Domestic violence is a significant social issue that has a major impact on the health of women in society. Domestic violence is known by many names including spouse abuse, domestic abuse, domestic assault, battering, partner abuse, marital strife, marital dispute, wife beating, marital discord, woman abuse, dysfunctional relationship, intimate fighting, male beating and so on. McCue (1995) maintains that it is commonly accepted by legal professionals as “the emotional, physical, psychological, or sexual abuse perpetrated against a person by that person’s spouse, former spouse, partner, former partner or by the other parent of a minor child” (although several other forms of domestic violence have become increasingly apparent in today’s society). Whatever name is used to refer to it, however, domestic violence is a very grave and difficult problem faced by Australian society.
Although domestic violence can include the abuse of parents, children, siblings and other relatives, it predominantly involves violence against sexual partners with women being the most common victims and men being the ‘aggressors’ (Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce 1991). It is inadequate to view domestic violence as an aspect of the normal interpersonal conflict which takes place in most families. According to McCue (1995), many families experience conflict, but not all male members of families inevitably resort to violence. It is not the fact of family disputes or marital conflict that generate or characterize violence in the home. Violence occurs when one person assumes the right to dominate over the other and decides to use violence or abuse as a means of ensuring that domination (Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce 1991).
Although all forms of domestic violence are pressing issues of equal importance, this essay is more specifically directed at spouse abuse and aims to delve deeper into the issue of domestic violence by examining its causes with respect to the socioeconomic status of the particular family and its effects upon women in Australian society.
The FACS (Family and Community Services) booklet (1995), defines domestic violence as follows:
‘when a woman suffers persistent physical, verbal, economic or social abuse from her partner with the result that she suffers a sustained emotional and, or psychological effect.’
Domestic violence is the most common form of assault in Australia today. However, it remains a hidden problem because it occurs within the privacy of the home and those involved are usually reluctant to speak out (Healey 1993). Actually, it extends far beyond mere physical abuse and incorporates a range of behaviors aimed at the male to his partner. These behaviors include assault, psychological or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, social abuse and economic abuse. The belief that the perpetrators of domestic violence are typically stupid, mentally ill, aggressive males with criminal records and a generally vicious and barbaric nature is surprisingly incorrect. According to McCue (1995), many of the men who present most violently in the household portray themselves quite differently to the rest of society. They are generally not lawbreakers, but rather appear to be charming, often handsome law-abiding citizens outside of their own homes who maintain an image as friendly and devoted family men. In fact, it is likely that many such aggressors aren’t even aware of the major impact their actions have on their partners. Violence occurs in families of all kinds and from all cultures and socio-economic profiles (McCue 1995). As stated previously, the majority of violence in the typical Australian household is perpetrated by men against women. In Australia, all available data on family violence indicates that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence in the home. According to the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce (1991), data obtained by police in Victoria since the proclamation of the Crimes (Family Violence) Act 1987 revealed that between the 1st of June and the 30th of November 1989, in 88% of reported cases where physical violence was used against a person in a family violence incident, the perpetrator was male.
The reasons for men being abusive towards their wives are many and varied. However, whilst the experience of family violence may differ according to factors such as socioeconomic group, class, culture, race and the age and health of the victim, the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce (1991) maintains that it has not been demonstrated that these factors play any causal role in the origins of family violence. Instead, the most consistent impression to be gained is that violence in the home is best understood in the context of unequal power relationships between men and women. An example of this lies in data obtained by the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce (1991) which indicates that there is a high correlation between traditional views of women’s economic subordination to men and approval of husbands’ violence against their wives. According to the FACS booklet (1995), men from many different cultures often enter a relationship with a traditional perspective on the roles of husbands and wives, considering their wives as some sort of possession and therefore believing they have the right to control them. Subsequently, many of these men feel that violence is an acceptable means of enforcing this control. It is important however to consider the fact that such ideas about the role of women may be antiquated in our western culture but may be considered acceptable in others. Thus arises the major issue concerning whether or not it is morally acceptable to impose the ideas and beliefs of western society onto another culture.
The booklet from the Dept. of Family Services (1995) states that:
‘…research shows that men who grew up in violent families are six times more likely to beat their wives than men who did not.’
Thus, it is obvious that the ideas and practices which are within the family network reflect upon the customs and concepts that a male will bring into his own family.
According to O’Donnell and Craney (1982), domestic violence can also arise in response to various social structural factors. This fact explains the apparent concentration of domestic violence occurrences within families of lower socioeconomic status since these families are more likely to suffer stressful conditions such as poor health, unemployment, unsatisfactory housing, and lifestyles along with many others. However, in complete contrast to such beliefs that domestic violence occurs mainly in lower socioeconomic groups, data collected by the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce (1991) indicates that family violence is prevalent throughout all class boundaries.
Spouse abuse occurs throughout all aspects of society. However, as shown in Figure 1, it rates around two times higher among families where the male partner is unskilled (and thus more likely to be unemployed) relative to families where the male partner is skilled or trained in a particular field (and therefore more likely employed). These statistics are unlikely to have improved with an increase in unemployment over the last fifteen years (O’Donnell and Craney 1982).
It is evident that a complete and sound understanding of domestic violence would rely on explanations which place responsibility for the violence with external factors such as stress and alcohol. The excessive use of alcohol is often linked to domestic violence as indicated by Figure 2 wherein 48% of abuse cases, alcohol was a predominant factor, (Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force booklet, 1988). Although society may believe that alcohol is a possible cause of domestic violence, the Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce (1991) maintain that it is more of a contributing rather than a causative factor of family violence. In addition, Larouche (1986) maintains that although alcohol may lower both awareness and self-control, a person who uses it is responsible both for drinking and for their behavior.
Somewhat contrary to other studies, Van Hasselt (1988) maintained that occupational status rather than employment status seems to be a significant stimulus to violence where women of higher socioeconomic status than their partners are at a higher risk of being victims of domestic abuse. It is still commonplace (although rather old-fashioned) in our society for men to see themselves as the ‘breadwinners’ whereas women are not expected to be so success-orientated, but rather are expected to look to men for economic support. When men think of themselves as providers for their family but see that they are no longer in a position to perform this duty as their wives are of higher occupational status, abusive men tend to experience intense feelings of insecurity and a deep sense of failure. Thus, men who cannot cope with this particular type of failure are most susceptible to violent behavior. (O’Donnell and Craney 1982)
The Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce (1991) indicates that other factors related to inferiority and superiority such as levels of intelligence or education have also been linked to domestic violence. For example, the level of one’s education is a component of socioeconomic status which greatly influences the risk of domestic violence within a family. According to Steinmetz and Strauss (1974), female abuse is recorded as highest among men who have not achieved a great deal academically. This reasoning explains why domestic violence is more prominent in the poorer sectors of our community where members of society are generally less educated. Steinmetz and Strauss (1974) also suggest that men in the violent group are often less educated than their wives and so by abusing their partner, these male aggressors may feel that they are able to compensate for their low academic status by maintaining their supremacy at home.
A study conducted by Steinmetz and Strauss (1974) establishes that full-time employment of the male partner is related to lower rates of spouse abuse and that higher rates of spouse abuse are associated with women having more education and/or higher occupational status than their male partners. Thus, it seems that a relationship exists between lower socioeconomic status and a greater tendency to domestic violence. Such a relationship can be interpreted in terms of frustration, low self-esteem or oppression.
Consequently, it seems imperative that a community education and awareness program be targeted at the more socioeconomically deprived groups in the community with the primary objective of increasing society’s overall awareness of domestic violence and the drastic and quite permanent effects it can have on the abused. Additionally, it is essential that those community members of higher socioeconomic status be involved in such an education program, for it is evident that domestic violence also presides in the many of the homes of these theoretically less susceptible social groups. However, it is important that community education on domestic violence should not be considered a substitute for legal action against serious offenders.
The effects of domestic violence on the individual are quite severe and traumatic. Reported cases have suggested numerous forms of abuse ranging from the more common forms of physical abuse to psychological and emotional abuse. There are even some cases that involve various forms of sexual abuse. Although vastly different, all forms of domestic abuse leave the victim permanently scarred. It is apparent that even in cases that involve physical abuse, the wounds may heal although the emotional damage can never be repaired. O’Donnell and Craney (1982) suggest that as a result of having been a victim of domestic violence, many people will spend the rest of their lives in fear of the opposite sex. Aside from simple fear, there are many other emotional scars that the perpetrator inflicts upon the victim such as a permanently low self-esteem and possibly, the belief that they are insane (Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce 1991).
All families and relationships have their problems, although violence should never be regarded as a solution. It is no longer tolerated in the workplace, nor is it tolerated in the schoolyard. Why, therefore, should it be tolerated in the home where all should be striving towards building a safe, caring, loving and happy environment?
Department of Family Services and Aboriginal and Islander Affairs booklet (1995).
Family and Community Services (FACS) booklet (1995).
Family Violence Professional Education Taskforce (1991): FAMILY VIOLENCE: EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS, SOMEBODY’S LIFE, Sydney, Federation Press.
Healey K (1993): A VIOLENT SOCIETY?, N.S.W. Spinney Press.
Larouche G (1986): A GUIDE TO INTERVENTION WITH BATTERED WOMEN
McCue M L (1995): DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, California, USA, ABC-CLIO Inc.
O’Donnell C and Craney J (1982): FAMILY VIOLENCE IN AUSTRALIA, Melbourne, Longman Cheshire.
Report of the Queensland Domestic Violence Task Force (1988): Beyond These Walls.
Steinmetz S and Strauss M (1974): VIOLENCE IN THE FAMILY, New York, USA, Harper and Rowe Publishers.
Van Hasselt V B (1988): HANDBOOK OF FAMILY VIOLENCE, New York, USA, Plenum Press.