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To change attitudes to family violence, we need a shift in gender views

There has been a dramatic decline in understanding that it is mainly men who perpetrate domestic violence. shutterstock

In her opening statement at the public hearings of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, commissioner Marcia Neave said family violence’s causes:

… are deeply embedded in community attitudes about gender, and about what is and what is not legitimate and appropriate between intimate partners and within families.

The commission’s remit is to “provide practical recommendations on how Victoria’s response to family violence can be improved”. This is an overdue examination and a highly commendable intention, as is the issue being high on the COAG agenda this week. But to reduce family violence, we need to examine the culture of masculinity and the way we socialise our children into gender roles.

What’s the role of gender in family violence?

In Australia, 95% of all victims of violence (both males and females) experienced violence from a male perpetrator. This includes physical or sexual assault, or threats.

When we start to look at the relationship between perpetrator and victim, we can see clearly that the gender dynamics are even more important to consider.

Family members perpetrated more than half (52%) of reported acts of violence against women, compared with less than one-fifth (18%) of the reported violence against men. Family members include current and previous partners, dating partners, parents, siblings and other relatives.

An opposite-gendered intimate partner perpetrated most of the reported family-related violent incidents. This made up one in three reports for women and one in ten reports for men. The second-most-common relationship category was violence by a male parent against both females (3%) and males (2%).

What we know about perpetrators of violence

There has been very little population-level research asking men about their perpetration of violence. The existing studies have been conducted outside Australia and have used a range of methodologies and definitions of violence.

Two recent population-based studies conducted by the United Nations across nine Asia-Pacific countries found that between 26% and 80% of men disclosed having perpetrated physical or sexual intimate partner violence. Between 3% and 27% disclosed non-partner rape.

In a US community sample of unmarried men, 25% reported having perpetrated at least one act of attempted or completed rape since the age of 14. A further 39% reported that they had engaged in some form of forced sex or verbal coercion.

The same data for children and young people less than 15 years old is not easily available. Abuse and neglect of children is not always measured according to relationship, but by presence in the family. For example, psychological and emotional harm to children caused by witnessing a father’s violence toward a mother may be recorded as a child experiencing violence in the family.

Harm to children may also be attributed to one parent even when caused by the other parent. This is particularly the case for mothers who may be accused of “failing to protect” a child. The perpetrating parent is often not held to account for their behaviour.

Why community attitudes to family violence matter

As recently as 2012, when Australians were asked “who is perpetrating domestic violence?”, there was a substantial decline in understanding that it is mainly men who perpetrate domestic violence. Increasingly, there has been a misunderstanding that domestic violence is perpetrated by both men and women equally.

Intimate partner violence is still not well understood. The results identified that Australians still trivialise and excuse violence against women.

Attitudes that trivialise, excuse or justify violence against women – as well as attitudes that minimise the impact or shift blame from the perpetrator to the victim – are labelled violence-supportive attitudes. Individuals who hold violence-supportive attitudes are not necessarily “violent-prone” or would openly condone violence against women.

However, when influential people express these attitudes or a substantial number of people hold them, it can create a culture in which a behaviour is not clearly condemned and at worst condoned or encouraged. These attitudes in effect allow violence to continue to exist in the community. They prevent many victims and witnesses from reporting violence in the family.

Who perpetrates violence against women? NCAS

Links between family violence and gender attitudes

Resistance to confronting and reporting violence can be linked to a number of barriers. However, underlying causes of violence in the family can be traced to gender and power relationships in the family.

Family violence is complex and multi-layered. It encompasses individual characteristics as well as community and organisational influences (including community attitudes). These are in turn underpinned by broader social structures and public policies perpetuated through the media, law and social norms of power and control.

All of this sits against the historic and contemporary context in which power and resources are unequally distributed between men and women in both public and private life. Socially constructed gender roles, relationships and identities support these inequalities.

Inequality, and the elements supporting it, are key to understanding violence against women – both within and outside the home.

In the privacy of the family institution there are few constraining safeguards against violence. Under these conditions, power may:

… change power holders in ways that are conducive to de-humanisation. This happens when those with coercive power over others have few safeguards for constraining their behaviour. Power holders come to devalue those over whom they wield control.

Attitudes to gender equality were the strongest predictors of violence-supportive attitudes. They were stronger than other characteristics such as the level of education and social disadvantage.

Family violence remains a deeply embedded issue because, as a society, we fear naming gender inequality. Recognising gender inequality threatens the deepest fabric of society.

Changing attitudes

Community attitudes to violence against women are an important barometer of gender relations. They illustrate whether victims feel confident to seek help and whether perpetrators are likely to be excused or held to account for their actions.

Changing attitudes is crucial to preventing crises in the longer term as is a re-examination of the role of men in relationships and definitions of masculinity.

Fortunately, both masculinity and attitudes are known to be socially constructed and can be linked to expression as behaviour. Therefore, both can be changed.

Attitudes are not innate, immutable features of individuals. Rather, they are socially constructed via exposure to both cultural influences – for example, prevailing norms about the roles of men and women – and structural arrangements, such as the extent of participation of women in education.

However, strategies that seek to change attitudes alone – such as community education or social marketing campaigns – are unlikely to be effective unless they are part of a broader range of strategies targeting behaviour via social and other sanctions. This can include law reform, policy change in organisations, incentives or strong leadership against violence-supportive cultures.

It is more effective to seek to change behaviours by directly targeting programs to change behaviour. This is done in the understanding that attitude change will follow.

Finally, and most importantly, there is little merit in the gender essentialist theory that male and female brains are responsible for gender behaviour. “Let boys be boys and girls be girls” is a product of social conditioning, rather than biology.

Editor’s note: The paragraph “In Australia, 95% of all victims of violence (both males and females) experienced violence from a male perpetrator. This includes physical or sexual assault, or threats.” was amended for clarity post-publication.

This article was written in collaboration with Kim Webster, co-author of the National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey 2012 report.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & 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.

Kristin will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 3 and 4pm AEST on Wednesday, July 22. Post your questions in the comments section below.

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