Why don’t we speak up when we see signs of domestic violence?

Almost a quarter of Australians believe domestic violence can be excused if the attacker can’t control their anger. Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Have you cringed when a friend was degraded by her partner in public? Or felt uncomfortable because your friend’s partner continually rings to check her whereabouts? Is your friend’s partner intimidating and rude to you?

Have you heard screams from a neighbour’s house, or seen physical signs of abuse, and haven’t said anything?

All too often we, as individuals and a community, notice signs of domestic violence and don’t speak up. Let’s look at some of the reasons why – and how we can work to overcome this silence.

Intimacy

Domestic violence occurs in an intimate space and was considered a private matter until protection orders were introduced across Australia in the 1980s.

The home is usually considered a space of love, safety and togetherness. So we often find it uncomfortable to talk about the home as a site of painful, unpleasant and distressing problems such as abuse and violence.

Over time, the exercise of male power and control in intimate relationships erodes women’s sense of self; it interferes with every facet of a woman’s life, including her physical and mental health, social networks, and mothering.

It is through fear that men are able to control women’s behaviour, movements and freedom. And it is through fear that we look past suspected domestic violence.

It is more comfortable to think “he can’t be that bad”, “she must have done something to provoke him”, or “they will sort it out”. The alternative is too frightening for us because intimate relationships are the most significant social context in a person’s life.

Privacy

Perpetrators aim to garner unique knowledge about a partner’s movements and vulnerabilities so they can personalise their abuse. They often construct their partner as being “crazy”, “a bad mother”, and “at fault”.

Over time, women come to believe these messages and we, as a community, can unintentionally collude with the perpetrator and adopt these messages too.

A tactic of abuse is to deflate psychological power and well-being. Intimidation by a partner instills fear, dependence, compliance, loyalty and together, these grow secrecy and privacy. Consequently, perpetrators control partners to keep their relationship private.

Women who have experienced domestic violence often feel a sense of shame and guilt. It is common for women to report themselves as “unworthy”, a “bad person”, or that “they should have known”.

As concerned friends, it is extremely hard to break this wall of silence that has been built from coercive control. The first thing we can do is to believe any disclosure of abuse, not judge and explore it sensitively so we do not reinforce messages of silence and privacy.

Femininity and masculinity

Domestic violence is about gender power relations. As a community we form ideas about women, men and families and these ideas are bound by familial, cultural and societal expectations of “appropriate” behaviour for women and men. Understanding this social context is vital when examining our reluctance to say something about domestic violence.

In my book Domestic Violence in Diverse Contexts: a re-examination of gender, I argue that ideas about femininity and masculinity provide fertile ground for domestic violence.

Women are predominantly valued for being a wife, mother, carer, and lover. And our expectations of women are often constructed around these identities. Perpetrators use these constructions of femininity to justify abuse and turn our gaze on what women are doing wrong in the family.

At the same time, women modify their behaviour to survive domestic violence. They continually try to please their partner and protect his reputation by being loyal; they see this as a way to try and stop the abuse. Our expectations of women sustains the denial of domestic violence.

Societal expectations of appropriate behaviour for women and men differ substantially. In this context domestic violence can appear as normal, inevitable and acceptable elements of women’s lives.

A recent VicHealth study, for instance, found that more than 60% of Australians think the main cause of violence against women was men being unable to manage their anger. Almost a quarter of Australians believe domestic violence can be excused if the attacker can’t control their anger or regrets it.

Social context

Finally, we struggle to say something about domestic violence because it demonstrates the problem of gender inequality, sexism and discrimination at its utmost severity. We fear naming gender inequality because by doing so this threatens the deepest fabric of society.

The latest Australian Personal Safety Survey results show that women were more likely than men to experience violence by a partner. In 2012, an estimated 17% of all women aged 18 years and over and 5.3% of all men aged 18 years and over had experienced violence by a partner since the age of 15.

If violence against women is not recognised or discussed in the public realm, we’re less likely to say something about how our friend is being treated by her partner. Until we acknowledge male violence against women, the justification, trivialisation and uncomfortableness of saying something about domestic violence will remain.

Thankfully, violence against women is now being named and discussed worldwide as a public concern, not just a private matter. The OurWatch campaign, led by Natasha Stott Despoja, is just one example, and aims to drive nation-wide change in the culture, behaviours and attitudes that underpin and create violence against women and children.

So next time if you see or hear something sexist, cringe at someone blaming a victim of domestic violence, or suspect a friend is being abused, tell them you’ve noticed, open the conversation, and ask her: are you OK?


The National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Domestic Violence in Australia series here.