Domestic Violence is a Two-Way Street

In the early 1990s I worked as a researcher for an organization dedicated to finding accommodation for young, homeless women. Many of these young women were escaping violent homes and, if they were lucky enough to get a bed in a refuge, they often found more violence there.

My female co-workers thought they had the answer: single sex accommodation. The only problem was that the actual and threatened assaults the young women told me about were not just from angry young men, but hardened young women who’d been on the streets for years. Over many months I dutifully reported to my superiors what the young women told me: that they were as afraid of assaults from their own sex as from the opposite one, but my findings were rejected as lies and distraction. The earth was round, the sky was blue and women were victims of violence, not perpetrators.

The job ended and I gave little thought to the issue. Until last week, when a friend of mine-a gentle man with a heart of gold-told me something that made his cheeks flame, and his typically brash voice fall to a whisper.

His wife had hit him. Several times, and viciously, leaving him in so much pain he feared a broken rib. He was clearly upset and I was \unsure what to say. So unsure that as he was telling me about how she had followed him around the house, jabbing him, I blurted out, “But you’re a decent sized bloke. Why didn’t you stop her?”

Here’s what he said. “I did. I restrained her, but I…I’m a gentle person. I don’t want to hit her. I don’t want to hit anyone. So she would calm down and I would let her go and then, when I wasn’t looking, she’d go me again.”

Figures vary but studies suggest that around one in five Australian women will experience relationship violence in their lifetime. The AMA describes partner violence as an abuse of power, evidenced by the domination, coercion, intimidation or victimisation of one person by another using physical, sexual or emotional means.

While fewer both in number, and among those killed or seriously injured, men can also be victims of spousal abuse. Victorian hospital admission figures show that 1.3% of women and 0.14% of men are admitted to casualty because of partner-inflicted injury.

Australia is sexist society. While the usual object of this charge is the unconscious, deliberate and institutional biases that unjustly discriminate against women in favour of men, when it comes to public perceptions of domestic violence, it is men who suffer most. Actor Tom Long, who played a man abducted and raped by three women in the 2006 film The Book of Revelation, gives a feel for the problem when he admits his first reading of the script made him angry. “I didn’t like the idea of men losing their power. I wanted to call into question, well how can women do that?”

But if domestic violence and rape are abuses of power, it is not hard to understand how men can be victims. The superior physical power most men have over most women does not grant them emotional mastery in domestic confrontations.

And while it seems wretched and grossly unfair, one thing violent women can and do take advantage of is the lesson that good men have had tattood on their souls since childhood.

Never ever raise your hand to a woman.

Publication history

Domestic Violence is a Two-Way Street  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)