebs. Long story short, Maynard, and his four friends, took exception to my conversation, characterisation, and comments - so a pool cue was introduced to my face, and then the four friends introduced themselves to me. Suffice it to say, I now know the 'eagle-claw' technique to the throat is really very effective.

My point is that the right to physically punishment in a relationship is a cultural issue as much as it is a legal issue. Violence is violence, and violence can be violence. If it's sanctioned in certain situations, then why not in those that are only slightly different.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and almost one in five have experienced sexual violence. ... In 2006-2007, 53% of female homicide victims in Australia had an intimate relationship with the offender.

Truly horrendous statistics. I have three adopted nieces, and these statistics are a call to action for me. Not only in discussing these issues with them to better prepare them, but also in my views on violence generally in society. For instance, in the case of the abovementioned Krebs incident, why were not the police involved. It was an assault, and we shouldn't tolerate assaults. We should not accept violence as a normal way of dealing with situations in our society.

Those who teach womens self defence courses; do you also teach your female students to actively teach their sons respect for women. Every male abuser is the son of some women. It's long been understood that mother's can have a significant influence on their sons. Surely we can extend the concept of womens self defence courses to much more than simply looking after ourselves. Maybe this might have the effect of further empowering the women undertaking the course.

The paper identifies 'vulnerable groups': indigenous women and girls, women living in remote communities, women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, women 45 years and older, women with a physical or intellectual disability, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex communities. Bollocks!

Any women can find themselves in an abusive relationship. My friend has told me of a lot of women who have approached her after she publicly admitted she was in an abusive relationship and that she got out of it. The women who have approached her are in an abusive relationship - none of them fit into the aforementioned vulnerable groups. And its scary how many there are.

There was an article in The Age about a 'successful professional businesswomen,' Pamela, who now shares her experiences of being in an abusive relationship.

Not being considered 'vulnerable' can in itself create additional pressures.
'I couldn't tell anyone, I was so ashamed and embarrassed that I was this smart, sophisticated professional woman who was putting up with this bullshit at home,'' she says.
This was the exact same comment I heard from my friend. One of the frustrating things I've found is that the abusive experiences and effects are so common place and written about over and over again, they become cliches. But for those who prefer to become informed rather than rely on their own biased, often self serving albeit well intentioned, opinion, there is a lot of information available that can truly help.

The paper refers to women not reporting domestic violence or seeking help as a result of fear. It is a FAR more complex issue than just fear. Domestic violence involves a person with whom the abused has an intimate relationship with. He is the father of their children. They promised to love each other through the good times and the bad - this is just one of the bad times.
Danny Blay, head of No To Violence, an agency that co-ordinates programs for men who are violent to their families, says Pamela's experience is familiar. 'I wish we had a buck for every time a woman called our service and said, 'I don't want the relationship to end, I just want the violence to stop,''' he says.
There are a million reasons not to leave an abusive relationship - and all need to be treated as valid. To question them simply revictimises the abused.

'Why didn't you leave?' The most insidious of questions. One of the recommendations in the paper is:
Enhance current training programmes and develop new comprehensive training programmes for Western Australian police, prosecutors, judges and health care providers to develop sensitised understandings of domestic and family violence.
Agreed. Lesson number one - do NOT ask the abused why they did not leave. It was interesting, and frightening, that this was exactly the question my friend was asked by the police when she first reported her abuse to the police. In 2012, with all the information available and all the training that is done, and still one of the first questions asked reinforces in the abused that they are useless.

There are a number of objective reasons proposed for a woman not leaving an abusive relationship. The kids, financial dependence, isolation, etc. One that is only now starting to be considered, and which I've touched on before in previous blogs is the natural behavioural response of 'learned helplessness.' A person cannot see there is anything they can do to change their position; even though we on the outside see 'obvious' solutions, and don't mind telling the abused so.

'I didn't even know I was in an abusive relationship' my friend told me, 'How stupid am I'. Most abusive relationships don't start out with full-on violent assaults. Abuse is an insidious process, creeping up on you. I used the boiling frog analogy (to great effect). A frog put in a pot of boiling water will immediately jump out. Put a frog in a pot of cool water and then slowly increase the heat, and the frog will remain and boil to death.
Within six months he had moved into the home she was paying off. Their first few months were happy, and while he appeared to have 'slight anger problems, I didn't think anything of it'. Within a year the violence had started.
The paper includes are recommendations school education and awareness through various campaigns. Are you going to rely on the government to deal with this issue that may, and the chances are high, affect your daughters, granddaughters, nieces, sisters, female friends, etc? This issue needs to brought out into the light. It needs to be discussed, objectively, and with informed opinion. We have to develop a culture where those who have experienced abuse do not feel embarrassed or ashamed. We also have to develop a culture where those men who are, or have the potential, of abusing their partner, or children, recognise it as abuse and have the opportunity of seeking help to remedy the problem. Demonising them does nothing except make us feel superior and prevent them from seeking help.


  1. Excellent article John. You're right about labels, they do colour our perceptions of people and events. Assigning negative or weak labels to people who suffer abuse is dis-empowering to them and just encourages them to keep silent or hide away. Language and culture are such close bed-fellows that the words we use, directly influence the culture that we create so we should choose our words carefully..

  2. Thank you for writing this article. I am scheduled to teach a women's self-defense class in a few weeks. I will definitely remind the female students to teach their sons respect for women.

    Years ago, I knew a male who volunteered at a women's crisis center. His role was to be on call to transport women who called the hotline to the shelter. He went through an intense training program before he could volunteer. Part of the training was learning what words to use or not to use when working with women in an abusive relationship.

  3. It always annoyed me that I was constantly being asked "But why didn't you leave?...why did you let that happen to you?... you're a strong women & a feminist & you should've known better" No-one went to my ex & asked him why he did it.
    I've always hated the term domestic violence & rarely use the 'domestic'word when I describe what happened to myself and my 3 boys.
    Thank you John, for clearly stating the obvious. I think that education should be the major focus in all areas of our community. I'm making sure my three sons are well informed on all the issues surrounding all types of violence.

  4. A bit late, but thanks for the comments.

    Michele - you should also teach the women about 'tonic immobility', an evolved defensive mechanism in humans and many non-human animals. I've discussed it in previous blogs, or you can email me for details.

    Lynne - thank you. Your (tragically) informed comment encourages me that I may be on the right path. I wish you and your three boys all the best in the future.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.