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As Tui Leleisiuao said on last night’s Insight, ‘when you hit your partner, it’s domestic violence, when you hit the postman that’s assault.’
For Leleisiuao, who described the path he had taken to challenging both the abusive environment he grew up in as well as the abuse he directed at his wife and family, it began with acknowledgement. With acknowledging violent and abusive behaviour, acknowledging its cause and effect, and acknowledging where the responsibility fell.
This is a process we should all take to challenge our preconceptions and our judgements, and to improve what we talk about when we talk about violence in the home.
Domestic violence is violence. It is damaging to think of it in any other way. The domestic epithet diminishes the crime and reduces the culpability of the perpetrator; it distances it from other crimes. Establishing a familial and non-abusive relationship between the perpetrator and the victim clouds our ability to see clearly the assaults that occur within the confines of domesticity.
The acknowledgement that needs to be made is that more often than not domestic violence is perpetrated by men. Before any meaningful dialogue and necessary strategies can be implemented, this needs to be a fact that is recognised. Unfortunately, that recognition happens all too rarely. Yesterday’s report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed clearly that violence by a partner was experienced by more than twice as many women as men. Additionally, for both female and male victims of domestic abuse, the perpetrator is almost always male. This is not equating men with violence, but recognising and accepting the gender of the individuals largely responsible.
As Julia Gardiner wrote last month, it is difficult to see domestic violence making headlines and front pages in a way that drunken brawls and one-punch attacks have ‘because there’s a common theme that ties the incident all together’ which makes it easier for legislation - alcohol.
For domestic violence, that clarity is lost, as is the commonality. We try to excuse it, or justify it, or see around it because it occurs within a household, within an intimate relationship. These are bonds that we are inclined to think positively about, rather than negatively. It doesn’t come naturally to us to see violence in a relationship, and so unlike drunken fights, the connection is less clear.
Insight: Inside violent families
Insight brings together families with firsthand experiences to talk about violence in their homes. Perpetrators of domestic violence also speak candidly about why they were abusive.
The mainstream media coverage of domestic violence is often misguided. The focus on Simon Gittany’s conviction for the murder of Lisa Harnum shifted to his family’s support of him, and his new partner’s loyalty. Daniel Leigh Evans’ assault on his partner where she was punched, kneed, head-butted and thrown into a glass shower recess, was described by Evan’s lawyer as an ‘aberration’ and despite the seriousness of the assault he was handed a suspended sentence and a $400 fine.
We allow the ‘dinosaur’ attitudes of men like Ray Hadley, and tolerate their presence on the airwaves and TV because of their similar excuses and popularity, and because they do not fit the mould of how we see violent offenders. They are not drunken youths. They are successful men. We need to call out violence as violence, and acknowledge that more often than not it begins and ends in the home.
The incidences around Australia of violence and violent deaths in domestic situations far outweigh those involving strangers with alcohol. This is a truth that needs accepting. We need to accept what these crimes look like, and how they start. Only then can we look to some possible hope for the victims.
For the contributors on Insight who spoke of their aggressive behaviour, there were stories of being raised in abusive households, stories of cultures that condoned violence, and stories told of how men struggle with the expectations of masculinity laid out for them by their peers, their society and their own psychology. What became clear is that there was no uniform story, no single model in which we can identify clear cause of these choices, nor clear strategies on preventing it. Yet each spoke of a moment of realisation, of acknowledging violent and abusive attitudes. This is what we all need.
The difficulty is that too often domestic violence is hidden from view, it is not as public and communally reviled as sexism or racism, and thus becomes harder to call out for those standing by. The beginning and ending of changing this behaviour belongs to men. We are not prey to expectations of masculinity, we determine it. We cannot change past environments, we cannot change our upbringing, but we can certainly recognise violence as violence. We can acknowledge that there isn’t a fixed identity for men, there isn’t a biology that determines how we act and that no amount of excuses and looking the other way will magically transform domestic abuse into an accident or an aberration.
We are all men, in our varied and various forms, and we decide the course of our own actions. This begins with acknowledgement of difficult facts, but they are facts nonetheless. Violence has no clear origin, nor a clear conclusion, but the process that masculinity must adopt is one of acknowledgement and understanding lest we lose those that give our lives meaning.
If you need help, please contact the following organisations. They are available 24/7.
Call 000 if the situation is life-threatening.
Craig Hildebrand-Burke is a writer and teacher from Melbourne.