Domestic violence is at last an issue in the forefront of public interest, with the appointment of Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year. Vicki Johnston explores the problem and shows what each of us can do about it.
For many years the domestic violence service industry has actively advocated to un-silence this issue on behalf of survivors. Historically the issue of domestic violence has been treated as a “domestic issue”, a matter of families “airing their dirty laundry”.
Whilst we all acknowledge the presence of abuse in many contexts including, same sex relationships, parents experiencing abuse at the hands of their children, and people in need of care being abused by their carers, the language used here is deliberate, in recognition of the gendered nature of domestic violence. Statistics show that the vast majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women, and usually in the context of an intimate relationship.
These attitudes have served to keep women silent, to enhance the web of secrecy woven by the perpetrator, which further fuels his pattern of coercive controlling behaviour. If he can keep her isolated from the support of family, friends and services; brainwash her into believing it is all her fault and responsibility – she shouldn’t nag, she should keep the house and kids organised, he has mental health issues or addictions which absolve him of responsibility for his actions; she will soon believe she is worthless and useless and alone in her experience of abuse.
Natasha Stott Despoja, Chair of Our Watch, was recently quoted as saying – “International evidence tells us very clearly there are two key pre-determinates when it comes to the issue of violence against women. Gender stereotyping and those rigid gender roles that do men and women no favours; and economic, social and political inequality that exists in our societies.”
Combine this with the constructs of masculinity in our society and you have a very powerful formula. Boys are conditioned to think that men are in charge, men have to be strong and not show emotion, men are the heads of the household and have the final say. Not so long ago our legislation around marriage dictated that women became the property of men upon marriage and women lost many of their rights as individuals as a result. Things have changed, for example rape within marriage is now recognised as a crime, but the programming of these historical messages runs deep.
The current NSW Government definition of domestic violence tells us that “Domestic and family violence includes any behaviour, in an intimate or family relationship, which is violent, threatening, coercive or controlling, causing a person to live in fear. It is usually manifested as part of a pattern of controlling or coercive behaviour.”
As discussed though, domestic violence does not only happen within intimate heterosexual relationships. Whilst research in this area is limited, domestic violence is also a significant issue in LGBTIQ relationships.
A recent pilot of a domestic violence support and therapeutic program attended by a group of gay men revealed a disturbing pattern of physical violence almost as the currency with which a relationship was conducted. Again, in the context of the constructs of masculinity within our culture, the threats and use of physical aggression was a common denominator. These men reported the conflict of wanting to defend themselves against physical attack, in the knowledge of even more violent reprisals if they did so. They reported the shame of what they saw as “allowing this to happen to them”, and the grief of lost love. These situations were not assisted by insensitive responses from police and generalist practitioners who told men seeking to report serious assaults and obtain assistance to “go outside and sort it out like men” or to be more sensitive to their partner and not so provocative in their relationships.
The lack of understanding of domestic violence combined with a lack of sensitivity to the issues experienced by the LGBTIQ community can make it even more difficult for these survivors to get the real help and support they need. The survivors who attended this pilot were so grateful to be assisted by domestic violence therapists who had an understanding of the complexities of their circumstances, which was in stark contrast to some of their past experiences.
After all, the bottom line is that we all have a basic human right to live in safety.
Domestic violence is also a form of complex trauma which requires a specialist domestic violence trauma response for survivors to overcome and move forward. It is in some ways similar to childhood sexual abuse, where the target is groomed over a period of time until the perpetrator starts to make the moves towards their chosen abuse tactics.
Many domestic violence survivors experience post-traumatic stress and are readily triggered by things like phrases, scents, facial expressions, places. This often also leads to conditions relating to anxiety and depression, as they struggle to separate their actual self from the brainwashed picture of themselves that they became so convinced of.
Some of the most significant impacts of domestic violence are the emotional and psychological. Survivors will report wishing that he would just hit her so she had something to show people to evidence the abuse. However, physical scars and wounds heal much more easily than the deep wounds of emotional and psychological abuse. These trauma impacts may take years of specialist therapeutic work to unpack and work through, to then enable a woman to get to know herself again, rebuild her self-esteem and self-image, and be empowered to take charge of her life again. It is really important that this is recognised as a specialist field of practice as it is important to understand both the complexities of trauma as well as the dynamics of domestic violence to provide meaningful support to survivors.
Ask not why they stay, but what prevents them from leaving……
So many times people who are lucky enough not to have experienced abuse ask “why does she stay? I would be out of there so fast. I wouldn’t put up with that treatment”. Alas, it’s not that easy. Think about it – a woman has been through the joys of finding a partner and falling in love; she has built a life with the person she loves; created a home, perhaps entering into a mortgage together; maybe started a family and her children have their rooms with their favourite things and friends and school nearby; often in this process her financial independence has been absorbed into the best interests of the family. Slowly building around this ideal picture is the web of power and control, the grooming, the subtle pattern of tactics that start to create cracks in this perfect picture. By the time this pattern starts to form the ugly picture that it is, she is in very deep. That web is so strong around her, it seems unbreakable.
Apart from the fact that women are at higher risk of death when they separate from their abusive partner, if she wanted to leave, where would she go? Most women have been isolated from family and friends; crisis accommodation is limited even if she is aware of how to access it; she probably hasn’t got access to money, certainly not sufficient funds to pay private rental in Sydney; she is concerned about the impact of uprooting the children and probably thinks children need two parents; she may have family heirlooms or pets that he may have threatened to harm if she leaves them behind; combine all of this with a shattered self-esteem and the exhausting grief of the lost “happy family” dream, and indeed you can see what prevents her from leaving.
Active bystanders – how you can make a difference
Whilst this all seems very depressing, and indeed it is considering that so far this year around two women per week have been killed in the context of domestic violence, all is not lost. The power is in the hands of each and every one of us to make a difference on this issue. If we all take a stand against violence in our community, work towards shifting the culture in our society that enables the power imbalance and feeds the patterns of coercive control, we can make a difference.
We can all become active bystanders. You would be familiar with the term bystander – a person who witnesses or is aware of behaviour or comments. An active bystander is a person who actually speaks up or takes action when they see or become aware of unacceptable behaviour or comments. Active bystanders can speak up during conversations to challenge comments, beliefs and attitudes that condone violence or support sexist attitudes. Comments and jokes of a sexist and violent nature reinforce violence as normal, and identify females as sex objects. In staying silent during these conversations, we are actually condoning or supporting what is being said.
There are many safe ways in which you can be an active bystander. First of all, don’t be afraid of calling the police if you hear a violent argument in a neighbour’s house – you could be saving a life! If you are out and about and witness verbal abuse or controlling behaviour, perhaps it might be safe for you to interrupt or distract the perpetrator by asking for directions or the time. Anything that breaks the pattern of behaviour can potentially stop the abuse escalating at that time.
This is a really important area that men can help in. We know that most men are not violent and would like to see a safe society for everyone. Men can be active bystanders with their mates by saying things like;
- “What you said earlier really bothered me…”
- “How would you feel if someone did that to your sister?”
- “I know you well enough to know that you would not want to hurt someone..”
- “I wonder if you realise how that feels/comes across.”
- “I am saying something because I care about you…”
- Use humour
- Remind him of his ‘best self’.
If you know someone who is experiencing domestic violence it is really important to support them. Listen to their story, believe them – don’t judge them, and respect them for their strength and courage to survive. You can help them get support by referring them to your local domestic violence support service or by calling 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or the Domestic Violence Line 1800 65 64 63. If you know of any men who may be concerned about their behaviour and want to seek help, you can refer them to the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or Mensline 1300 78 99 78.
Do you need Help?
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)
Domestic Violence Line 1800 65 64 63
Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491 or Mensline 1300 78 99 78
IMPORTANT: In an emergency – if anyone is in immediate danger – please call 000 without delay.
Support can save lives
Raising awareness is important but it also leads to an increase in demand for support. It’s great to see women willing to seek help but that makes it even more important for an efficient response to be available to them. Unfortunately the demand for domestic violence specialist crisis accommodation, counselling and casework services greatly exceeds supply so if you have an opportunity to support such a service please do so. These services have to maintain a low public profile to maintain a safe haven for women and children so diversifying income is challenging.
I encourage you all to consider the pictures I have tried to paint here, put yourself in the place of the survivor, have the courage to make a stand and take action on this important issue. So far this year the Destroy The Joint, Counting Dead Women Australia project has counted 58 deaths – it will probably be higher when you read this article – this intimate terrorism is truly a national emergency and it has to stop now!
Vicki Johnston is a Domestic Violence specialist, therapist and educator working at a local domestic violence family support service. Bystander graphics courtesy of Dr Michael Flood, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Wollongong
Inner City Picture
Trends and patterns in domestic violence incidents reported to, or detected by, the NSW Police Force. Information from the Bureau of Crime Statistics indicates the following prevalence per 100,000 of population in our region.
State of NSW Rate of 384.5 per 100,000
Botany Bay LGA Rate of 254.1 per 100,000
City of Sydney LGA Rate of 526.8 per 100,000
Leichhardt LGA Rate of 179.9 per 100,000
Randwick LGA Rate of 243.8 per 100,000
Waverley LGA Rate of 203.7 per 100,000
Woollahra LGA Rate of 164.7 per 100,000
Australia’s National Reserarch Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) Key Statistics – www.anrows.org.au/publications/fast-facts
Destroy The Joint Countin Dead Women Project – www.facebook.com/DestroyTheJoint
The Empowering Internet Safety Guide for Women – https://www.vpnmentor.com/blog/the-empowering-internet-safety-guide-for-women/