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Power and violence in the home

By Roger Smith - posted Friday, 2 May 2008

On International Women 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 1970s paradigm that, in turn, was based on a 1950s 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 recognise 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 more women enrolled in Australian universities than there are men. In respect of school retention rates, the gap is in double figures - about 69 per cent for boys compared to over 80 per cent 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 a 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-modelled family violence service providers accept that changes have occurred in Western society in the last 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.

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About the Author

Originally trained as a lawyer, Roger Smith lived in Indonesia and East Timor from 1995 to 2004 where he worked in the justice, human rights and trade union arenas.

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