This is part two of a three-part series on domestic violence. Read part one here.

Reading back through academic papers on an issue of crucial importance — domestic and partner violence in this case, or violence against women more generally — can make your hair stand on end. The phenomenon has been written of and studied for more than a century, but it was only in the late 1950s that it began to emerge as a distinct issue, then labelled “battered-wife syndrome”. Richard Gelles’ 1980 review of the field showed almost no dedicated articles in the major sociological journals until the mid-1960s. When a distinct notion of it does start to emerge towards the end of that decade, it is often talked of in the language of systems dynamics, of families as systems. The research of the time is often focused on violence as an out-of-control aspect of a dysfunctional dynamic — it looks at escalation from verbal arguments to violence as a form of exchange, and, most confronting to our eyes, some researchers consider the role of women in escalating violence by means of initial petty violent action, such as a slap or a push.

I’m not advocating for these studies, because, when examined in any depth, they appear to be partial, with limited samples of respondents, saturated in the systems thinking of the era, and perhaps with more than a whiff of political correctness, since much of the study, in the United States, was of African-American households.

What I am suggesting is that the moral urgency of an issue — women and children being killed by their male partners and parents — does not necessarily mean that the thinking about it will bust through a whole series of assumptions dictated by current ideas, or by political demands. The “systems analysis” bias is long gone, but not so the general attraction to groupthink. In Australia recently that group think has shifted to one notion: that violence against women could be lessened by inculcating a culture of “respect”. So that’s number three in our great DV/PV demythologisation:

3. Would a culture of ‘respect’ lessen violence against women?

The notion that such violence has, at its root, a want of respect for women appears to have become the official state ideology of DV/PV, canonised by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, clearly marking a visible difference in rhetoric between himself and previous prime minister Tony Abbott (who some history buffs may recall). Abbott had, in typical blundering way, entered the debate with the notion that “real men (i.e. ideal men) don’t hit women”. Since there are two witnesses who claim Abbott punched either side of the head of a woman who displeased him in the 1970s, he isn’t exactly a role model for the cause, and there was a collective groan when he made the issue once again about his own neurotic masculinity with the “real men” quote.

Turnbull’s return to the central notion of “respect”, echoed that of Rosie Batty, in her evidence to the Victorian Commission, arguing that “respect for women” should be taught in schools, from primary level up. Batty’s developing role — from outspoken victim of family violence to advocate of specific strategies — raised the usual bitter hatred and scorn on the right (La Devine again, and Mark Latham getting himself sacked from a primo bully pulpit in the AFR, to be house gimp on a Channel Nine panel show).

But is there any evidence that “high-respect” cultures have less violence against women and children than “low-respect” cultures? Prior to exploring that we need to consider what the notion of “respect” means in this culture. One can take it that we’re not meaning the old patriarchal belief that women are valued out of notions of beauty, elegance, etc, and/or as mothers and the focus of love, care and protection. It’s that standard that is so often used — in reversal — for a legitimisation of violence against women. By “respect” is meant a cultural shift whereby gender equality is completed, and men regard women as autonomous beings with their own intentions and rights, beyond their role as partner/wife/mother.

Trouble is, there’s some evidence that “high-respect” cultures don’t have any less violence against women and children than what are, in this framework, “low-respect” cultures, which tend to see women in terms of their family roles and obligations. It’s easy to say that developed world societies have less such violence than say, Mexico or El Salvador. But violence against women there is part of a more general earthquake of violence with many causes, and so the comparison is too wide to be useful.

The useful comparison to be made is in Europe, where northern equalitarian cultures live side by side with southern traditionalist ones, with a reasonable degree of economic and social similarity. There we find that the division between “high-respect/high-autonomy” cultures such as those in Scandinavia and “machismo/low autonomy cultures” such as Spain is … none at all. Both have similar levels of murders of women and, as far as one can tell, similar levels of non-lethal violence against women.

Why would different levels of respect for women’s autonomy and rights make no difference to the levels of violence against women? There are many reasons, but the core take-away is that an act of violence against a woman by a male partner does not necessarily pivot on a lack of respect — as would say, violence against an animal — but may have all sort of motivations, real and imagined, which do not contradict the notion that a woman’s being is autonomous, or any supposition that she is defined by her relation to a male partner or to the family.

There’s another reason why the enforcement of notions such as “respect” might have no effect at all, or even an adverse one, on the occurrence of such violence, and that is the well-documented “backlash effect”. This occurs when people fail to take into consideration the notion that public campaigns for “respect”, etc, are a state-sanctioned discourse applied to classes of people who tend to be beholden to the state: the benefit-dependent poor, criminal groups, etc. Attempts to enforce a morality can quite easily produce a resistance among subject social classes, whose identity can only be gained by defining themselves against an attempt to reshape their subjectivity. It is more than possible that such forms of intervention can actually raise the incidence and level of violence while trying to reduce it.

One’s strong sense is that in Australian approaches to this issue there is now a double triad in place. The first is an explanation triad, which takes a “gender-first” approach, assumes the Duluth “power and control” first model as a real explanation of social action, and adds to that a “want of respect” assumption on the part of violent men, as part of a notion of how they legitimise their violent acts. This has now been overlaid with an “action triad”, which exclusively involves a set of state and academic institutions run by the social care/services/ enforcement professions, the left-liberal mainstream media, and politicians. The state/academic institutions provide a model of violence against women that reflects a series of ideological assumptions about society (and particularly the primacy of gender relations, over class or race ones) and projects it onto a far more complex and substantially unexamined reality: left-liberal journalism, through op-eds and features, reproduces much of that official line, or “finds” it in the field, and those two forces together give politicians something to react to, which allows them to look busy.

Yet through all of this, we have very little idea what is actually going on on the ground. We have no idea whether the rate of non-lethal domestic violence is rising, falling or static. We have a model of social action — the Duluth model — which is being reproduced as fact across numerous reports and the wider public discussion, and which has been discredited by research. We have almost no knowledge of what frameworks and methods authorities are actually using — as the DSS’ 2013 Grealy report on DV interventions established, we not only don’t know which methods are being preferred, but there is strong evidence that state agencies that believe themselves to be using the Duluth approach aren’t using it at all. This reflects a confusion across the Western world — although the lack of information about what is actually being done is worse in Australia than elsewhere. Recent overseas meta-analyses of intervention (on a range of models) show that intervention itself may be have no effect whatsoever, or be counter-productive.

So this double-triad — power-control-respect, institutions-media-politicians — may well be pushing us in exactly the wrong direction, and all out of motives associated with their own stakeholding: the maintenance of unquestioned stable power for institutions (state and academic), the continued supply of an issue that combines gender, moral outrage and salacious crime for the media, and an easy “actionable announceable” for the politicians. How could we investigate this more radically, and what real conclusions and action we could come up with is something we’ll look at in part three, next week.

Peter Fray

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