Persistent domestic violence: A social norm?

Speech given by Dr Linda Peach at the Northside Forum (Home safe? Domestic violence – a shameful cost to society) on Saturday 7th May 2016.  [I present this work as an individual and not as a representative of my employer.]

Image 1

[Photo from Sydney Morning Herald article published 30 April 2016]

On the 24th April 2016, the body of a woman was found in Snapper Point Blowhole and was later identified as Mengmei Leng, a 25-year-old international student living in Sydney.  A male relative has been charged with her murder.  Mengmei Leng was the 28th woman to lose her life to violence in Australia since 1 January 2016.

On April 26th, Violet Tamvakis was found stabbed to death in her home in Victoria.  Her son has been charged with her murder.  Violet was number 29.

On May 1st, Karen Belej was found shot dead at her home.  Her male partner has been charged with her murder.  Karen was the 30th woman who died violently in Australia since January 1 this year.  This makes the current average 1.8 women killed by violence each week of 2016.  Last year, the average was 1.5 per week and in 2014 it was 1.6.

Thank you to the team at Destroy the Joint Counting Dead Women for keeping this grim tally each year since 2012. 

Despite the daily rhetoric abhorring this state of affairs, we don’t appear to be making much progress in bringing these numbers down.

I suppose if we want to feel better about these figures, we could compare ourselves to Mexico, where the most recent estimate is 6 women murdered per day.

The World Health Organisation estimates that one in three women experience physical or sexual violence over their lifetimes, mostly perpetrated by an intimate partner.

The latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that 72% of family and domestic violence deaths in Australia are women killed by an intimate partner, and that 79% of physical assaults against women occur in their own homes. Women are also the victims in 100% of attempted murders by an intimate partner and 97% of sexual assaults by an intimate partner.  Men commit 80% of all physical assaults in Australia – 81% of physical assaults against men and 76% of physical assaults against women (ABS 2014-2015).

These statistics give us a fairly clear picture of how violence in our society is perpetrated differently according to the genders of both victims and offenders.

Today I am going to take you on a journey that I hope will lead us all to the same destination – an understanding of why these statistics exist in the first place, and how we, as a society, ensure that they don’t change much.

Why do women get involved with men who treat them badly?  This is the question we often hear when we talk about domestic violence.  I think this is fundamentally the wrong question.  The right question is, “Why do so many men treat so many women so badly?”

Prince Charming

Image 2 prince charmingI’d like to start addressing that question by talking about fairy tales.  In any self-respecting fairy tale, there comes a point at which Prince Charming leans down from his white charger, silver plated armour glinting in the sunlight, scoops up the damsel in distress and carries her away to a fortified castle somewhere.  Or he spends every waking moment outside her house, throwing roses, singing ballads, pouring champagne, wooing wooing wooing…. until she gives in, and then he gets to carry her off to his fortified castle.  Everyone says “Aw.  Sweet.  Lucky little lady, that one.”

No one ever asks what happens next.  Or why an adult conversation about their potential future together never seems to take place.

Instead, the man takes charge, the woman gets swept along, apparently perfectly happy to have her life determined by the chap on whose horse she is sitting, and they all allegedly live happily ever.

Image 3 cinderellaOur society has been building romantic fantasies and spoon-feeding them to our unsuspecting children for centuries.  Hollywood continues to churn them out for both children and adults.  The problem with these fantasies, of course, is that they almost exclusively ignore women’s wants, needs and desires and in doing that, they make women objects.  Objects to be glammed up by fairy godmothers, to be admired by throngs of men, envied by just as many women (and hated by a few), and completely subject to the hero’s wants, needs and desires.  And it’s all painted in a glorious, rose coloured picture of gentle women who need protection and strong, dominant men who provide that protection.

The problem is that this places women in a position of weakness and men in a position of strength, and that creates the gendered power imbalance from which all forms of gender inequality derive.

Domestic violence is a product of romantic fantasies that can never, ever, survive in the real world.

Domestic violence is an outcome of one gender having more power than the other. 

Domestic violence is an outcome of the belief that women need men’s protection and that men need to be dominant and strong. 

Domestic violence is an outcome of the belief that providing protection confers ownership:   Because I provide for you, I have rights over you and you are here to please me.

Women need protecting, right?

The idea that women need to be cared for and protected is not new.  For many centuries, women had no choice but to be under the protection of men because they had no rights to be financially independent.  If they wanted food, shelter and clothing, then their primary option was to become attached to a man who could provide it.

Being able to attract a man was therefore essential and women’s value became inextricably embedded in their physical attractiveness to men, and in their abilities to bear and rear children.  Once married, a woman had virtually no rights – no option to leave, no option to earn her own income, no option to own property independent of her husband.  The husband became her master in every way.  And yet, without women, men could not have offspring to carry on the family line.

This, according to Professors Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, is the source of ongoing tension between the sexes – the dominant group of men has power over the subordinate group of women, but is also dependent on the subordinate group for child bearing.  This is one of the underpinnings of Glick and Fiske’s Ambivalent Sexism Theory (1997, 2001).

In this theory, the dominant group needs to ensure that the subordinate group never truly understands or wields its independent power.  So women who are perceived to be sexually attractive to men are accorded higher status than women who are perceived to be unattractive to men.  Women who defer to men’s wishes or who accept a lesser role in life receive greater rewards than women who refuse to conform or who seek independence. These seem like medieval ideas, yet they still apply today, seen particularly in the treatment of women who attain powerful positions that have previously been held by men.

This system of rewards for being good girls and punishment for being bad girls maintains the status quo very effectively.

Women as objects

Image 4 Marilyn objectification

When women are objectified as having value only in their attractiveness to men or their abilities to bear children, their own needs and wants are overridden by the needs and wants of men.  This creates a culture of entitlement among men – that is, entitlement to women’s bodies.  To look at, to touch, to be physically intimate with.

The recent University of Melbourne scandal where photographs of female students were posted online and rated by male students as to their sexual attractiveness is a very good example of the sense of entitlement that can grow out of seeing women’s needs as irrelevant.

Consider also the recent furore at the University of Queensland when some enterprising feminist students wanted to sell cupcakes that were priced according to the gender pay gap.  So women paid, on average, 17% less than men for a cupcake.  The response was jaw-droppingly severe.  The people running the stall were publicly vilified and threatened with violence, including rape and death.  Over cupcakes.  How much distance is there between that and abusing a woman for not getting the dinner ready on time?

Why is there still such a strong negative reaction to anyone who stands up for the rights of women to be treated as equals of men?

Domestic violence is a product of the belief that women’s needs and desires are unimportant.

Domestic violence is a product of the belief that women exist to please men.

Image 5 woman on street

Research from the University of North Dakota published in the journal, Violence and Gender, in 2014 reported that 30% of a sample of college men said they would force a woman to have sex “…if nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences.”  One in three.  The sample size was admittedly small (73) and the study needs to be repeated on a much larger scale to be confirmed, but even with a small sample, this is a chilling result.

Rape in itself is another form of power and control, and the threat of being raped is used consistently to maintain control over women’s movements. At the same time, women are held to account for men’s behaviour towards women.  Girls are told from an early age that they need to cover up, be modest, not put themselves in situations where a man or men might be unable to control their desires for sexual gratification.  Girls and women are taught that they must not do anything to encourage men to take advantage of them and they must be protected from the possibility that a man will rape, assault or otherwise harm them.

I often hear parents worrying about how much anxiety they have about their daughters.  They – naturally – want their daughters to be safe.  So they warn them about where they go and who they go with, about what they wear and about how much they drink.  They tell them not to walk alone at night, not to go into isolated places on their own, not to take unregulated taxis, not to catch public transport after a certain time, not to go into car parks on their own at night…. The list of restrictions that women live with every day is a very very long one.

What I have never so far heard is any parent say that they worry that their sons might be tempted to rape girls.  I never hear parents suggest that their sons should not go near any girls who are drunk in case they decide to rape them.  Sons are not told not to walk in parks late at night in case there is a lone woman who they decide to rape.  Nor are they told to avoid public transport or not go into car parks late at night in case they are there at the same time as a woman they might rape.

But 1 in 3 college men said they would force a woman to have sex if nobody would ever know and there would be no consequences.

So if we aren’t teaching our boys to avoid being alone with women in case they decide to rape them, what are we teaching our boys about respect and consent?

Steve Biddulph in the Sydney Morning Herald recently wrote:

From casual sexism, through to the recent scandal over Facebook pages where women at Melbourne University were sexually evaluated, through to the frankly rape-based corners of the internet, to the astonishing survival, so far, of Wicked Campers with their deeply offensive slogans – rape culture is clearly something we need to address. … There is a war we need to fight to change the mindsets of boys, young men, and wider masculinity, to end the awful history of sexual violence against women and girls.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of Steve Biddulph’s argument because he suggests that rape culture derives from the teenage boy’s psyche and is a product of his fear of rejection.  I believe this to be wrong.

Rape culture derives from long-standing and deeply embedded social norms about women’s lack of power in our society.

Rape culture and victim blaming devalue women and teach disrespect of women’s autonomy.

Domestic violence is a product of lack of respect for women.

Teaching boys to be men

What does this lack of respect for women say about men?  Australia, it has been suggested quietly in the background, has a problem with masculinity.  The problem starts with how girls’ behaviour and boys’ behaviour is regulated differently in pre-school, and it grows from there.  Take the Bob Marley meme pictured.  Let’s deconstruct this meme and look at what it is really telling boys and girls, women and men:

Image 6 masculinity

“If she’s amazing, she won’t be easy.  If she’s easy, she won’t be amazing.”  So a woman who is straightforward and clear about who she is and what she wants is not amazing.  A woman who is difficult to access and resistant is amazing.

“If she’s worth it, you won’t give up.  If you give up, you’re not worthy….”  So if you come across a woman who is amazing to you, but who is not easy and is resisting your charms, then you should pursue her relentlessly because if you give up, you are not worthy.

Nowhere in this meme does it give any airtime to what this amazing woman-prize wants.  It only suggests that a man can tell an amazing woman-prize from a dud by how easily available she is.

I’ve picked this simple meme because it shows objectification where women’s worth is linked to sexual availability; rape culture where relentless pursuit and eventual domination without regard to the object’s feelings are held up as laudable masculine behaviours; and dominant masculinity where you are only considered worthy as a man if you pursue your object relentlessly.

Image 7 be a manAnd this leads me to my final point for today:  men are just as disadvantaged as women by inequality between the sexes, but their disadvantage takes a different shape and form.  Because men have more power, their disadvantage is more about how their own power and access to power dictates their behaviour towards women, and also dictates what women expect of them and how women behave towards them.

The need to maintain power means that boys and men are taught to be invincible.  The more invincible you are, the better man you are.  The stronger you are, the better man you are.  The more dominant you are, the better man you are.  We teach boys not to cry, not to do things that are girly or feminine, not to feel any emotion other than aggression, and not to allow girls (the least respected people) to tell them what to do.  At the same time, we tell boys they must use their strength and their invincibility to protect women and to provide for their families.

Nowhere in this perfect man-being is there room for fallible humanness.  Men spend their lives trying to be impossible super-heroes while women spend their lives trying to be impossible super-models/mothers.

Domestic violence is a product of how boys and men are taught to be men.

Is there any hope for the future?

How do we change this picture?  How do we create a new future so that the coming generations can live without this blight on our society?  We are beginning to see change in the way that children are spoken to about gender and relationships.  We have seen campaigns like “Like A Girl”, “Man Up”, and “He For She”, which challenge the assumptions we make about gender at their very core.  These are good, solid, public information campaigns that do a great job to raise awareness.

To create real change, however, the message needs to be delivered consistently across our education system from pre-schools to universities.  A good current example is a program that the University of Melbourne is running, designed to connect schools with gender respect.

https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/schools-connect-with-gender-respect

Image 8 Connect with respect

This programme is about challenging gender norms where they start – in children’s first classrooms.  And the fact that it exists gives me hope that the next generation of young women and men will have greater respect and autonomy and will be less restricted and dictated to by a set of outdated social norms.  Once that happens, we should start to see decreasing numbers of women who die each year as a result of domestic violence.

Conclusion

If we are to create change that will enable the women and men of the future to live in a safe society where relationships are based on mutual respect and equality – a future in which domestic violence is a rarity instead of a norm – then Australia needs to work to change its culture of masculinity and of disrespect for women.  For that safer and more respectful Australia to emerge….

  • We need to teach our children about equal, respectful relationships grounded in reality, not fairy tales.
  • We need to create a society where both women and men are respected and valued equally.
  • We need to give equal value to women’s needs as we do to men’s.
  • We need to teach boys that women’s bodies are not their property and we need to teach girls that they – and only they – have the right to decide who can touch them.
  • We need to teach girls the difference between being treated as an object and being treated with respect.
  • We need to teach and model a different type of masculinity to boys – one which is based on respect and consent, and which is grounded in very real humanness.

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