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Males are generally the perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence and women are generally the victims of domestic and sexual violence. However, we need to remember that “generally” does not mean “exclusively”. According to statistics, women are perpetrators of 25 per cent of domestic violence against men and also against children. This family and domestic violence has a profound impact on sociey, I know, because it had huge impact on me and so many others.
I recently attended a seminar on domestic violence and churches. Despite being a depressing and deflating subject, it was encouraging to see so many people recognizing the domestic violence pandemic, to observe Christian communities sincerely wanting to do something about it, and a genuine effort by providers of theological education to train their students to identify, prevent, and respond to domestic and family violence.
As I sat there listening to talks, stories, and statistics, the main theme was clear: The vast majority of family, domestic, and sexual violence is committed against women by men. The tragic figures in this area are fairly well known (see the Australian Government report Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, 2018):
- One in six women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous partner
- One in four women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or previous partner.
- One in five women have been sexually assaulted and/or threatened.
- One woman a week is killed by her spouse or partner.
- Most at risk groups are:
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women
- Young women
- Pregnant women
- Women with disabilities
- Women experiencing financial hardships
- Women and men who experienced abuse or witnessed domestic violence as children.
At the same time I felt some degree of dissonance with the mantra of men as perpetrators and women as victims. That is because as a child and early teen I experienced spasmodic domestic abuse from my stepfather and my mother. My stepfather could be physically abusive. But my mother was by far the worst. She was a real Jekyll and Hyde character.
My mother could be caring, loving, nurturing, and selfless. But she could also be, especially when drunk, heartlessly cruel. From her I experienced emotional manipulation, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and homelessness. It pains me to say it, but my most vivid memory of my mother was in one of her drunken fits of fury, her face contorted with rage, and screaming in the shrillest voice I’ve heard, “I hate you!” Then there was the time, almost comical as I think about it now, that I took a knife to her cask wine and she chased me around the house, armed with a rolling pin, stumbling mostly, and yelling all sorts of nonsensical profanities.
This abuse had a deep and detrimental effect upon me. For the first twenty years of my life I was convinced that most women hated me or were at least coldly indifferent to me. When I joined the army, this gynophobia was translated into a form of misogyny where women where somewhere between damsels to be protected and objects of sexual conquest. When I joined the church, I gravitated towards a very strict form religious conservatism on gender roles which was only undone by marrying a wonderful woman, raising two fantastic daughters, and realizing that white middleclass suburban life combined with nineteen-seventies sitcom patriarchy was not the lens through which to read Holy Scripture.
Every child must wrestle with the fact that his or her parents are fallible. I’ve had to accept that much of mother’s personality and behaviour is because she herself was a victim of abuse and trauma. I try to remember her best not her worst. And then, in the fullness of time, learn to forgive her.
Former Labour minister Craig Emerson tells a similar story about his abusive mother in his biography The Boy from Baradine and his struggle to make peace with her memory.
Sadly though, in a lot of the DFV literature and in workshop industry I don’t see even a tacit acknowledgement of women as perpetrators. That is even when government statistics show that 25 per cent of DFV is perpetrated by women against either their partners or against children. In addition, across 2014–15, some 382 children were hospitalised because of physical or sexual assault – more than one per day. Parents were responsible for about one in three (30 per cent, or 89) assault hospitalisations among children and, presumably, 25 per cent or more instances of DFV against children were perpetrated by women. More boys than girls were hospitalised for assaults perpetrated by their parents (51 boys compared with 38 girls).
So I have to confess that I feel a little – can I say it – “triggered” when I keep hearing about DFV and the need to protect “women and their children.” I get the point because the overwhelming majority of perpetrators are men. However, I want to yell out, “Who is protecting the children from some of those women?” We are talking about 25 per cent of cases of DFV not 2.5 per cent. Surely this percentage warrants some attention.
I know it is not popular, I know it doesn’t fit the narrative, I know it is the exception and not the majority of the problem in relation DFV, and it will never attract mega-funding. So I’m not expecting L’Oréal to do a Gillette style ad about abusive mothers. But can we please at least acknowledge women as perpetrators of DFV, especially against children, in the various ad campaigns and on the professional development circuit.
Rev Dr Michael F. Bird is an Anglican priest and Academic Dean at Ridley College, in Melbourne, Australia. He can be followed @mbird12