This is a story about seven individuals. They are the people behind the faceless facts, the women who form the statistics, the Australians who are standing up to say that one woman a week is one woman a week too many. KATE THORBURN spent a day with each person learning about who they are, what they do and listening to the stories they had to tell. These seven stories form one week– her week with domestic violence.
They call it DV. Two defiant clunky letters. They suit it. There’s almost an element of onomatopoeia in their pronunciation – the soft D curving into the sharp V, like the movement of a fist into a face. It’s a twisting shape shifter of a thing, a beast of indiscriminate forms. It is an act of discrimination yet it itself does not discriminate. There is no perfect victim, just victims. Any age, any gender, anywhere. Any one can experience domestic violence because domestic violence doesn’t depend on who you are; it depends on who your partner is.
This is a story about seven individuals. They are the people behind the faceless facts, the women who form the statistics, the Australians who are standing up to say that one woman a week is one woman a week too many.
Falling under the umbrella of family violence, domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, is the most commonly used term to refer to an abusive relationship that exists between two people. It is rampant at all levels of our society and has been for a long time. Even if you’re in the lucky minority of Australians – in that you’ve never experienced domestic violence or known anyone who has – it doesn’t take long to find.
Typically domestic violence invokes images of a heterosexual partnership but DV rears its head in every type of relationship under the sun – gay, straight, de facto, siblings, parents – and within each pairing there is a smorgasbord of different types of violence – emotional, financial, physical, psychological, sexual. Like the winning line in a bingo game, the combinations are endless.
So what does domestic violence entail? Once it begins, DV tends to follow a well-trodden path of escalation. A buildup of rage leads to a violent explosion, then comes remorse and a ‘honeymoon’ phase. Rage then builds up again, finds an outlet in violence that is followed by tears and apologies…you get the picture. This isn’t part and parcel of every DV relationship but it fits more often than not.
The Personal Safety Survey (PSS) is a source of data conducted every 10 years by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In 2012, the PSS found that among women who had experienced intimate partner violence, 65 per cent had experienced more than one incident. This is known as the cycle of abuse. The survey involves interviews with over 17,000 Australians, male and female, and when leafing through the 100-page long report, it is clear just how different the phenomena of violence against women and violence against men are, in terms of scope, impact and severity.
Men are more likely to be victims of violence. That is an undeniable and unequivocal truth. Violence against men is loud and out in the open. Less than 10 per cent of violence against men occurs in the home. It’s not acceptable by any means yet by virtue of being visible its power is diminished and society condemns it wholeheartedly. Domestic violence is a behind-closed-doors kind of violence, with more than 60 per cent of violence against women occurring in the home.
The United Nations Declaration of the Elimination of Violence against Women states that domestic violence is a “manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women”. It denounces domestic violence as a social mechanism that prevents the full advancement of women within societies the world over. DV is a female issue because women make up the majority of domestic violence victims. Eight seven per cent of all partner assault victims are women. Although in no way does this subtract from the experiences of men, intersex or gender diverse people who are victims of DV, this reality is simply the way things are.
If women are the main victims of domestic then the perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. This fact is enshrined in the White Ribbon campaign, probably the best-known campaign against domestic violence in the country. White Ribbon is aimed solely at the male demographic, with the premise that since Australian men form the main group that perpetrates domestic violence, Australian men should be the ones who put a stop to it. Without delving into the patriarchal undertones of such a campaign, and it has gotten flak in the past for being sexist, White Ribbon has thrust domestic violence into the national conversation in a way that can only be described as positive with many high profile Australians from Paul Howes, the National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union to Michael Voss, the coach of AFL team Brisbane Lions.
Many other campaigns aim to tackle domestic violence; indeed one seems to be launched every other month. ‘No Excuse’ is a Domestic Violence NSW initiative; ‘Shine a Light’ is the brainchild of the Sydney Morning Herald; ‘Counting Dead Women’ is a recent Destroy the Join campaign. All admirable, all needed. Yet the measure of a campaign’s effectiveness lies in the statistics. And as you’re already starting to see, the stats are grim. One woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. One a week.
At the beginning of 2014, Charlie Pickering, of Channel 10’s ‘The Project’, wrote an impassioned plea asking Australians to rethink their priorities around violence. On the website Mamamia, he compared DV to shark attacks and bus accidents, saying, “If it were cowards’ punch assaults killing one person a week on the streets of Kings Cross, martial law would be declared. Police in riot gear would be sent in to keep order.”
Comparisons are rarely helpful, particularly when alluding to death. However, there are shades of truth in his analogy. What is the Government doing about this? The Council of Australian Governments-endorsed ‘National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children’, published in 2010, outlined a framework of four three-year Action Plans. The foreword, signed by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, says, “No government or group can tackle this problem alone.” Action Plan 2 is currently under way and little of the plan’s ambitious recommendations have been implemented.
The statistic ‘One dead woman a week’ is a straightforward measure of the result of domestic violence, but when it comes to measuring the nature and extent of DV, statisticians struggle. There aren’t really any agreed upon standards for defining what constitutes ‘violence’, which makes conducting surveys on the subject a bit of a slippery task. While the PSS is comprehensive, it’s also repetitive and kind of defensive, attempting to synthesise the inexcusable with charts and graphs. At the end of the report there’s a bald sentence: “There’s been no significant change in the proportion of women who have experienced partner violence since 2005.” No significant change in the number of Australian women being bashed today than were being bashed a decade ago.
Monday: The Educator
Parramatta is beautiful in the autumn. The grounds of Cumberland Hospital are floored with golden crunchy leaves, so thick underfoot I almost have to wade through them. This is where the office of the Education Centre Against Violence (ECAV) is based, a State Government funded program that runs courses to educate health professionals about violence in Australian society. The ECAV has around 30 staff members and offers some 70 different courses around domestic violence, sexual assault and child protection. Basically, the ECAV teaches the teachers. There are 110,000 health workers in NSW and for many, attending an ECAV course is mandatory to their role. The courses range from a half-day program to a six-week graduate diploma.
Today I’m meeting with Lynda Andrews. A former community worker in western Sydney, Lynda has been in the role of Domestic Violence Educator for 18 months. Her specialty is a course with the lengthy and fairly unimaginative title: Practical skills in Responding to People who Experience Domestic and Family Violence. Lynda is big and calm and her cadence is strangely soothing. She says, “It never fails to surprise me how many people have absolutely no idea about DV. People can watch something again and again and still be oblivious. The statistics haven’t changed any over the years. The campaigns aren’t changing human behavior.” She hands me an ECAV course booklet , a big red waratah emblazoned on the corner. It’s bulging.
The ECAV educators go wherever they are requested, so Lynda travels often, mainly to regional centres like Newcastle, Tamworth and Mudgee. She’s had to adopt another approach to the one she had when she worked out in Blacktown and Mt Druitt. “I had a very set view of domestic violence and how it appears. Since I’ve worked here, I’ve come to understand that it shifts and changes right across the State. There just aren’t the services available in rural areas that we have here in the city.” She shrugs. “Resources come with populations.”
Lynda speaks the truth. Domestic violence does plays out differently in the country. The quintessential small town mentality means that women are loath to be seen taking action against abusive husbands because as soon as one person in the community knows, everyone knows. Plus, factors like isolation and lack of transportation cause a lot of hardship for country women. As Lynda explains, “You could be ten kilometres to your nearest neighbor, no one is going to hear you scream for help. It makes escaping really difficult. If they don’t have a car, they’ve got Buckley’s chance of being able to get away.”
I ask Lynda about the new NSW Government campaign called ‘It Stops Here’. This initiative is an attempt to streamline all the various departments that deal with domestic violence, such as the Department of Housing, the Department of Community Services (DOCS) and, of course, the police. Each government department has different priorities when it comes to domestic violence; for example, DOCS is predominantly concerned with the safety of the children so it means there’s often a lot of pulling and pushing going on. Pru Goward, the Minister for Women, called the new centralised database an exercise in “cutting bureaucratic red tape” and the new process sets an idealistic path of ‘consistent assessment’ where women will be monitored continually by each service in conjunction with the next.
Lynda is enthusiastic about the proposed changes and has hopes that it will help reduce pressure on women who often find themselves dealing with the fallout of domestic violence. As says, whether the man stays or flees, it’s often the woman who is held accountable. It’s she who presents to all these different services; it’s she who has to deal with the aftermath of it all.
The changes are set to roll out in August in a pilot program involving two NSW locations, Waverley and Orange. At the very least, it will cut out a lot of repetition and Lynda is thankful that womens’ tales of abuse won’t be on a loop anymore. “If you have to tell your story four or five times before the ball even gets rolling, it puts you right off seeking government help.”
The recent Federal Budget has cut funding to NSW health to the tune of $1.2 billion and Lynda has already noticed little cutbacks here and there. “I know I’m buying more and more stationary myself! Things will get tighter and things will get hard.” But there are greater consequences than staples and sticky tape. Cutting funding means less training, resulting fewer women getting the help they need.
Tuesday: The Feminist
I’m on the lookout for an office building so the Lidcombe street corner that Google Maps has delivered me to is confusingly residential. I double check my phone, verifying that the address of the community legal centre is right; I shrug and ring the doorbell. I’m meeting Alex Davis, a lawyer at the independent non-profit Women’s Legal Services (WLS). She’s much younger than I expect but exudes an air of unflappability that belies her years. I explain my address-based confusion and Alex explains that WLS needs to be as discreet as possible for the safety of its clients. That’s because this is a community legal centre with a twist. Whereas most community legal centres work on a sort of catchment idea, WLS is specialist and caters exclusively to disadvantaged Australian women. As Alex puts it, “We have particular interest in women who are marginalised from lower socio economic backgrounds.”
Women’s Legal Services is defined by a feminist philosophy. In terms of the law, this translates to a focus on areas where women are disenfranchised in some way, namely family law, sexual assault, discrimination and of course, domestic violence. Says Alex, “Working from a feminist perspective is basically finding the areas of law where we think women need more assistance. Hopefully, one day we won’t need WLS but until then, we will continue to exist.” And exist they do. Only 15 employees make up WLS and they offer legal services to marginalised women across the state.
Community legal centres have three main areas of practice, the first and by far the bulkiest of which is casework. The WLS operate four phone lines for the domestic violence legal advice. The line rings off the hook. Its the number you call to relay your predicament and ringing is in no way a guarantee. The WLS team decides which women it will take on as cases; they refer many callers elsewhere.
The second area of practice is law reform. Every three years, WLS develops a new strategic plan outlining ways in which the law impacts on women and then seeks to reform them. Lately, the WLS had concerns about a recent spate of women being incorrectly identified as the primary aggressor in matters of Apprehended Violence Orders. The law reform work requires lengthy submissions to the NSW Law Reform Commission and is a paperwork-heavy, time-consuming task. But Alex stresses that it’s an important part of what WLS stands for.
The third area of practice is community legal education. This involves the WLS travelling to women’s health clinics across south-western Sydney. This is helpful in situations where women baulk at the thought of being seen to seek legal help. To any nosy onlookers, it’s just an ordinary health clinic.
Working somewhere that deals so intimately with violence means staff members run the risk of vicarious trauma. “Because we’re hearing really full-on stories, you can suffer trauma yourself. Issues like sleeping, things like that,” Alex says. She says it in a matter-of-fact way but it’s a serious side effect of workplaces like WLS. I ask her why she didn’t take the corporate route after graduating from Melbourne University and she laughs, telling me her passion has always been social justice. In Alex’s mind, domestic violence is a serious affront to social justice. DV is inextricably linked with gender inequality and Alex believes that once the power imbalance between the sexes is righted the rates of women being abused will plummet. She gives a forthright assessment of gender inequality as systematic throughout society saying, “It’s a matter of equal pay, education, changing attitudes, making gender not the most important identifier. It’s just reached that horrible epidemic proportion where something has to change.”
In her time as a community lawyer, Alex has seen the full gamut of domestic violence victims. She says that while women with more resources (read, wealthy) are more likely to seek private help, poorer women call the police. This, she says, is what perpetuates that old idea of the lower-class woman as the ideal victim. “There are stereotypes that victims need to be perfect victims. But a lot of the time we have women who might have mental issues, might be abusing drugs, might have hit their partner back. That makes them ‘grey’ and people don’t have empathy for them. The fact is they’re still a victim of domestic violence.”
Knowing that someone like Alex is in the ring in the fight against DV is reassuring. However, the May budget dealt two blows to the WLS by both cutting Federal funding and also stipulating that the remaining funding should not to go towards anything involved with law reform. “Our law reform work is a core part of our service. To restrict our ability to use our federal funding to criticise or make recommendations around current law and policy is deeply concerning.”
Wednesday: The Campaigner
Before it happened to her, Kay Schubach was unaware of the term domestic violence. “One of my girlfriends told me I had battered wife syndrome! We didn’t even have the terminology,” she says. Ten years ago, Kay found herself in an abusive relationship with a man called Simon. Simon was tall, dark and handsome. Charming to a fault, his was the seduction of a Lothario – champagne, caviar, and fast cars. Kay was a member of Sydney’s glitterati, with a great job managing the finances of A-list Aussie celebrities. She had a seemingly perfect life. So how did she find herself in an abusive relationship?
“He promised that we would have children which was what I really wanted. That was the chink in my armour. He always finds out where a woman’s Achilles Heel is.” Kay now manages an art gallery and, after writing a book in 2012 about her relationship with Simon, has thrown herself into campaigning against domestic violence. It would seem she’s doing a pretty good job of maintaining chink-free armour these days – her makeup is flawless, her blouse perfectly pressed, rose gold bangles clink as she pours tea.
Kay’s story is a cut and dried case of power and control. Within a few weeks, Simon had hooked into every aspect of her world. His name was on her lease, he had the keys to her apartment, he knew all her passwords. Then came the isolation stage. Constant criticism of her friends and family led to very public scenes bordering on aggressive outbursts. Soon Kay didn’t even want to socialise. “He deleted any man’s number in my phone. My accountant, my bank manager. Very, very controlling behavior. Then he started to become violent.”
Kay echoes Alex Davis’s sentiments about gender inequality. “Domestic violence is very much a power imbalance. It’s about control and that’s why, when women leave a violent relationship, it’s the most dangerous time because it’s the ultimate loss of control. The more I look at it, I see it’s a lack of maturity, a lack of psychological growth, that men feel they can indulge themselves to the point where they have a tantrum and scream at you and ultimately kill.”
It’s perhaps an overly simplistic explanation but it strikes a chord. During the court case of another violent Simon – Gittany – it was noted by the judge that it was as though Gittany believed he possessed some sort of entitlement to rage.
Kay says that people in her social circle don’t like talking about abuse and often tell her to tone it down. “There is a bit of a sense, especially among strong women, that you’ve let down the team. You’ve let down the feminist cause by having had a power imbalance in your relationship.” Kay recalls how, during a dinner party, she was espousing how women in affluent demographics often find it harder to reach out to domestic violence support networks than other sections of society. “Someone said ‘Oh rubbish I’ve never heard anything so stupid!’ It was a real wakeup to me that there’s still this incredibly impenetrable wall of opening up the dialogue about this. An affluent, educated, well-travelled woman just shut me down.”
In 2009, Simon was sentenced to 12 years in a NSW prison. His crime was the abuse of a different woman, the identity of whom is suppressed. Since it wasn’t Kay, she won’t be notified when he’s released. And that scares her. Kay tells me how Simon saw court as simply another stage on which to act a part. “He would use it as a platform for showing off. His sheer audacity got him places. I saw the judge sniggering because it was the most amusement they’d had all day. QCs would pat him on the back and say ‘Mate you were incredible! You should get a law degree’.” She shakes her head bitterly. “What a piece of work.”
Kay wrote her book because she says, “History is filled with women keeping silent. We need women who are well-regarded to speak about their experiences”. She says that talking consistently and loudly about her time with domestic violence helps her to make sense of it. “I still feel this discord between what I went through then and who I am today. It’s hard to reconcile.” In person Kay is petite, with an air of fragility that makes me feel that if I move too fast or too near her she might be knocked over. However, her willingness to speak up about her experiences shows she has bravery in spades and her handshake goodbye is firm.
Thursday: The Advocator
Its AVO list day at the Downing Centre Local Court and Level 4 is bustling. Defendants mill outside the humming courtrooms, some in the company of a parent (usually mum), some alone, a surprising number sitting beside the person who sought the AVO
Susan Smith, a lawyer at Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), is also the coordinator of the Sydney branch of the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service or WDVCAS, a chunky mouthful of an acronym. Legal Aid NSW provides the funding for this statewide court support program and this allows for the existence of 28 WDVCASs across NSW, which funnel into 114 local courts. Susan is bright and chatty. As we stand outside the safe room, a female-only space where women can wait while the magistrate deals with their case, a woman in very high heels approaches us, accompanied by a heavyset man swinging a briefcase. She asks Susan where to find the Domestic Violence Liaison Officer (DVLO) and is pointed in the right direction. As she wanders off, Susan shakes her head, saying, “Why she brought her barrister I have no idea. It’ll be costing her thousands of dollars.”
The safe room is full of a rainbow spectrum of women. An Indonesian woman stares at the floor, next to a Korean woman and her sister who are whispering furiously to each other. The WDVCAS solicitor calls frantically for a Greek translator as the Aboriginal Liaison Officer surreptitiously hands the woman by the door a tissue. All the women are there because they have requested an AVO. An Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) is basically a guarantee of legal protection. It’s also a litmus test as to the severity of the violence – if you’re seeking protection via the courts then the abuse was most likely at the severe end of the violent scale. It’s estimated that around 25 per cent of women who experience domestic violence are issued AVOs.
In NSW, there are two different types of AVOs: Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders and Apprehended Personal Violence Orders. APVOs are concerned with individuals who are not your current or former spouse so aren’t applicable in DV situations. A basic ADVO includes three mandatory orders: a) The defendant must not assault, molest, harass, threaten or otherwise interfere with the protected person, b) the defendant must not engage in any other conduct that intimidates the protected person and c) the defendant must not stalk the protected person. It’s not difficult to agree to the mandatory orders because everything outlined in them is a criminal offense already. AVOs only last for a specified period of time, mostly a year.
It turns out that all that other stuff, like staying 50 metres away at all times, or restricted contact, are add-ons. Kind of like upsizing your meal at McDonalds, you can pick and choose from another 12 conditions. This results in a lot of staccato numbering in court. “1, 3, 7, 10, 11!”, “1 and 6!” In the safe room, the WDVCAS checks what the women want, and orders can be added and removed on the day. Sometimes the complainant will want to remove a condition. As Susan says, “She might say, ‘Oh, I really don’t need that order five because I want him to be able to see the children’. So then we go to the police and say ‘Do you agree to revoking that order five?’ and usually the police will say yes”.
It may seem complicated but it’s necessary, especially since the police often have difficulty recognising who’s the primary victim and who’s the primary aggressor when they arrive at the scene of a DV incident. Both parties might have injuries, be incoherent or unable to communicate and give a statement. As Alex Davis outlined earlier, this can lead to women being wrongly identified as the perpetrator of the violence. “It’s sometimes the last straw.”
Susan softens her voice. “He might be saying ‘Oh, she just attacked me, she’s crazy’. Sometimes this day can be a little bit about sorting that out.”
Redfern Legal Centre is heavily involved in law reform and Susan speaks animatedly about the reforms encompassed by the It Stops Here program. “In some ways, it’s what we already do but it’s going to make it a whole lot easier”. WDVCAS service the Waverley court that is part of the pilot program. in August. After the AVO cases have all been dealt with. We sit in the safe room with Danielle, the new DVLO from Kings Cross, drinking very strong tea from leaky paper cups. Danielle, who is fresh from maternity leave, looks exhausted but smiles when Susan tells her that she’s doing a great job.
Thursday: The Crusader
A level down from the courtrooms there is a solicitor with a big grin on her face. Julie Howes works at the Inner City Legal Centre and she’s telling me about the room for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) individuals that has been set up at the Downing Centre this year. “It’s a bit amazing,” she laughs. “It’s the only one we know of in the country!” The room Julie is grinning about is the new home of the Safe Relationships Project, a statewide court support program for individuals who identify as LGBTIQ. It’s a safe place where they can come to receive legal advice and be confident in the knowledge that they will be understood and not discriminated against.
Safe Relationships Project is a state-wide service, funded for three days a week. It’s the beginning of a national effort to move away from a heteronormative definition of domestic violence. There’s a big gap in the support services available for LGBTIQ people and it’s been suggested that they often avoid mainstream help services for fear of not being accepted. Julie says lesbians and transgender women are more open to accessing these traditional networks but that “lots of gay men and transgender men won’t access heteronormative men’s support services because of the fear of homophobia and transphobia”.
Not much is known about intimate partner violence in the LGBTIQ community. When the backlash to DV began in the 1980s, it was characterised as a battered women’s movement and society was indoctrinated with the belief that domestic violence was something that only happened to white, married, heterosexual women. Luckily community understanding of DV has deepened since then, and now we are encouraged to keep in mind that domestic violence isn’t about gender at all, it’s about power and control. Often DV victims who identify as LGBTIQ keep their abusive relationship even more secretive than victims in straight partnerships do. If it’s their first experience of an adult relationship (and this applies to everyone who experiences domestic violence not just the LGBTIQ community), sometimes abuse is accepted and brushed off as “just how relationships work”.
When individuals do finally take that first crucial step to seek help, it is often terrifying, and even more so for transgender people. Julie talks quietly about the misgivings LGBTIQ individuals feel when the only option available to them is a single sex Court Support Service. “Where the problem is potentially going to come up is when they’re sitting in a space full of other women and it becomes apparent they’re talking about their gender or their sexuality, because it plays a part in DV and they’re effectively coming out in a room and they don’t know if it’s safe to. You don’t know who else is in the room with you. It becomes a risk factor.”
It’s estimated that up to a quarter of same sex relationships are arenas of domestic violence. A lot of overlap exists in the ways domestic violence plays out in heterosexual relationships and LGBTIQ ones. As Julie says, “There are lots of similarities because domestic violence perpetrators use a particular script of power and control. Victims have a script as well. Walking on eggshells, being fearful and scared. You can hear in people’s stories who they are and you can very quickly establish that.” Julie tells me that where violent LGBTIQ relationships are unique lies in the type of controlling tactics used. For example, if the victim isn’t ‘out’ then often the abusive partner will threaten to expose his or her sexuality. If the victim has been diagnosed with HIV, it’s a similar story as perpetrators threaten to disclose their medical status to family or even make it known in the workplace.
The Safe Relationships Project is a big step in the right direction for equality in services, for the LGBTIQ community in NSW at least. However, until there are court support programs that cater for gender diversity, the reporting rate for domestic violence in LGBTIQ relationships will remain low.
Friday: The Therapist
Narrative therapist David Newman is a White Ribbon Ambassador. He’s worked with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence for many years. Today, we talk about what it is that makes male perpetrators tick. “I try and look at ideas and thoughts that are giving them permission or even justifying their use of abuse. For example, ‘She’s hurt me, I have the right to hurt her’. This is a common one. Or ‘She should know that I don’t really mean it. This is the only way to get her to listen’.” David says identifying these beliefs offer an antidote to ‘unhelpful’ ideas of masculinity.
As therapies go, narrative therapy is one of the more straightforward, defined as a form of psychotherapy involving storytelling. Narrative therapy is guided by the somewhat cryptic assumption that the way people shape and live their lives is through the stories they hold about themselves. This goes hand in hand with the belief that people can subsequently alter their lives for the better by ‘re-authoring’ these stories. Let’s just say that if the narrative therapist community decided to hold a protest, there would be a lot of signs sporting respectful slogans like “The person isn’t the problem! The problem is the problem!” and “Our lives are multi-storied!”.
“Sometimes we are culturally encouraged to think that DV perpetrators are monsters and that’s all there is to them but narrative therapy understands that there is more than one story for these men,” David says. He says that men find it very hard to confront shame, which is an unavoidable step when examining their violent behavior. David helps them construct their ‘stories’ by playing Question Master. “I ask them how they’ve been seduced by this idea, how they’ve been recruited into thinking these things. It’s often introduced by their fathers so we try and place it into a context and history of their life.” David’s role is subsequently to loosen and weaken these ideas.
“One of the steps that’s very important for men to take when they’re addressing their violence is to understand what the effects of their actions are on other people. Sometimes they do understand, and they don’t care”. Getting them to care is David’s job. Over his career, David has found that narrative therapy is particularly conducive to group work so he runs a lot of sessions involving 10 men or more. “In groups, we talk about some things that they perceive as difficult as men – the lack of certainty about what it is to be a man in this post-modern world where everything’s a bit more up for grabs and there’s a plurality of ways of being. That can be tough.” This is a tough pill to swallow. The idea of men feeling threatened by equal rights is not something that’s easy to reconcile with feminist viewpoint.
“Given that there’s more currency around domestic violence, I find that men can seemingly speak with thoughtfulness because they have been exposed to this language of responsibility. And that can obscure things sometimes. It can mean they don’t take up the hard work of really looking at themselves.” David recognises the idea of male privilege contributing to the pervasive sense of entitlement that Kay said she saw in Simon. He says the fact that men have more access to money is very relevant to how domestic violence is often tolerated, particularly in the past. “You know, in the sixties it wasn’t uncommon for women to know the only difference between them and poverty was that they were in a relationship with a man.”
For all its esotericism, narrative therapy seems to be a pretty holistic approach to tacking domestic violence. David certainly seems to think so. “When you speak with men and they start to take on different understandings of what it is to be a man, more honourable, more respectful ways, more non-violent ways of being a man, that’s going to make a difference. Different recipes for masculinity are really terrific.”
Saturday: The Friend
My friend Denise* is gorgeous in that unassuming way very few truly pretty girls ever are. It’s only been eight months since she gave birth but she’s leggy and slim. She’s always been open with me about her experiences with domestic violence but it’s different when there’s a recorder on the table. Denise and Charlie* met two years ago. Charlie was the best friend of her friend’s boyfriend. “He seemed perfect. He was really funny, really engaging, he seemed switched on and interested in what was happening in the world.”
When Charlie asked her to be his girlfriend, a couple of weeks after they’d met, Denise was skeptical. “He said ‘I want to be in a relationship with you’, and I said ‘alright, for now’. And he said ‘what do you mean for now?’ And I said ‘well, I don’t know if you’re a psycho or not!’.” Denise describes a whirlwind getting-to-know-you period where she saw Charlie every day. Parties at her friend’s boyfriend’s flat, nights out in the city, phone calls and messages. Lots of phone calls and messages.
“He would want me to be on the phone all the time. I had to call him on my way to uni and be on the phone the whole entire time, in class I would have to be constantly messaging him.” They stayed on the phone even when there wasn’t anything to talk about. When she wasn’t available, Charlie accused her of having sex with other guys. He would call her a bitch, a slut, despite assurances that there was nothing to worry about. Denise thought it was a just a phase, that Charlie was insecure. He bought her a Pandora bracelet. It had to be on her wrist at all times. “He always wanted my background and screensaver on my phone to be a picture of us. Always. Otherwise he thought I was tricking people into thinking I was single.” Charlie’s destructive behavior resulted in broken phones, slashed clothes, and smashed bottles of perfume. He even destroyed the Pandora bracelet. Nothing was ever replaced, despite an avalanche of promises.
They had known each other for 30 days when Charlie decided to beat her up.
Denise is vague about the circumstances leading up to the first violent episode, but she clearly recalls the incident itself. “My head was red from the constriction and I could feel the blood behind my eyes. He was bashing me for five hours. And then he went and had a shower.” It was the middle of the night but she managed to escape to Epping Station, hiding in the shadows until a friend arrived to take her home. Denise went to work the next day, feigning normality but failing. Her boss pulled her aside and told her that if Denise didn’t phone her mum, she would. Then came the hospital, police officers, question after question. Denise told the police that she never wanted to see Charles again and an AVO was enforced. Six weeks later the pair were together again.
The next few months were a bit of a blur. Seeing Charlie every weekend, being beaten up every weekend. The violence became part of the deal. “It really messed around with my thought processes about what’s normal in a relationship. I knew it was wrong in the back of my mind and I didn’t want it to happen again but after the next few times it happened, I just tried to hide it and accept it for what it was.” But then two big things happened. Denise found out she was pregnant, and Denise’s mum issued an ultimatum. “She told me ‘If you don’t stop seeing Charlie, I’m going to take custody of your child’. I thought I had it under control and I was doing the right thing. But when she said that I knew I wasn’t at all.”
Denise’s friends told her that the way to have a ‘good’ baby was by ensuring the pregnancy was stress-free. So that’s what she did. For the last trimester, Denise didn’t see Charlie. She ate a lot of fresh food, focused on university, and set up the baby room. Practically as perfect a mother-to-be as you can get. Charlie’s thoughts on pending parenthood fluctuated wildly. One day he would threaten abuse and openly proclaim that he wasn’t the father, the next he would plead for forgiveness. Good luck having a dead baby he’d texted after one of his particularly graphic threats, involving slicing Denise’s stomach open. When his daughter was born, he uploaded a photo to Facebook. “My happy little family” it read. He wasn’t even at the hospital, and didn’t meet the baby until a month later. He doesn’t provide any child support, nor does Denise want him to. “I don’t want him to have any connection with her. When she’s older, I’ll just tell her ‘your dad is not a very nice person and he hurt my feelings and he hurt your feelings’.” In January, Charlie grabbed Denise by the throat while the baby was in her arms. They haven’t seen him since.
Sunday: The Journalist
My week with domestic violence has opened my eyes to three things. Firstly, domestic violence is endemic in Australian society. Secondly domestic violence doesn’t discriminate based on race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, religious affiliation, or social location. It can happen to anyone you know. Lastly, the community campaigns and government initiatives that aim to stop the spread of domestic violence are not working. Simple as that. If they were working then we would see reduction of assaults and AVOs, the phone line at Women’s Legal Services would be silent, and the fifty two women who died last year at the hands of violent partners would still be alive.
In Greek mythology, the Hydra is a monstrous nine-headed serpent that Hercules was sent to destroy. Each time Hercules decapitated one head, two more would spring up in its place. The fight against domestic violence can often feel almost as fruitless. As ECAV educator Lynda put it bluntly “The statistics aren’t changing any. Human behaviour isn’t changing any.” Humans are resistant to change. And when the change is at odds with fear and love – two of the strongest emotions we have – we act in unpredictable and often inexplicable ways. Women need to understand that being vulnerable is not synonymous with being weak. The Personal Safety Survey, which also collected responses to violence, found that more than a third of women who had experienced current partner violence never sought support from family and friends. Not even once. This figure doubles when it comes to seeking police intervention.
This has not been an exercise in what causes domestic violence. I’m not sure that’s a question anybody can answer. If you could, you’d be solving a $13.6 billion dollar problem, the amount analysts estimate domestic violence costs Australia each year. Like a gnarly old gumtree, the roots of domestic violence are buried deep within the soil of our culture. It will take a concerted unified effort to excavate the roots but every little question we ask is a spade closer. We need to question our politicians and our lawmakers, question each other and question ourselves. Domestic violence isn’t going away anytime soon. But when I’m old and grey and pull out the box from the attic labeled ‘UTS assignments’, I hope I feel shock, not resignation. Shock that something so insidious used to happen in here. Then when I put the box back, I hope I feel proud, proud that it doesn’t happen any longer.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from domestic violence call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).