When Dr Elspeth McInnes talks about violence against women and someone says ‘What about the men?’, she replies enthusiastically: “Thank God you asked!”
“I mean, it’s a big problem, isn’t it?” she continues. “One that no-one is really talking about.”
McInnes, a graduate research co-ordinator at the University of South Australia, deliberately ignores the intent of the questioner, which is often to imply that men are ignored as victims of domestic violence. She asks in turn: “How do we get men to stop hurting other men, women and children? Like, oh my God, it’d be a different planet.”
So, what about the men? It’s a question that is often put by men’s rights groups, a small but influential coalition spawned in response to the hard-won gains of the post-war feminist movement.
The loosely connected groups seek to challenge the weight of statistics and an academic consensus of a gender imbalance when it comes to domestic violence – one in which men overwhelmingly perpetrate violence and in which women and girls overwhelmingly are victims.
“Men’s rights groups seek to demolish any gendered analysis of violence and falsely claim that women and men participate equally in violence,” says McInnes.
Myth-making has become the currency of many such groups which have long peddled falsehoods around the prevalence, impact and nature of violence against women, argues Alison Macdonald, the policy and program manager at Domestic Violence Victoria.
Indeed, a 2006 Australian Institute of Criminology survey found a sharp increase over the previous decade in the proportion of respondents agreeing that “domestic violence is perpetrated by men and women equally”, from nine per cent to 20 per cent.
“We know that from all the evidence that exists that women are overwhelmingly the victims of family violence and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators,” Macdonald adds. “It’s not an ideological stance that we take: it’s an uncomfortable reality.”
The evidence for this is well-established, not only through women’s services but also through police, court and hospital data, plus all the research data on the prevalence of violence against women in family and domestic violence, says Macdonald.
“One of the impressions [these groups] take is that it is inherently sexist to say that there is a gender asymmetry,” she continues. “It’s something that makes people feel uncomfortable – that men are overwhelmingly responsible for the violence against women and their children.”
That discomfort can translate into an eagerness to accept alternative views.
“Where groups can make the argument that violence is perpetrated equally by women and men, those ideas tend to galvanise and get traction with the public,” she adds.
Organised resistance to feminism has been around for more than a century, says Michael Flood, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Wollongong. But anti-feminist mens’ groups – groups created on the basis of their position as men or fathers – have emerged only in the last three decades.
The lines can be blurred. Men’s rights groups often overlap with fathers’ rights groups and non-custodial parents’ groups, whose members are often fathers, but sometimes also women. Among such groups are the Lone Fathers’ Association, Dads Against Discrimination, the People’s Equality Network in Melbourne, the Men’s Confraternity in Perth and Family Law Injustice Group Helping Together.
Meanwhile, the One in Three Campaign, which has strong ties to many men’s rights groups, is an active voice in the discussion of Australian domestic violence. The campaign aims to raise public awareness of the existence and needs of male victims of family violence and abuse, arguing that almost one-in-three victims of family violence are male. One In Three’s senior researcher, Greg Andresen, is adamant that in most of these cases women were the aggressors. “Overall, the vast majority of perpetrators are female and there’s no escaping that,” he says. *
It was through feminist activism that domestic violence was given credence as a social issue. Decades of work since has led to key reforms, starting in the 1980s, that declared violence in the home a criminal offence, gave police the power to enter homes in response to complaints of violence, created protection and restraining orders, gave legal recognition to stalking, and, criminalised rape in marriage.
But while there’s been a long fight for recognition, there’s also been a long-time anti-feminist backlash.
“For a large proportion of men, feminism has been a benefit,” says Alison Macdonald, of Domestic Violence Victoria. “But there’s a slice that continues to find it quite uncomfortable to change gender relations.”
Statistically, one-in-three Australia women will face violence within their lifetime. It’s one of the greatest forms of inequality affecting women, says Macdonald. And by disrupting efforts to address violence against women, the mens’ movement was promoting the maintenance of a relic of inequality.
One In Three’s Andresen, a self-described “IT guy” by day, believes the feminist movement has led to a situation where domestic violence discourse focuses on female victims at the expense of men who are abused by their wives, partners or spouses.
“Our biggest challenge is dispelling the 40-year old paradigm that sees family violence as something that men do to women and children and not the other way around,” says Andresen.
“The women’s movement did a really good job of saying this is a serious issue. We would say ‘people’ – but they said ‘women’ – are being injured or dying and their children are being affected and we need to … get some support, programs, policies and some services out there for – well, we would say ‘people’, but they said ‘women’.”
Sociologist Michael Flood argues that One In Three presents a false picture of the nature of violence that men experience, ignoring the true character of domestic and family violence.
While One In Three calls for clear language and clear accounts of domestic violence, Flood says the campaign itself uses the terms “family violence” and “intimate partner violence” in fuzzy ways. He says the group’s pre-occupation with female perpetrators hinders attempts to protect males from violence. Male violence against boys and other men is more common and usually more serious and harmful than violence committed against men by female partners. The group has also attacked efforts to address men’s violence against women, often playing a spoiler role in relation to campaigning by White Ribbon, the male-led movement to end violence against women.
“If One In Three were just making the point that males are also the victims of family violence, just as women are sometimes the perpetrators, I’d have no problem with that,” says Flood. “There’s been a long recognition in feminist work that women are also perpetrators of domestic violence.”
The problem, says Flood, can be in how to define a victim of violence. “If you just count violent acts and count everybody who has experienced any kind of physical violence by a partner in the last year as a victim then, sure, adult men are one-third of the adult victims of domestic violence.”
But he says it’s misleading to think that way, as it doesn’t address the impact, the meaning, the history or context for the violence in question. “As soon as we start looking at men’s and women’s actual experiences of violence we see real gender contrasts, by both victimisation and perpetration.”
Not surprisingly, Flood has his detractors within the men’s push, including Townsville general practitioner Greg Canning, who also acts as the Australian News Director for the anti-misandry website A Voice For Men and who describes domestic violence as an industry.
Canning believes that people in universities are indoctrinated to follow the “feminist side of statistics” and has taken to writing letters to protest against seminars that he believes provide an unbalanced view of the nature of domestic violence.
“I wrote to James Cook University, because they had a guy called Michael Flood [who] was there to give a seminar titled “He Hits, She Hits”. And the whole idea of his presentation was to bash One In Three [and] to bash the statistics about male victims and say they’re not valid.”
He says that bigger and stronger women can cause just as much damage in a violent relationship as a male, and that women are much more likely to use weapons when they’re violent and more likely to take action when their partner is asleep or intoxicated. “We also know that men are two to three times less likely to report domestic violence to their family and their friends because of the shame factor,” he adds.
Researcher Elspeth McInnes says she finds this type of response mystifying: the idea that women are just as bad, or worse.
She recounts some of her research that showed that when men talked about women’s violence against men, some cited abuse as not having a hot meal on the table, not having the children bathed before bed, or women spending money on gambling or shopping. At the more severe end of the spectrum, they nominated verbal and emotional violence as abuse. Then, a tiny minority documented physical abuse, and an even smaller minority named sexual abuse.
“Women were talking about being run over, being drugged and raped at knifepoint, having their children dangled over high rise balconies till they did as they were told and of course you get verbal and emotional violence,” says McInnes. “When we were talking about physical violence against men, one of the worst examples was that she banged his head with the cupboard door – which isn’t good – but the sheer level of fear, harm and terror that women talked about was simply not present in what the men’s data showed.”
Men didn’t say that they were afraid of their ex-partner, McInnes continues, whereas women were overwhelmingly afraid of their violent ex-partner or partner.
One In Three systematically misrepresents the scholarship, according to Michael Flood. “It chooses the body of scholarship that supports claims of gender symmetry – studies based on the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) – which seem to show males and females are victims at even rates. But [it] neglects a whole other body of scholarship that shows something very different, and it fails to mention that.”
The CTS is one method for measuring violence in relationships and families. It basically counts the blows, focussing on a series of physically aggressive acts, whether it be slapping, punching, kicking and so on, and asks one partner in a relationship if they or their partner has experienced these violent acts in the last year.
Most CTS studies find that both men and women are using those violent acts at a similar rate, but doesn’t indicate whether the act was part of a series or a one-off. Other forms of violence – sexual abuse, stalking and obviously homicide – are not included.
“As soon as you start asking about impact, meaning or context, you find real inequalities in violence where men are much more likely to use violence against women and women are much more likely to experience severe injurious forms of violence and control and are likely to suffer physical and mental harm as a result.”
But Greg Canning accuses Michael Flood of broadly redefining domestic violence as situations where there is a pattern of extreme power and control, which he says make up quite a small percentage of instances of domestic violence. The issue with this, Canning argues, is that the description lends itself as the picture of all domestic violence.
“So when you say that one-in-three women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, you think about some woman that would have been thoroughly bashed. You don’t think that someone’s partner raised their voice during a separation. You think of the worst.”
But if Michael Flood is guilty of doing this, as Canning reckons, then One In Three stands charged likewise. The first image to greet visitors to its website is that of a man sporting a black eye and broken nose. “It’s amazing what my wife can do with a frying pan,” reads the caption.
One In Three’s Greg Andresen says the website was launched when the Federal Labor Government began creating the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children.
Andresen says the group – now numbering 30 to 40 people – thought it was important to speak out because “the male victims of family violence were being entirely ignored by the machinations of federal and state governments”.
But most men’s experiences of violence are inflicted by other men, says Elspeth McInnes. “It’s not that women are never violent, but if you look at the crime statistics, men are much more likely to be bashed up drunk on the town than they are at home. Men assault men, overwhelmingly, and where women assault men, in a large majority of cases it’s in a context of a violent relationship where the women are themselves a victim of domestic violence.”
Flood says that One In Three seem to have a genuine concern for male victims, but the problem is that they express and advocate for it in a very strange way. He says that although One In Three might not see itself in this way, “it is certainly seen by [mens’ rights groups] as valuable and successful anti-feminist men’s activism”.
More damaging still to women’s advocacy has been the efforts of some men’s and fathers’ rights groups to stymie efforts to address violence against women with organisations such as the Lone Fathers Association and the Men’s Rights Agency having tried to wind back the protections available to victims of violence as well as sanctions placed upon perpetrators of that violence.
The former was one group that had a large bearing on the changes to the Family Law Act under the Howard Government in 2006, according to Alison Macdonald. They included an amendment for shared parental responsibility, at a time when the Lone Fathers were trying to “turn back the tide of fatherlessness in Australia”.
There’s a clear argument to be made about men and women having equal parenting rights after separation, says Macdonald. “On face value, those kinds of principles aren’t necessarily a bad thing.”
But after the changes to the Act were passed, demanding increased contact between estranged parents and their children, concerns for the safety of women and children rose due to the increased interaction with violent ex-partners.
A 2010 government evaluation of the changes to the Act found that around one-fifth of separated parents reported their relationship to be full of conflict or fear, with mothers twice as likely as fathers to report a fearful relationship, and around the same number of parents reporting safety concerns with ongoing contact with the child’s other parent.
The influence that groups such as Lone Fathers have on perpetuating myths is evident in results drawn from a 2006 VicHealth telephone survey that found 46 per cent of adults agreed with the statement that “women going through custody battles often make up claims of domestic violence to improve their case”.
Greg Canning, meanwhile, believes that people who file domestic violence protection orders, often do so on the basis of trivial or unsound reasons. “There’s been several surveys of lawyers and family courts, and they will say that using a vexatious or trivial domestic violence order is a common tactic that women use in separation as a tactic to get a better monetary settlement and to deprive the male of the kids.”
In fact, a 2003 Family Court Review found that while mothers were twice as likely as fathers to notify family courts of child abuse concerns, mothers’ concerns were four times as likely to be substantiated compared to a father’s allegations. Where concerns were found to be fictitious, fathers and mothers were equally likely to have made the allegations.
One In Three’s Andresen believes domestic violence is a by-product of the education system. “Education about healthy relationships has to been carried out in a gender neutral, non-sexist way, and unfortunately what happens with a lot of these programs is that they go in there and talk about violence against women. They take the boys into another room and tell them they’ve got patriarchal privilege and they mustn’t beat up girls. And they take the girls into another room telling them about how they should protect themselves against the violent boys.”
Andresen believes that boys are made to feel guilty “about being a bloke” while at the same time, in their own relationships, are being knocked around by their female partner. Conversely, the girls are made to feel that they have a licence to hit their boyfriend because no-one is telling them that it’s wrong to do so.
Greg Canning agrees that women are not getting the message that hitting others is wrong. He says that when a woman hits a man it’s celebrated as something good: “You go girl. You’re empowered.”
And Andresen says women can end up in a situation where they might start fights with their partner. “Unfortunately, sometimes their [male] partners might hit back. They’re bigger and stronger than those women and they start to get seriously hurt – and their male partners also get seriously hurt.”
Such myths gain traction within society because men feel that they are entitled to control women because they are the dominant members of society, counters Elspeth McInnes. “Such cultural views are present when police discount and don’t accept a domestic violence report, or when a judge excuses rape because she was a prostitute, or accepts that he has been violent but was provoked by the victim.
“In a patriarchal society such as ours, where men as a group collectively command social, economic, spiritual, political aspects of society — men’s rights is a tautological concept. It’s like straight white men marching for straight white rights, even as gays and blacks are vilified and abused and imprisoned by straight white males.”
* Footnote: an earlier version of this story incorrectly asserted that Andresen claimed that women were the aggressors in most domestic violence situations, not just those in which males were cited as victims.
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