Permission to Perpetrate
Whilst May as Domestic Violence Prevention Month is drawing to a close, domestic violence isn’t. Its impact costs millions of Australians significant harm and costs the economy billions of dollars per annum. Many would argue abuse of power is at epidemic proportions. Yet we continuously fail to adequately address it. Why is that so?
Whilst I don’t have the billion dollar answer, there are plenty of reasons offered by researchers and experts in the field. Our PeakCare 2010 Challenging Silence Conference offered some analysis. Dr Jenny Gilmore said that violence and abuse would not exist in our society if we all agreed as a collective that we would not accept it. That sounds like a sensible place to start. Her words were emulated by Dr Allan Wade, a Canadian expert in violence. Dr Wade outlined our use of language as being central to our tendency to hold victims accountable for their abuse whilst letting perpetrators off the hook. Dr Wade further argued that the only way of combating abuse and violence was to insist perpetrators be 100% responsible for their behaviours. With serious consequences for what he terms ‘wife assault’ the battering was unlikely to continue. He alongside many experts argues perpetrators exercise power over partners simply because they can. In various ways society, institutions, communities and individuals give them permission.
Is it really that simple? Perpetrators abuse because they can.
So are we a permissive society? Do we give perpetrators permission to perpetrate abuse and violence? How many times have we heard someone in our community ask: “Why does she stay?” Dr Allan Wade like many of the professionals from the domestic violence sector says it’s long overdue for us to reframe the question and ask instead: “Why does he abuse?” We need to shift the responsibility from victim to perpetrator. Research clearly demonstrates that a woman is most at risk of serious harm and/or death when she makes the definitive decision to leave. Multiple systems responses and significant supports need to be in place to assist such a radical and dangerous decision in these circumstances. We wouldn’t let our Police or armed forces go into a situation of serious threat without back up. Why would we expect a woman to do so when dealing with a violent and abusive partner?
One argument is that we expect women to stand up to their perpetrators because theirs is or was a mutual relationship they chose to be in. So we also mutualise the abuse. We ignore the reality that perpetrators con victims. Then they blame victims and co-opt others to join their tirade. The abuse creeps in over time. On some level surely she agreed to all of this reality in its totality? She is still there, isn’t she? Again experts like Allan Wade argue there is nothing mutual about abuse and there is no such thing as an abusive relationship. Whilst relationships by their very definition are mutual, abuse is not. It is a power dynamic of one partner flexing their muscles against another.
The month of May saw yet another disturbing domestic violence case recorded for our memory. A mum and her friend slain at home in her apartment and her 5 year old daughter abducted. Her daughter was later found gassed to death. The perpetrator was the 5 year old little girl’s Daddy and her Mummy’s former partner. And how dismissed was this reality? The media had barely mentioned domestic violence and in initial reports the fact she’d been slayed by her partner wasn’t even a factor. By all reports, a couple of adults were murdered and a child was missing. Shortly after the murders there was a sense of urgency about the missing child but the whole slaying of her Mum was pretty much ‘passe’.
When will we pay attention to domestic violence and understand that women do not deserve to be beaten or die at the hands of their partners, be they current or former? When will we also realise that children do not cope with the extreme trauma of beaten or slain Mums. Why was there such a limited focus on that? A brutal murder removed a mother from her ability to parent. Even before we knew the horrific outcome for this young child, our media failed to mention her substantial loss given the murder of her Mum as her primary care giver. The orphaned baby left behind was a footnote to these murders. Why was that so? How can we make sense of the minimalistic way such horrific tragedy is portrayed in our society and on our public airways?
Latest statistics show that 25% of murders in Queensland are the result of domestic violence. I sat at a very long meeting last week with key stakeholders who were charged with the responsibility of deciding when to report and intervene in child protection matters. Of course Domestic Violence was a major precipitating factor. Many professionals during the discussions were perplexed. The responsibility for ensuring the safety of children is most often placed on their Mums. Fair enough in the main but is that a reasonable expectation for mothers up against the reality of fending off perpetrators? If they couldn’t ensure their own or their children’s safety and keep their perpetrators at bay, child safety would intervene to remove the children.
Let’s face it – it is one powerful woman who can achieve what a system’s response comprised of Police and departments with significant power and capacity are unable to intervene to do – hold perpetrators to account. Our systems make excuses for their lack yet punish the non-perpetrating parents for their lack of ‘capacity to protect’. Sadly the irony escapes us. We punish non perpetrating parents for their incapacity to achieve what we as the mighty collective are unable to do. In any other instance we’d call that projection.
Governments, communities and associated systems strong in a collective belief that abuse and violence is intolerable are likely to combat this issue. Research clearly demonstrates that part of the continuation of abuse is due to the many covert and overt ways in which our society and its systems inadvertently condone and ignore abuse and violence. We need a more holistic analysis of women and children experiencing domestic violence including a clearer systemic understanding of power and control dynamics involved. Sound analysis is essential to appropriate interventions of domestic violence as well as child protection assessments.
There is clear evidence and at the very least strong indicators of the many ways in which mothers protect their children if we ask the right questions, yet if mothers fail to hold their perpetrator at bay they are likely to lose their children. The reason for this is framed as failure to protect. We need to get real and say it like it is and use language in its truth. These mothers are failing to stop their perpetrator from continuing their perpetration of abuse. In many instances that is the only issue. They have clearly demonstrated a capacity to protect their children but not the capacity to stop their abuser from continuing their pattern of abusing. How could they when the very systems put in place to hold perpetrators to account are frequently unable to do so?
I again return to the words of Allan Wade: “Victim resistance is ever-present. Violence is deliberate. Perpetrators anticipate and suppress victim resistance. Violence is social. Violence is unilateral.” He further argues that: “Offenders conceal their violence, create secrecy and victims often conceal their resistance, for safety. Victims have little access to public speech and open disclosure is often dangerous. Offenders use language to conceal and justify violence.” If we pay attention to the plethora of literature about domestic violence, so often we hear about why women are attracted to abusers, accept abusers into their lives and proceed along a complex path born of their own pain and suffering in living with abusers but finally end such relationships to their cathartic release.
Researchers such as Allan Wade debunk this myth. He argues that abuse of power is prevalent in our society and it is widely accepted. He further argues that women who believe they somehow attract perpetrators into their lives need to acknowledge the shocking statistics about the prevalence of abuse. Women are not responsible for the violent acts of their partners. He sums this up with his analogy of a bank teller who has experienced multiple armed robberies. Read below and ask, is this bank teller who has been ‘held up’ many times responsible for her perpetrators’ crimes?
Man Makes Unauthorized Bank Withdrawal Response-Based Wire Service Vancouver.
Police arrested Martin Jones yesterday for allegedly negotiating an unauthorized withdrawal in the amount of $500,000.00, from the Olympic Bank of Canada. The bank clerk, who agreed to the transaction when a gun was pointed at her face, was unhurt. “I’m just happy the incident is over”, said Kerry Lightly, who has participated in three similar transactions in recent years. “I don’t know why these customers choose me”, she said. The bank manager, Mr. R.E. Tentive, stressed that Ms. Lightly would receive “psychiatric help to address her anxiety and ensure she no longer attracts greedy customers.” Mr. Jones was released on condition that he have no contact with banks and attends specialized treatment for “wealthophelia”, a congenital disorder characterized by a compulsive pursuit of financial independence and obsessional pre-occupation with retirement planning.
This scenario is hilarious and obviously flawed. Yet it is exactly how we talk about victims of domestic violence in many instances. What is clear is that we need to laugh at ourselves, our systems and many of our thought processes. Not to make light of the situation but to realise the ridiculousness of what we do, how we perceive abuse and what we ask of the most disempowered members of our community. Then if we really care to act against violence and abuse and the dynamic of ‘power over’ we need to scream out about abuse in our society.
This is not for the feint hearted. Nor is it for the silent.
We know without question that nothing ever changes in our society whilst decent people stand still and stay comfortably numb in the pretence that this is a private problem or someone else’s to solve. The research is clear in explaining that men who abuse women when thwarted will often in turn abuse children. Women are not fodder for abusive men. In lieu of them children most certainly aren’t either. Collective action can eradicate such violence and abuse.
Lorraine Dupree Policy and Research Manager