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

Four weeks ago, a trio of murders of women in Queensland pushed policy action on violence against women into high gear. The most covered was the horrifying murder of Karina Lock — shot in the head by her ex-partner in a car park on the Gold Coast. He then shot himself, dying later in hospital. The murder-suicide dominated the media for days, due mainly to its narrative and spectacular nature. Two other murders of women occurring in the state in the same week got more attention than they otherwise might have because of their proximity to that page-one grabber. Together, the three unrelated killings were framed as more evidence of an epidemic of violence against women.

This cluster of murders was the cue for Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to fast-track the recommendations of the Quentin Bryce report, and for Malcolm Turnbull to do the same for the Northern Territory. The rhetoric of action was obvious: by implementing these recommended measures, this is the sort of thing we will stop. The move affirmed the way most of us would want to think abut violence against women: that they are evilly purposeful acts; that their cruel character determines the way we should shape social policy towards them; and their degree of particularity makes them substantially intervenable against, as expressed in the title of the Bryce report, Not Now, Not Ever: Putting An End To Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland.

Sadly, as a simple historical and statistical fact, none of those beliefs can be maintained. Lethal violence against women comes down slowly, if it comes down at all, it is stubbornly resistant to changing policy regimes, and there is little indication that the last 10-15 years — years of steadily growing intervention — have done much at all. Most worryingly there is no sign within the report — or in other government documents such as the The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 — that the absence of improvement warrants any radical criticism of process. Simultaneously we are being invited to believe that violence against women can be reduced because it must, and yet offered only a repeat of prior methods with some minor variations. My suspicion is that the public — whose demand for action is what prompts politicians to suddenly look very busy — are not aware of the degree to which these new initiatives are failing to challenge business-as-usual practices.

First off, we need to consider this one big fact, something every sociologist and criminologist knows, but few in the general public do: crime, especially violent crime, can be pretty static over long periods of time, even when different strategies of dealing with it are applied. Politicians and activists talk of abolishing violence against women: the stats tell a different story. They tell us that women form a third of victims of homicide, and that proportion hasn’t changed in decades. They tell us that the murder and attempted murder rate in Australia has changed slowly over recent decades, and might have been stable for over a century or more (with a dip in the middle) standing at about 1.6 people per 100,000 per year (the murder rate has gone down, but mainly because emergency medicine has improved survival rates, pushing the attempted murder rate up). There are around 280 homicides per year, 80-90 of them of women. Counting Dead Women’s tally for the year to date is 67, suggesting an end-year total of 85. Last year’s was 84. In 2008-2010, it was 87.5. Next year it will most likely be around 84-88 again. And so on. The overall homicide rate did come down in Australia around the early 2000s, but there is no sure reason as to why — or why DV/PV murders came down with it.

It is horrifying that such intentional acts are as predictable as car crashes or cancer, but there it is. For years people have accepted that about murder, without knowing much about it. But when campaigns against violence against women began to revive in the early 2010s, there was a new attitude: the killing of women was an intolerable wrong, capable of abolition, demanding orientation to that goal. This new attitude appears in part to be the product of a more individualistic rights culture, but also of a media one.

The high-visibility murder of Jill Meagher and the exhaustive narrative and visual coverage of it made a rare event (stranger-murder accounts for no more than about five to 10 murders of women per year) an emblem for the much wider issue of violence against women, even violence of very different types. The question of gender and power has become the dominant one of our era as social change in gender roles continues to move forward, while questions of class and race power get far less attention than they once did. And as this campaign and movement grew, the reporting on the murders of women became extensive, while coverage of the murder of men all but disappeared. Thus, in the week of that trio of Queensland murders, it was possible to find reports of the murders of six men, without much trouble — all of them consigned to a paragraph.

The lack of attention over those murders indicates a huge division that’s opened up between how we treat these killings: we are happy to regard the murder of men as a sociological fact, part of a complex society, while we now treat the murder of women as a moral outrage that can be readily intervened against. There’s a number of reasons for that, which can be explored at another time: false ideas about the nature of male victims of murder; the ability of men to fight off an assailant, etc; and the particularly abhorrent nature of partner killings, given the betrayal of intimacy that represents.

The key point here is that the invisibility of male murder makes it look like women are the only ones being killed, and that makes such acts seem all the more arbitrary and preventable.

My suggestion would be that that is leading us down a policy path emphasising perpetrator intervention — a business-as-usual approach — because it has an implicitly moral sense to it, the idea that men doing evil should and can be managed towards not doing so. The moral imperative causes us to disregard a great deal of evidence that perp intervention has poor results and is continued year after year despite delivering such results. Furthermore, by applying the Duluth model of gender/power/control as a social theory, it focuses on changing male behaviour within an unchanged and unexamined society. Non-gender factors — class, poverty, racism — are held to amplify DV/PV, but not to in any way cause it. Here, for example, is part of the Bryce report’s distilled account of violence in Queensland indigenous communities (there is no discussion on class as a distinct situation):

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders have a unique history, very different from that of other sections of the Queensland population and characterised by successive generations of colonisation, dispossession, violence, and discrimination. A legacy of trauma arising from this history pervades the lives of individuals, families and communities and is seen as a causal factor for violence in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and a causal factor for a range of other social, economic, psychological and emotional issues that themselves are situational factors contributing to violence.” (p.120)

To construct such a situation, acknowledged as political-historical, as arising from “trauma” is immediately to depoliticise and psychologise it. It’s such an automatic act of social intervention professionals — and an interpretive one — that it is not registered that it is being presented as fact. Even on the plain matter of gender, there is little airing of the discussion — much covered in Australian Institute of Criminology papers — that the female component of the fall in homicides might be due to the rising independent income of women, a possibility that would suggest that something non-interventionist like a higher mandatory living wage or a change in “pink-collar” job award rates might help. Such a report isn’t required to reconstruct Australian society. But it should foreground more categorical possibilities for which there is evidence — especially as its surveillance/intervention focus is now constructing policy response.

The report also seems a little loose in its use of research and adoption of calibrations. Thus, it uncritically accepts the absurd and counterproductive widening of definitions of violence to include insults and emotional conflict (in the easy-read version of the The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022 “hurt feelings” constitute violence). Consideration of wider social causality — that DV/PV may be a displacement of oppression and rage onto less strong people nearby, such as women, children and pets, and be little motivated by gender per se — is absent.

Furthermore, at least some of the research process seems more than a little ad hoc. Papers are gathered to produce a plethora of suggestions and observations, without any consideration of their research base, or contradictory material. Sources range wildly. Yet all are given credence. Here’s one example, spotted only because I was aware of it earlier.

In arguing for greater agency integration, the report cites approvingly the Massachusetts Domestic Violence High Risk Assessment Teams (DVHRAT), an intense monitoring and perpetrator intervention program for violent men with an assessed high risk of partner murder. Begun in 2005, the program was rolled out to all of Massachusetts over the next years. Its supporters trumpet the non-occurrence of homicide by the men under its watch. But the reduction in partner homicide in Massachusetts? Zero. It’s steady at about 22-24 a year (actually it oscillates over a two-year range, 30/15, 30/15, for complex reasons). The program, taking a chunk of the state’s alleged high-risk offenders, could thus be a classic false positive — seeing not its limited choice of field, but the success within that field. It proves nothing useful, yet had an appeal, in 2012-13, because it intervened heavily against perpetrator, rather than victim (i.e. tracking violent men with GPS, rather than obliging victims to move, etc). The Bryce report’s source for this evidence? A Slate article, itself covering a New Yorker article. Despite that inadequate sourcing, one of its strategies, GPS tracking of some violent men, ends up in the introduction, as a highlighted possibility.

The 140 recommendations touted is something of an exaggeration by politicians, for single initiatives — there are about 20 of them, ranging from women’s/children’s refuges that take pets (to make leaving easier) to reforming court procedures, to a National Domestic Violence order — are often spread over three or four recommendations (there’s also standard stuff like a communications strategy and suggestions for around 10 more reports). The emphasis on surveillance and state monitoring and micro-intervention is not critically reflected on; discussion of “backlash effect” or studies that suggest that some forms of such intervention can increase DV/PV are not cited .

Some of this might be remedied in the plethora of reports and audits the Bryce report recommends — I’m not sure the public has cottoned on to the fact that this decisive response largely involves more reports — or in the report that will come from the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence (which has gone off on a frolic of its own, down a rather neurobiological emphasis, with the first two weeks largely occupied by such testimony, victims and perps as objects). I don’t doubt the dedication of the people who put together the report, of course, but one does note that, while the report took many submissions, none of the nine people producing its final version are hard analytic criminologists or sociologists. The bias towards intervention is not unexpected of those drawn from intervention agencies, but there is no guarantee of improvement — and no setting out of how we would know that some of these initiatives had worked.

Your correspondent began writing on this, with some misgivings, because it was no longer possible to bear the endless repetition of moralising articles and op-eds, which suggested that simply saying “stop it” or “it’s not on”, etc, was enough to reduce violence against women — and other articles that reproduced the Duluth model as a social theory, when its interpretive failure is well known. I did this with some awareness that there is limited tolerance for men writing about this stuff. I was also disconcerted by the lack of criminological discourse in the debate (though that has been remedied to some small degree) to remind people how difficult it is to change social patterns (and also by the lack of interest in men’s murder, which has become misandric, and, in the case of remote-area indigenous men — 30 times more likely to be murdered than almost any non-indigenous woman — clearly racist).

In writing about it, I’ve become more dismayed, rather than less, by the deep desire there seems to be that violence against women shall only be seen through the lens of gender and moral accounting, even when there is evidence that other approaches might actually reduce it. There needs to be a process established that allows for harder thinking, more challenge to existing processes and their assumptions and more input from criminologists — all directed at getting first a return to a clearer picture and then a range of more disruptive suggestions. If we could reduce the 40-50 partner homicides a year by five to seven a year (and concomitant non-lethal violence also) over a consistent period, and within the next five years, most people would regard it as a middling achievement, given the broad claims and the women still being killed. But criminologists would be on their desk cheering at this extraordinary achievement. That’s the challenge we face with this issue, and we are failing to rise to it.

Peter Fray

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