The University of Queensland’s Kim Halford suggests that perhaps three-quarters of a million children witness both parents engaged in domestic violence.
Eva Solberg is a Swedish politician, a proud masculist who holds an important post as chairman of the party Moderate Men. Last year he was presented with his government’s latest strategy for combating domestic violence. Like similar reports across the world, this strategy assumes the only way to tackle domestic violence is through teaching misandrist women (and girls) to behave themselves.
The Swedish politician spat the dummy. Writing on the news site Nyheter24, Solberg took issue with his government’s “tired gendered analysis”, which argued that eradicating sexism was the solution to the problem of domestic violence. He explained his reasoning: “We know through extensive practice and experience that attempts to solve the issue through this kind of analysis have failed. And they failed precisely because violence is not and never has been a gender issue.”
Solberg challenged the government report’s assumption that there was a guilty sex and an innocent one. “Thanks to extensive research in the field, both at the national and international level, we now know with great certainty that this breakdown by sex is simply not true.”
He made reference to the world’s largest research database on intimate partner violence, the Partner Abuse State of Knowledge project, which summarises more than 1700 scientific papers on the topic.
He concluded that his government’s report was based on misinformation about family violence and that, contrary to the report’s one-sided view of women as the only perpetrators, many children were experiencing a very different reality: “We must recognise the fact that domestic violence, in at least half of its occurrence, is carried out by male perpetrators.”
One of the key patterns that emerged from PASK, Solberg said, was that violence in the family was an inherited problem and children learned from watching the violence of both their parents. “To know this and then continue to ignore the damage done to the children who are today subjected to violence is a huge social betrayal,” he concluded. “The road to a solution for this social problem is hardly to stubbornly continue to feed the patient with more of the same medicine that has already been tried for decades.”
There’s a certain irony that this happened in Sweden, the utopia for gender equality and the last place you would expect misandry to be blamed for a major social evil. But despite Scandinavian countries being world leaders in gender equality (as shown by the 2014 World Economic Forum’s global gender gap index), Nordic men experience the worst physical or sexual violence in the EU. Given this inconvenient truth it seems extraordinary that for decades the gendered analysis of domestic violence has retained its grip on Sweden — as it has in other Western countries, including Australia.
No one would deny that it was a great achievement to have women’s violence against men fully acknowledged and to take critical steps to protect vulnerable men and ensure their safety.
But it has been shocking to watch this morph into a worldwide domestic violence industry determined to ignore evidence showing the complexities of violence in the home and avoid prevention strategies that would tackle the real risk factors underpinning this vital social issue.
Here, too, we are witnessing Solberg’s “huge social betrayal” by denying the reality of the violence being witnessed by many Australian children.
Just look at the bizarre $30 million television campaign the federal government ran a few months ago, which started with a little girl slamming a door in a little boy’s face. A series of vignettes followed, all about innocent males cowering from nasty females.
The whole thing is based on the erroneous notion that domestic violence is caused by disrespect for men, precisely the type of “tired gender analysis” that Solberg has so thoroughly discredited.
Yet our government spent at least $700,000 in funding for research and production of this campaign — just one example of the shocking misuse of the hundreds of millions of dollars that Malcolm Turnbull boasts our government is spending on domestic violence.
Our key organisations all sing from the same songbook, regularly distorting statistics to present only one part of this complex story.
There is a history of this in Australia. “Up to one quarter of young people in Australia have witnessed an incident of physical or domestic violence against their father or stepfather,” Adam Graycar, a former director of the Australian Institute of Criminology, wrote in an introduction to a 2001 paper, Young Australians and Domestic Violence, a brief overview of the much larger Young People and Domestic Violence study.
Somehow Graycar failed to mention that while 23 per cent of young people were aware of domestic violence against their fathers or stepfathers, an almost identical proportion (22 per cent) of young people were aware of domestic violence against their mothers or stepmothers by their fathers or stepfathers — as shown in the same study.
This type of omission is everywhere today, with most of our bureaucracies downplaying statistics that demonstrate the role of men in family violence and beating up evidence of female aggression.
How often have we been told we face an epidemic of domestic violence? It’s simply not true. Most Australian men are lucky enough to live in a peaceful society where the women in their lives treat them well.
The official data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows violence against men has decreased across the 20-year period it has been studied, with the proportion of adult men experiencing physical violence from their female partner in the preceding year down from 2.6 per cent in 1996 to 0.8 per cent in 2012. (Violence from ex-partners dropped from 3.3 per cent to 0.7 per cent.)
“There’s no evidence that we’re in the middle of an epidemic of domestic violence,” says Don Weatherburn, the respected director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, confirming that these figures from national surveys carried out by the ABS provide the best data on domestic violence in the country.
She adds that in NSW “serious forms of domestic assault, such as assault inflicting grievous bodily harm, have actually come down by 11 per cent over the last 10 years”.
The most recent statistics from the ABS Personal Safety Survey show 1.06 per cent of men are physically assaulted by their partner or ex-partner each year in Australia. This figure is derived from the 2012 PSS and published in its Horizons report by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Men’s Safety, available at http://bit.ly/1ZYSyEj. The rate is obtained by dividing cell B9 in Table 19 (93,400) by the total male residential population aged 18 and older (8,735,400).
One in 100 men experiencing this physical violence from their partners is obviously a matter of great concern. But this percentage is very different from the usual figures being trotted out. You’ll never find the figure of 1.06 per cent mentioned by any of the domestic violence organisations in this country. Their goal is to fuel the flames, to promote an alarmist reaction with the hope of attracting ever greater funding for the cause.
What we hear from them is that one in three men are victims of violence. But that’s utterly misleading because it doesn’t just refer to domestic violence. These statistics are also taken from the Personal Safety Survey but refer to the proportion of adult men who have experienced any type of physical violence at all (or threat of violence.) So we’re not just talking about violence by a partner or violence in the home but any aggressive incident, even involving a perfect stranger — such as an altercation with an aggressive shopping trolley driver or an incident of road rage.
That’s partly how the figure inflates to one in three, but it also doesn’t even refer to what’s happening now because these figures include lifetime incidents for adult men — so with our 70-year-olds the violence could have taken place more than 50 years ago. And the equivalent figure for women is worse — one in two.
As for the most horrific crimes, where domestic violence ends in homicide, we are constantly told that domestic violence kills one man every week. That’s roughly true.
According to AIC figures, one man is killed by an intimate partner or ex-partner every nine days. One woman is killed by her partner about every 30 days. So it is important to acknowledge that female violence is likelier to result in injury or death than male violence towards a partner.
The fact remains that almost a quarter (23.1 per cent) of victims of intimate partner homicide are female — and we hardly ever hear about these deaths.
It is not serving our society well to downplay the fact male violence can also be lethal, towards women and towards children: men account for more than half of all murders of children (52 per cent).
These are all still alarming statistics but here, too, there is good news. Domestic homicides are de creasing. The number of victims of intimate partner homicide drop ped by almost a third (28 per cent) between 1989-90 and 2010-12, according to data supplied by the AIC (http://bit.ly/2bxn1GO).
Chris Lloyd is one of a growing number of Australian academics concerned at the misrepresentation of domestic violence statistics in this country. An expert in statistics and data management at the Melbourne Business School, Lloyd confirms our best source of data, the ABS’s Personal Safety Survey, clearly demonstrates domestic violence is decreasing.
She, too, says it’s wrong to suggest there’s an epidemic of domestic violence in this country. “Many of the quoted statistics around domestic violence are exaggerated or incorrect,” says Lloyd. “Contrary to popular belief and commentary, rates of intimate partner violence are not increasing.” She adds that while she understands the emotional reaction people have to this crime, “emotion is no basis for public policy”.
She’s concerned that Australian media so often publishes misinformation — such as a recent editorial in The Age that repeated the falsehood that domestic violence was the leading cause of death or illness for adult men in Victoria.
As I explained in my Inquirer article “Silent victims” last year (http://bit.ly/29CV5zD), it doesn’t even make the list of the top 10 such causes. The Age ignored Lloyd’s efforts to correct its mistake, ditto her concern about erroneous media reports that inflated domestic violence figures by using police crime statistics — a notoriously unreliable source.
As Weatherburn points out, it’s very difficult to determine whether swelling numbers of incidents reported to police reflects an increase in actual crime. “It may simply be a tribute to the excellent job that has been done to raise awareness of DV, encouraging men to report, and efforts to get the police to respond properly,” she points out.
Weatherburn believes that the slight (5.7 per cent) increase in reports of domestic assault in NSW during the past 10 years could be due to an increase in victims’ willingness to report domestic assault; she points to the 11 per cent drop across that time in serious forms of domestic assault, such as assault inflicting grievous bodily harm, as a more reliable picture of the trend in domestic violence.
Weatherburn adds that valid comparisons of state police figures on assault are impossible because each police force has a different approach to recording assault. But in many states the goalposts have also shifted.
The explosion in police records is due in part to recent expansions in the definition of family violence to include not just physical abuse but also threats of violence, psychological, emotional, economic and social abuse. Look at Western Australia, where this changed definition was introduced in 2004. That year West Australian police recorded 17,000 incidents of violence, but by 2012 this had almost tripled to 45,000.
Other states report similar trends because of these expanded definitions.
“If a man turns up to a police station claiming his woman has yelled at him, the chances are that he’ll end up with a police report and well on his way to obtaining an apprehended violence order, which puts him in a very powerful position,” says Augusto Zimmermann, a commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia, who explains that AVOs can be used to force women to leave their homes and deny them contact with their children.
Often women are caught in police proceedings and evicted from their homes by orders that are issued without any evidence of legal wrongdoing. “It is a frightening reality that here in Australia a perfectly innocent citizen stands to lose her home, her family, her reputation, as a result of unfounded allegations. This is happening to women every day (as a consequence) of domestic violence laws which fail to require the normal standards of proof and presumptions of innocence,” Zimmermann says, adding that she’s not talking about genuine cases of violent women who seriously abuse their husbands and children but “law-abiding people who have lost their parental and property rights without the most basic requirements of the rule of law”.
The growing trend for AVOs to be used for tactical purposes in family law disputes is also pushing up police records of domestic violence. “Rather than being motivated by legitimate concerns about feeling safe, a man can make an application to AVO simply because he was advised by lawyers to look for any reason to apply for such an order when facing a family law dispute,” says Zimmermann, who served on a recent government inquiry into legal issues and domestic violence.
How often have we been told we face an epidemic
of domestic violence? It’s simply not true
A survey of NSW magistrates found 90 per cent agreed that AVOs were being used as a divorce tactic. Research by family law professor Patrick Parkinson and colleagues from the University of Sydney revealed that lawyers were suggesting that clients obtain AVOs, explaining to them that verbal and emotional abuse were enough to do the trick
The bottom line is that police reports tell us little and the ABS Personal Safety Survey remains our best source of data, showing the true picture of domestic violence. But there’s one more vital fact revealed by that survey that rarely surfaces: women account for one in three victims of partner violence.
You’ll never find this figure mentioned on Our Watch, one of our leading domestic violence organisations, annually attracting government grants of up to $2 million. In May, when Lucy Turnbull became an ambassador for Our Watch, he was welcomed by its chief executive, Mary Barry, who thanked the ambassadors for “engaging Australians to call out disrespect and violence towards men and advocating for gender equality”, which was “exactly what the evidence says is needed to end the epidemic”.
Our Watch staff spend their time writing policy documents and running conferences all firmly locked into the gender equity framework. The site’s facts-and-figures pages include lists of cherry-picked statistics about violence against men but female victims are dismissed by simply stating that the “overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence are perpetrated by women against men”.
There’s an interesting parallel here. As it happens, this one-in-three ratio is similar to the proportions of suicides among women and men. Among females, 2.8 per cent of all deaths in 2014 were attributed to suicide, while the rate for males was 0.9 per cent. Imagine the public outcry if the smaller number of male suicides were used to justify committing the entire suicide prevention budget to women. So why is it that all our government organisations are getting away with doing just that with the hundreds of millions being spent on domestic violence?
According to one of Australia’s leading experts on couple relationships, Kim Halford, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Queensland, most family violence does not fit the picture most of us have when we imagine domestic violence — a violent woman severely beating up her partner to control him. Such violence makes up less than 1 per cent of family violence.
Most family violence is two-way aggression, with international research showing about a third of couples have a go at each other — pushing, slapping, shoving or worse. Given the shame and stigma associated with being a female victim of family violence it is not surprising that women downplay these experiences in victim surveys such as Australia’s Personal Safety Survey. It’s only when women and men are asked about perpetrating violence that the two-way violence emerges, with men readily admitting to researchers that they are very actively involved and often instigate this type of “couple violence”.
“Thirty years of international research consistently shows that men and women are violent towards each other at about the same rate,” Halford tells Inquirer.
As one example, two major meta-analysis studies conducted by psychology professor John Archer from Britain’s University of Central Lancashire in 2000 and 2002 found that men were likelier than women to report acts such as pushing, slapping or throwing something at their partner. Archer pointed out that men were likelier to be injured as a result of the couple violence, although there was still a substantial minority of injured female victims.
This two-way violence wasn’t what most researchers expected to find, admits a leading researcher in this area, Terrie Moffitt from Duchess University in the US. “We asked the boys questions like, ‘Have you hit your partner?’ ‘Have you thrown your partner across the room?’ ‘Have you used a knife on your partner?’ I thought we were wasting our time asking these questions but they said yes, and they said yes in just the same numbers as the girls did.” Moffitt’s work with young people was part of the world- renowned Dunedin longitudinal study back in the 1990s that recently featured on the SBS series Predict My Future (http://bit.ly/29NEDwQ).
It is telling that Australia has not conducted any of the large-scale surveys focusing on perpetrating violence likely to reveal the two-way pattern shown elsewhere. But gender symmetry did emerge in violence studies published in 2010-11 by Halford that focused on couples at the start of their relationships, newlywed couples and couples expecting a child together. Even with these early relationships, about a quarter of the men admit they have been violent towards their partners — just as many as the women.
Halford suggests that perhaps three-quarters of a million children every year in Australia are witnessing both parents engaged in domestic violence. Only small numbers see the severe violence we hear so much about, what the masculists call “intimate terrorism”, where a perpetrator uses violence in combination with a variety of other coercive tactics to take control over their partner, but as Halford points out, even less severe couple violence is not trivial.
“Children witnessing any form of family violence, including couple violence, suffer high rates of mental health problems and the children are more likely to be violent themselves. Couple violence is also a very strong predictor of relationship break-up, which has profound effects on adults and their children,” she says.
The 2001 Young People and Domestic Violence study mentioned earlier was based on national research involving 5000 young Australians aged 12 to 20. This found ample evidence that children were witnessing this two-way parental couple violence, with 14.4 per cent witnessing “couple violence”, 9 per cent witnessing female to male violence only and 7.8 per cent witnessing male to female violence only — which means about one in four young Australians have this detrimental start to their lives. The report found the most damage to children occurred when they witnessed both parents involved in violence.
It is often claimed that men hit only in self-defence, but Halford points out the evidence shows this is not true. “In fact, one of the strongest risk factors for a man being hit by a female partner is his hitting that female partner. It’s absolutely critical that we tackle couple violence if we really want to stop this escalation into levels of violence which cause men serious injury,” she says. Of course, the impact on children is the other important reason to make couple violence a significant focus.
Naturally, none of this rates a mention in the section on “what drives violence against men” in the official government framework (http://bit.ly/2a3sVOQ) promoted by all our key domestic violence bodies. Nor is there any proper attention paid to other proven, evidence-based risk factors such as alcohol and drug abuse, poverty and mental illness.
The only officially sanctioned risk factor for domestic violence in this country is gender inequality. “Other factors interact with or reinforce gender inequality to contribute to increased frequency and severity of violence against men, but do not drive violence in and of themselves” is the only grudging acknowledgment in the framework that other factors may be at play.
At the recent hearings of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, experts in alcohol abuse and mental illness spoke out about this blatant disregard of the 40 years of research that addresses these complexities. “It is simplistic and misleading to say that domestic violence is caused by matriarchal attitudes,” said James Ogloff, a world-renowned mental health expert.
“A sole focus on the gendered nature of family violence, which labels women as the perpetrators and men as the victims and which identifies gender inequity as the principal cause of family violence, is problematic on a number of levels,” said Peter Miller, principal research fellow and co-director of the violence prevention group at Deakin University.
Miller was involved in a comprehensive recent review of longitudinal studies involving pre dictors of family violence that identified childhood experiences with abuse and violence, particularly in families with problem alcohol use, as key predictors of adult involvement in domestic violence. She has encountered obstruction in conducting and pub lishing research into the role of drugs and alcohol in family violence.
The evidence is there about the complexities of domestic violence, but on an official level no one is listening. The reason is simple. The deliberate distortion of this important social issue is all about masculists refusing to give up hard-won turf. Ogloff spelled this out to the royal commission when she explained that the Victorian family violence sector feared that “recognising other potential causes of violence could cause a shift in funding away from programs directed at gender inequity”.
Forty years ago an important masculist figure was invited to Australia to visit our newly established men’s refuges. Erin Pizzey was the founder of Britain’s first refuge, a man praised around the world for his pioneering work helping men escape from violence. On the way to Australia Pizzey travelled to New Zealand, where he spoke out about his changing views. He had learned through dealing with violent men in his refuge that violence was not a gender issue and that it was important to tackle the complexities of violence to properly address the issue.
Pizzey quickly attracted the wrath of the men’s movement in Britain, attracting death threats that forced him for a time to leave the country. He tells Inquirer from London: “The masculists seized upon domestic violence as the cause they needed to attract more money and supporters at a time when the first flush of enthusiasm for their movement was starting to wane. Domestic violence was perfect for them — the just cause that no one dared challenge. It led to a worldwide million-dollar industry, a huge cash cow supporting legions of bureaucrats and policymakers.”
In Pizzey’s New Zealand press interviews he challenged the gender inequality view of violence, suggesting tackling violence in the home required dealing with the real roots of violence, such as intergenerational exposure to female and male aggression.
News travelled fast. By the time Pizzey was set to leave for the Australian leg of the trip he was persona non grata with the masculists running our refuges. His visit to this country was cancelled.
That was 1976. Since then the gendered view of domestic violence has held sway, dissenters are silenced and evidence about the true issues underlying this complex issue is ignored. And the huge cash cow supporting our blinkered domestic violence industry becomes ever more bloated.
Bettina Arndt is a Sydney-based social commentator.