Equality over-balanced is discrimination in reverse

Roger Smith
When should equality turn the other cheek? CLA’s Roger Smith (pictured), a lawyer and human rights worker for 10 years, believes Australia lags North America and parts of Europe on men’s rights to equal treatment in failed marriages. Elsewhere, authorities increasingly acknowledge the problem of male victims of domestic violence, but in Australia the issue is snuffed out by an ‘industry’ intent on keeping men out…and silent.

Time to end sexism in domestic violence policy

By Roger A.Smith

On International Women’s Day 2008, feminist activists and service providers scored yet another victory in their domestic violence campaign. Not only can men accused of domestic violence be expelled from their own houses, but domestic violence in New South Wales is to be made into a specific crime – presumably, one that carries greater odium and stigma than mere assault. 

However, for many victims of the most insidious, vicious and hidden forms of domestic violence, this is probably a reason for commiseration rather than celebration.

For years now, domestic violence policy and services in Australia have been based on a 1970’s paradigm that, in turn, was based on a 1950’s model of Western society. Domestic violence policy and service provision in Australia is overwhelmingly dominated by the “Duluth method” which claims that domestic violence is something that men do to women because of the patriarchal society in which we live and the political, social and cultural control that men exercise over women. Male batterers, they claim, operate from a position of socially-sanctioned power, and therefore, the way to end domestic violence is to end men’s sense of privilege.

Few would seriously recognize this model of society as the one in which we live in Australia in 2008. To take an example, if men were “privileged”, we would expect them to have preferred access to higher education. Yet there are far more women enrolled in Australian universities than there are men. In respect of school retention rates, the gap is in double figures – around 69% for boys compared to over 80% for girls at the national level. I say good luck to the girls! But it hardly supports the notion of patriarchy.

Similarly, few would accept that in relation to the laws governing the dissolution of marriage, dominant culture and power relationships privilege men over women. If we indeed live in a patriarchal society in Australia, North America and Europe in 2008, it is precisely in the realm of family law, divorce and inheritance that you would expect to find these excesses of male dominance just like in all other examples of patriarchal society.

However, the reality is quite the opposite. Since 2005, the Australian Government has even been forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to, in fact, redress the disadvantages suffered by men at the dissolution of marriage, including with respect to care and support arrangements for children and alternatives to the court system that were quite literally driving men to suicide.

The changes being introduced to the child support system, in particular, are based on recognition that Australian society has changed drastically in a period of just two decades since the original scheme was introduced. Biological differences allowing, women are now rightly expected to participate in paid work to help support their families financially. And men are expected to pull their weight in household matters and with respect to the care of children. This is a “win-win” situation that early feminist activists ought rightly to be proud of – not only for the social gains but also for the economic advances made possible as a result of women’s open participation in public life. 

If we accept these changes to society as self-evident, then we must also accept as dated the Duluth model’s diagnosis of domestic violence as resulting from men’s socially-sanctioned power over women. Or, to take this model to its logical conclusion, if the laws of marriage, divorce and custody rights are perceived to favour women, couldn’t we also expect women to engage in abusive “controlling” behaviour proportionate to the perceived power imbalance and advantages they could expect to obtain in terms of money and custody of children at the end of a relationship? Yes, we could and we have. If this is the case, shouldn’t there also be services in places that educate women about the harm caused by their controlling behaviour?

Even if Duluth-modeled family violence service providers accept that changes have occurred in Western society in the past 40 years, they will probably move on to the ‘r’ word –  research. Doesn’t nearly all the research support the view that domestic violence overwhelmingly involves male perpetrators and female victims?

Well, not exactly. While cases reported to police and emergency services do mostly involve female victims at the hands of male perpetrators, the more rigorous population-based studies into the incidence and nature of domestic violence in English-speaking countries tend to present a far more gender-neutral picture of family violence.

Probably the best and most recent study of this phenomenon is Partner Violence and Mental Health Outcomes in a New Zealand Birth Cohort by Fergusson, Horwood & Ridder published in the Journal of Family and Marriage (vol. 67. no. 5, Dec 2005, pp. 1103-1119). This research examines in depth the domestic violence experiences a cohort of young New Zealanders selected at random based on the birth records of a Christchurch hospital. The key findings of the study were that domestic conflict (ranging from minor psychological abuse to severe assault) is common, that men and women report similar incidence and experiences of victimization and perpetration of domestic violence and that exposure to domestic violence is significantly related to increased risk of major depression and suicidal ideation.

This study is hardly a statistical outlier. In fact, Martin Fiebert of the Department of Psychology, California State University, Long Beach, USA has compiled a list of 209 scholarly investigations (161 empirical studies and 48 reviews and/or analyses) indicating that women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners (see http://www.csulb.edu/~mfiebert/assault.htm).   

Some feminist-orientated academics, faced with the results of population studies such as these, have partially dismissed them by presupposing a somewhat unreal dichotomy between non-gender-based “situational couple violence” to which they claim the studies relate and gender-based “intimate terrorism”. But the domestic violence service industry, accustomed to policy victories without the need for rigorous evidence-based research, has mostly just ignored the findings – perhaps in the hope that they will go away.

While there is certainly no harm in making DV services readily available to women in need, there is considerable harm, as the New Zealand study suggests, in invalidating men’s experience of violence and abuse in relationships. The inference in doing so is that intimate partner violence and abuse by women is acceptable – or even commendable – as a demonstration of feminine assertiveness in today’s society.

Saturation public advertising campaigns such as Violence against Women – Australia Says ‘No’, by deliberately acknowledging only female victims, might be useful in reducing the incidence of male perpetration, but they probably also create more male victims by their implicit message that women are permitted to do whatever they like to their male partners and society will always blame the man.

In the 1950s, battered wives who presented to doctors for treatment were advised to make their husbands happier so that he would stop the abuse. In the present day, male victims of domestic violence – whether physical or emotional – can expect to fare no better and in many cases probably worse. They are often treated with derision or disbelief, or more likely, just ignored. Where men complain of abuse to a counselling industry in Australia built on Duluth philosophy and principles, they can expect to be told that “it’s just her way of getting her needs met” and are told to look for ways they can make their wife happier by taking on more household chores.

If a male victim, as is unfortunately often the case, responds to longstanding physical and/or mental cruelty by retaliating or just defending himself, he could expect to face the possibility of losing everything – his home, his children, his reputation, his passport, his job. Domestic violence campaigners who are supposed to be protecting victims have made sure that any pre-existing abuse (physical or psychological) by the woman will likely be disregarded. If this is not a power imbalance, then what is?   

At best, male victims of domestic violence will be advised to leave an abusive relationship, but this is often easier said than done. Given that Family Court judges often haven’t caught up with changes in Australian society and assume that women have a domestic role and men a role in the paid economy, men until recently have rarely been granted shared custody and are usually encumbered with unequal property settlements that see them losing the increasingly unaffordable family home. The prospect of being kicked out of a comfortable family home they spent a lifetime working for to live in cramped rental accommodation and lose regular contact with their children is enough to lead many men to despair. It comes as no surprise that they will often fight to save even a miserable marriage rather than face that prospect.

Newly-enacted humane family law and child support schemes that recognize changes to Australian society are a welcome development. But while our Federal laws are finally catching up with the 21st century, the State and Territory-based laws and the attitudes of the mostly middle-aged women who run domestic violence services in Australia are still, in many respects, stuck in a 1970’s time warp.

It is time to remind these mostly fair-minded older sisters in charge of DV services from which men are excluded of the non-discriminatory ideals for which they once fought.To acknowledge the importance of non-discrimination in policy and service provision in no way implies any undermining of support services for women victims – if that is their concern. On the contrary, it recognizes the appalling damage that DV can cause to victims of whatever background.   

In 2008, there are no longer any excuses. It’s time for Western feminists to move into the 21st century and embrace the ideals of equality that they themselves once advocated. Because at the end of the day, we are really only asking for a simple acknowledgement – ‘yes’, women do commit domestic violence and ‘no’ it is not acceptable!

Photo of Roger Smith:

Roger Anthony Smith is a lawyer. He worked for nearly 10 years to further human rights in Indonesia and Timor Leste. Since returning to Australia, he has been national research officer for Relationships Australia for two years, while continuing to work, as a member of CLA, on liberties, rights and equality issues.

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