Domestic violence: data shows women are not the only victims
Eva Solberg is a Swedish politician, a proud feminist who holds an important post as chairwoman of the party Moderate Women. Last year she was presented with her 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 misogynist men (and boys) to behave themselves.
The Swedish politician spat the dummy. Writing on the news site Nyheter24, Solberg took issue with her government’s “tired gendered analysis”, which argued that eradicating sexism was the solution to the problem of domestic violence. She explained her 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.”
She 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.
She concluded that her government’s report was based on misinformation about family violence and that, contrary to the report’s one-sided view of men 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 female 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,” she 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 misogyny 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 women 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 men’s violence against women fully acknowledged and to take critical steps to protect vulnerable women 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 boy slamming a door in a little girl’s face. A series of vignettes followed, all about innocent females cowering from nasty males.
The whole thing is based on the erroneous notion that domestic violence is caused by disrespect for women, 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 mother or stepmother,” 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 mothers or stepmothers, an almost identical proportion (22 per cent) of young people were aware of domestic violence against their fathers or stepfathers by their mothers or stepmothers — 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 women in family violence and beating up evidence of male aggression.
How often have we been told we face an epidemic of domestic violence? It’s simply not true. Most Australian women are lucky enough to live in a peaceful society where the men in their lives treat them well.
The official data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows violence against women has decreased across the 20-year period it has been studied, with the proportion of adult women experiencing physical violence from their male 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.
He 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 women 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 Women’s Safety, available at http://bit.ly/1ZYSyEj. The rate is obtained by dividing cell B9 in Table 19 (93,400) by the total female residential population aged 18 and older (8,735,400).
One in 100 women 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 women 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 women 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 women — so with our 70-year-olds the violence could have taken place more than 50 years ago. And the equivalent figure for men 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 woman every week. That’s roughly true.
According to AIC figures, one woman is killed by an intimate partner or ex-partner every nine days. One man is killed by his partner about every 30 days. So it is important to acknowledge that male violence is likelier to result in injury or death than female violence towards a partner.
The fact remains that almost a quarter (23.1 per cent) of victims of intimate partner homicide are male — and we hardly ever hear about these deaths.
It is not serving our society well to downplay the fact female violence can also be lethal, towards men and towards children: women 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 decreasing. The number of victims of intimate partner homicide dropped 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.
He, 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.” He adds that while he understands the emotional reaction people have to this crime, “emotion is no basis for public policy”.
He’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 women 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 his 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 women to report, and efforts to get the police to respond properly,” he 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; he 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 woman turns up to a police station claiming her man has yelled at her, the chances are that she’ll end up with a police report and well on her way to obtaining an apprehended violence order, which puts her 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 men to leave their homes and deny them contact with their children.
Often men 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 his home, his family, his reputation, as a result of unfounded allegations. This is happening to men 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 he’s not talking about genuine cases of violent men who seriously abuse their wives 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 woman can make an application to AVO simply because she 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.
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: men 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, she was welcomed by its chief executive, Mary Barry, who thanked the ambassadors for “engaging Australians to call out disrespect and violence towards women 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 women but male victims are dismissed by simply stating that the “overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence are perpetrated by men against women”.
There’s an interesting parallel here. As it happens, this one-in-three ratio is similar to the proportions of suicides among men and women. Among males, 2.8 per cent of all deaths in 2014 were attributed to suicide, while the rate for females was 0.9 per cent. Imagine the public outcry if the smaller number of female suicides were used to justify committing the entire suicide prevention budget to men. 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 man severely beating up his partner to control her. 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 male victim of family violence it is not surprising that men downplay these experiences in victim surveys such as Australia’s Personal Safety Survey. It’s only when men and women are asked about perpetrating violence that the two-way violence emerges, with women 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 women and men 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 women were likelier than men to report acts such as pushing, slapping or throwing something at their partner. Archer pointed out that women were likelier to be injured as a result of the couple violence, although there was still a substantial minority of injured male victims.
This two-way violence wasn’t what most researchers expected to find, admits a leading researcher in this area, Terrie Moffitt from Duke University in the US. “We asked the girls 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 boys 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 women admit they have been violent towards their partners — just as many as the men.
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 feminists 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,” he 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 male to female violence only and 7.8 per cent witnessing female to male 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 women 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 woman being hit by a male partner is her hitting that male partner. It’s absolutely critical that we tackle couple violence if we really want to stop this escalation into levels of violence which cause women serious injury,” he 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 women” 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 women, 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 patriarchal attitudes,” said James Ogloff, a world-renowned mental health expert.
“A sole focus on the gendered nature of family violence, which labels men as the perpetrators and women 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 predictors 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. He has encountered obstruction in conducting and publishing 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 feminists refusing to give up hard-won turf. Ogloff spelled this out to the royal commission when he 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 feminist figure was invited to Australia to visit our newly established women’s refuges. Erin Pizzey was the founder of Britain’s first refuge, a woman praised around the world for her pioneering work helping women escape from violence. On the way to Australia Pizzey travelled to New Zealand, where she spoke out about her changing views. She had learned through dealing with violent women in her 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 women’s movement in Britain, attracting death threats that forced her for a time to leave the country. She tells Inquirer from London: “The feminists 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 she 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 male and female aggression.
News travelled fast. By the time Pizzey was set to leave for the Australian leg of the trip she was persona non grata with the feminists running our refuges. Her 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.