Domestic violence is a widely discussed issue in Australia. However, many narratives fail to acknowledge the impact of alcohol and illicit substances on the prevalence and severity of domestic violence. They also fail to adequately describe the complexity of violence that occurs within families.
A new study has revealed heavy episodic drinking doubles the risk of family and domestic violence.
This three-year study involved surveying more than 5,000 Australians and analysing police data from across the country in an effort to untangle the relationship between alcohol and other drug use, and family violence.
Associations with heavy drinking
Most people who have heard the stories of survivors and police won’t be surprised to hear alcohol played a significant role in the experience of violence for a proportion of the people surveyed.
Survey participants who reported that their partners engaged in heavy episodic drinking were nearly six times more likely to report experiencing alcohol-related intimate partner violence. Alcohol-related incidents were much more likely to involve physical violence that results in physical, psychological or emotional injury.
Heavy drinking was also found to be linked to increased coercive controlling behaviour. This encompasses the behaviours used to exert control over an intimate partner such as financial control, threatening and intimidating behaviour, emotional control and isolation.
Looking at police data, alcohol involvement in family violence incidents ranged from 23.9% in the ACT to more than half in the NT and South Australia.
Interestingly, more than half of the alcohol implicated in partner violence incidents was purchased between 500m and 10km of the location of the incident, with supermarkets the most frequent place of purchase.
Despite strong evidence pointing to significant alcohol involvement in family violence, government responses to combat alcohol-related family violence are weak or non-existent. For example, the Commonwealth government’s recently released plan to reduce violence against women and their children failed to address the role of alcohol and drugs in its proposed strategies to reduce family violence.
Illicit and licit substances
Drugs are also significantly involved in family violence, with almost double the proportion of drug-related partner violence incidents resulting in a physical injury compared to drug-unrelated incidents.
While it is equally important to consider the role of other drugs in family violence, we need to remember that other drug use is not as prevalent in society as alcohol use. Alcohol is a legal product that is widely used, socially sanctioned and readily available.
Violence is complex and diverse
Our survey tried to understand the many manifestations of violence and the complex interactions between people in families and intimate relationships.
Women, men and children are all victims and offenders, and some relationships are far more complex than simply labelling an individual “perpetrator” or “victim”. Longitudinal studies – those that follow people over time – show growing up experiencing violence or neglect predicts future involvement in family violence.
In our study, we used the idea of “coercive controlling behaviour” to understand different behaviours within relationships. Around half of respondents had a partner who engaged in high levels of coercive controlling behaviour toward them, and 66.8% themselves engaged in high levels of coercive controlling behaviour toward their partner.
The three most frequent coercive controlling behaviours respondents and partners engaged in were “provokes arguments”, “shouts or swears”, and “is jealous or possessive”.
Alcohol was also a factor in incidence of coercive controlling behaviour. In our survey, 56.3% of respondents who engaged in high levels of coercive controlling behaviour reporting drinking at hazardous levels.
What can we do?
There are a lot of evidence-based strategies out there that are not being used, but if employed could result in immediate and tangible reductions in family-violence harm. As the report indicates, the majority of alcohol consumed during a family violence incident is purchased close to home. So we need to consider reducing the availability of alcohol.
This can be achieved through imposing caps on the number of takeaway liquor licences and restricting the strength of alcohol available for sale within communities, particularly those identified as already having high levels of violence.
There is also a need to combine the expertise of alcohol and drug and family violence agencies. With such a significant overlap between the two agencies, it’s vital they collaborate and provide services sensitive to complex needs. This includes rehabilitation programs that deal with family issues, alcohol and drug, and other relevant issues concurrently.
To prevent recidivism, there should be mandatory sobriety or treatment orders attached to relevant family violence sentences. This has proven successful in parts of the US where these types of programs exist. The program involves offenders of alcohol-related crimes, including family violence, undergoing regular sobriety testing, with a short prison sentence imposed on those who fail the test.
Australia has come a long way in responding to family and domestic violence in the past decade. Reliable evidence from around the world shows us time and again responding to some of the key factors driving violence such as alcohol, drugs and mental health can have rapid results and reduce the burden of this awful and complex problem. It can also save money for the community; money that could be spent on more support services.