Published in the NZ Herald 23 Nov 2011
I won’t be wearing a white ribbon on November 25th. Don’t get me wrong – I would be the first in line to condemn violence against women, and the first to be held to account for my own actions and attitudes.
But the well-intentioned White Ribbon Campaign, according to the website, is part of a “suite of family violence initiatives” overseen by the Families Commission including the It’s Not OK campaign, the Family Violence Clearinghouse, and the Family Violence Statistics report. And if we’re serious about reducing family violence, we need to open both eyes – and tell the truth.
The official website says that “Violence is endemic within New Zealand. One in three women are victims of violence from a partner.” The first part is right – the second part misrepresents the facts.
The claim is based on research which the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has already ruled as being “exaggerated“ when it was used by the Women’s Refuge for their 2010 annual appeal television commercial.
The research was shown to have major shortcomings in terms of sample selection. The ASA said “… it was concerned that a study restricted to women living in Waikato and Auckland was used as the basis for national statistics.” Similarly, it was concerned with the lifetime violence finding, which was based on any episode of violence during their past or present relationships becoming the ‘basis for fear’.
Under the banner of ‘Intimate Partner Violence’, the definition of emotional violence includes: insulting or making them feel bad about themselves, belittling or humiliating them in front of other people, or scaring or intimidating them on purpose.
But will the researchers ask men to what level they have been victims of ‘intimate partner violence’?
How many men would say they too have been physically assaulted, or made to feel bad, humiliated in front of others, or intimidated by their partner? We may never know. Only women are victims of ‘intimate partner violence’ – apparently.
And that’s where the White Ribbon Campaign gets it wrong – or perhaps, half right.
The ‘It’s Not OK’ website also reinforces this gender perception. The faces of the campaign are Vic, George and Brian who tell how they became violence-free and Judy is a survivor of domestic violence.
But if we’re really serious about reducing family violence, we need to talk about family violence. Please understand – I’m not in denial. When a man hits, he is likely to hit harder. And I have no problem with men being at the front of the line to own this issue.
Prominent New Zealand researcher Professor David Fergusson says “the discovery of domestic violence in the context of the concerns of the Women’s movement has meant that domestic violence has been presented as a gender issue and used as an exemplar of patriarchy and male dominance over women.”
He argues we need to broaden our perspective “away from the view that domestic violence is usually a gender issue involving male perpetrators and female victims and toward the view that domestic violence most commonly involves violent couples who engage in mutual acts of aggression.”
His research, through the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, found that men and women are equally to blame in dishing out domestic violence and both suffer similar degrees of mental harm.
And that’s backed up by government statistics. Ministry of Justice statistics from 2007 show that the prevalence rate for confrontational offences by a partner in 2005 was virtually the same for men and women.
Their 2003 report said there was “little difference between women and men in the proportion saying they had experienced violence at the hands of their current partners in 2000”.
And this isn’t just a kiwi trend.
In the UK, data from the Home Office statistical bulletins show that men made up about 40% of domestic violence victims each year between 2005 and 2009.
In Australia, a University of Queensland study of newly-wed couples showed that female violence is at least as common as male violence, with the most usual patterns being female-only violence, followed by both partners being violent.
In the USA, a 2010 report from California State University examined 275 scholarly investigations, 214 empirical studies and 61 reviews and/or analyses with an aggregate sample size exceeding 365,000. It demonstrated that women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men.
The Family Violence Research Program at the University of New Hampshire found that the overall rates of violence for cohabiting couples was twice as high and the overall rate for “severe” violence was nearly five times as high for cohabiting couples when compared with married couples.
Perhaps family structure should be the focus rather than gender.
But it’s not just adult-on-adult violence. The White Ribbon Campaign, along with other campaigns, rightly expand the message to stopping violence against women and children. It’s an important message. Once again, I subscribe to it completely.
But, are only men a danger to children?
The research shows that women are just as likely to abuse children as men. The Families Commission’s 2009 Family Violence Statistics Report revealed that 48% of child abuse – including emotional, physical, neglect, sexual and multiple abuse – was committed by… women. Yet the Families Commission also perpetuates the perception that it’s only men.
In fact, there is an increasing concern that teenagers are becoming more and more violent towards their parents, their teachers, and their peers. And the greatest concern is about the rising levels of violence being exhibited by… girls!
Where does all this leave us?
If we want to tackle family violence, we all – men, women and children – need to pledge to stop violence towards men, women and children. This is a family violence issue – not a gender issue.
We’ll then be telling the full story, And I’ll be first in line to wear the appropriate ribbon.