Myths and realities of domestic violence

Tough choices ... Domestic violence is an incredibly complicated issue with no simple or universal solutions. Photo: ...
Tough choices ... Domestic violence is an incredibly complicated issue with no simple or universal solutions. Photo: Getty Images 

It’s an insulting term, domestic violence. The combination rips at the soft assurances of comfort, nurtured sustenance and relaxed acceptance the word ‘domestic’ conveys. It also suggests there is potentially a soft and faintly amateurish form of violence that needs only the sound effects from Funniest Home Videos to make it hilarious.

Yet despite our love and trust in our homes, home is still the single most dangerous place for women. It’s a thought that many don’t take to heart, thinking it’s something that happens to other women, in other homes.

That myth deflated over the weekend when photos emerged of art collector Charles Saatchi appearing to strangle a terrified Nigella Lawson. Nigella, who we love and adore. Nigella, a self-proclaimed domestic goddess, cruelly burdened with reality, with a problem had by other people.

Suddenly the focus is all on Nigella, in a cruelly forensic way, as armchair experts line up with their advice on How to Deal With Domestic Violence: I would hit him! Leave the home! Call the police! Stop buying her books! The restaurant should have thrown him out! Lock him up! Stop taking photos! Keep taking photos! It’s simple: leave!

But opinions are not the same as expert or practical advice, and many are based on inaccurate stereotypes of intimate partner violence, such as;

It doesn’t happen to every woman

No, but it happens to a damn lot. In the International Violence Against Women Survey, it's reported that over a third of Australian women had been at the hands of sexual or physical violence from a current or previous partner.

She should have known before

This is a spectacular bit of victim-blaming that helps no one except the opinion–holder experiencing the sweet scent of smugitude.

Many victims of intimate partner violence report being groomed or conditioned to accept and expect the abuse. People don’t start a relationship thinking “well, he’s really lovely, seems like a great boyfriend, but he has clearly stated he’s a fan of the beating the Rabbitohs and women”. These are often relationships where the abuse starts on a smaller scale, where gaslighting (the process of undermining a person’s perception or sanity) occurs to erode a woman’s faith in determining what is acceptable.

Oh, she's always had terrible taste in men

Any suggestion that a woman somehow chooses to be attacked without their consent suggests she is in some way to blame. She isn’t. It can happen to women with no education, to women with PhDs, to poor, rich, from stable or unstable homes, from rich or poor backgrounds, at the hands of upstanding men or men viewed by society as ‘bad’.

There are no typical abusers, just as there are no typical victims.

Domestic violence is alcohol-related

There is no doubt that alcohol is a contributing factor to violence anywhere, not least within the home, but it's not the sole reason. Plenty of sober people abuse, and plenty of drunk people don’t.

It’s a working class thing

Often there is an assumption that intimate partner violence is a lower class occurrence.  As Police Commissioner Ken Lay noted in his White Ribbon Day speech, Victoria Police respond to close to 140 incidents every day – in every suburb of Melbourne. From Doveton to Toorak, from Hawthorn to Epping. There is no distinction from wealth or poverty – it happens in every suburb.

Women hit men too

Numbers vary; some reports suggest a range of anywhere between 73.7 per cent to 98 per cent of all intimate partner violence perpetrators are male, which leaves a large amount of ambiguity about female attackers.

But the presence of female attackers doesn’t actually change matters. The fact remains that more men hit their partners than women. Sure, some women hit men, but that in no way excuses any attacker, nor diminishes the problem.

I would have stepped in and sorted it out

Sure, if you believe direct confrontation with aggressive people who resent being challenged always works well.

A friend, beautifully bold and fearless, told me how she once intervened when she saw a man get violent with his female partner. Her actions, though grounded with the best of intent, saw the woman alternately chastise the friend (a form of self-preservation because she probably knew she would be blamed for someone intervening) and try to protect her from her aggressive partner who now wanted to bash two women.

There are times when you can intervene, just as there are times when you can’t. Not only may you be endangering yourself, you can also further endanger the victim.

It's not abuse if it’s not physical

Charles Saatchi says he grabbed his wife’s throat to emphasis a point. Other men don’t use their hands, they control their partner by withholding money, restricting her movements, demanding or denying sex or being emotionally and psychologically abusive.

She should go to the police

We are indebted to a wonderful police force who are committed to serving and protecting our community. If you see or hear intimate partner violence occurring, you should definitely call the police. They are trained and able to deal with most situations.

But this does not change the fact that only 10 per cent of AVOs are approved and, of that number, 20 per cent of women with AVOs still experience violence. Additionally, there is rarely any jail time for abusive partners and they're often immediately released on bond, able to further harass or attack their victims.

While there’s no doubt victims should go to the police, it should also be understood why many are afraid to do so, for incredibly valid reasons.

She should just leave

Evidence suggests that the most dangerous time for women is the two months after they have either gone to the police or left the relationship.

This doesn’t even begin to take into account that it is gross inequality to expect the victim to leave the family home (perhaps with children), shouldering a logistical and financial burden on top of the scars of being in an abusive relationship.

It’s easy to find opinions on how to manage intimate partner violence, but this is an incredibly complicated issue with no simple or universal solutions.

If you are experiencing sexual assault or domestic and family violence, or are seeking to support someone who is, call the 24-hour advice lines of 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), or Lifeline (13 11 14).

For 24-hour online counselling service visit the 1800 RESPECT website.

Call 000 at any time if you are worried about you or your children’s safety.