Jess Hill is a brave woman. Her book, See What You Made Me Do, gives us a chance – just a slim one – to shift our thinking on domestic violence past the stalemate we are in.
There is rage in this book, but also rigorous research and, crucially, an open mind. What is domestic violence? What causes it? How can we fix it? These questions are complicated, and Hill shirks from none of them. She keeps digging, bringing to light all the entrenched positions that, however honestly held, may be hampering our progress.
Her cry is this: where is our focused strategy to reduce the routinely repeated statistic that one woman a week in Australia is killed by her partner or former partner? How do we not just respond after the event but prevent it from happening in the first place?
Why can’t we tackle domestic violence with the same approach we harnessed to slash our smoking rates? Or with the urgency of other public health campaigns, from HIV to random breath testing? The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has said reducing suicide rates is a national priority, that he will do “whatever it takes and whatever we can to break the curse of youth suicide”.
Hill demands, with frustration oozing from her pen: “When will we see a brave politician step forward and say that as a nation we are going to halve the domestic homicide rate?”
The dominant explanation for domestic violence in Australia – repeated by the sector, politicians, police and others – relies on the feminist model, which sees it as a result of rigid gender norms and gender inequality.
That explanation is now barely scrutinised, but Hill outlines at least one alternative explanation – the psychopathology model, that insists that domestic violence is rooted in mental illness, substance abuse and childhood trauma and has little to do with patriarchy. “Unlike the feminist model – which asks, ‘Why do menbeat their wives?’ – the psychopathology schools asks: ‘Why did this man beat his wife?’”
Hill reviews the evidence and says both models have their weaknesses (particularly the psychopathology explanation, although it is the dominant one in the United States). To raise the doubts shouldn’t be courageous, but in our era of rigid positions, it is. She asks for a “middle ground”, quoting Michael Salter, a criminologist specialising in men’s violence against women and children.
“We’ve moved into a neoliberal feminist analysis of violence, which assumes that perpetrators have no depth; that they are all just surfaces that are written upon by TV and pornography and culture,” he says. “The populist discourse on domestic violence has turned into a total shitshow. Those of us who appreciate a bit of complexity in our analysis have just stepped back to shut our mouths.”
It’s not that Hill rejects the idea that patriarchy is at the heart of domestic violence against women. She does question the focus on “gender inequality”, because on those measures, Australia has improved enormously in a generation or two, from legal equality to education opportunities for women.
My guess is that the domestic violence sector uses the term gender inequality because the word “patriarchy” is seen as too loaded, but they actually mean patriarchy, which goes deeper.
It’s about men dominating most positions of power, privileging some “masculine” values like control, strength and competitiveness, and a culture that is male-centred – we focus mainly on the exploits of men and boys in the news, movies and sport. “Feminine” traits are devalued or even held in contempt.
It has been feminism that has pointed out that these straightjackets harm men as well as women and, at last, this is being discussed in the mainstream, particularly since the #MeToo movement.
Many men who commit horrific acts don’t feel in the least bit powerful but, as Hill writes, “When men feel powerless and ashamed, it’s their entitlement to power that fuels their humiliated fury, and drives them to commit twisted, violent acts.”
Why this matters is that Australia has a national plan to reduce violence against women and their children, in place since 2010.
It has one goal: to achieve “a significant and sustained reduction” in sexual assault and domestic violence by 2022. Many of the plan’s architects are convinced that, as gender inequality is the cause, only a generational change in attitudes will fix it, hence the focus on awareness campaigns, respectful relationship classes, and work and sporting-based attitude change programs.
Hill is blunt. Generational change is critical, but it’s not enough. She points out that the plan has no targets, and many of its proposed outcomes are vague to the point of meaninglessness.
The mission to transform attitudes to gender inequality is laudable, “but as a primary strategy for reducing domestic abuse, it is horribly inadequate”, she writes. “Why do we accept that it will take decades – possibly generations – to reduce domestic abuse? Why isn’t long-term prevention work paired with a relentless focus on doing everything possible to reduce violence today?”
A recent evaluation of the plan concluded that despite efforts, “the incidence and severity of domestic and family violence is increasing”. Writes Hill: “Ultimately, this is a plan to reduce domestic violence. If such violence is increasing, the national plan to reduce violence against women and their children is failing.”
This is a gutsy conclusion and one we have to face. For there are things we can do now that have nothing to do with patriarchy or generational change but might reduce the violence (domestic abuse is not just physical, but it is harder to measure controlling behaviours such as stopping a partner from seeing friends and family).
Hill gives the example of Bourke in New South Wales, a town of 2,600 people which in 2013 had the highest rate of domestic violence, assaults and break-ins in the state. A third of the population is Indigenous.
Alcohol restrictions in 2009 helped reduce the severity of violence. But then a group of locals looked for circuit breakers to prevent men becoming perpetrators, concentrating on young children, those aged up to 18 and the role of men. A community hub called Maranguka brought all the services and factions together.
The high rate of youth charged for driving while unlicensed was easily fixed – Maranguka raised money for a car and young people were taught to drive. The local police revolutionised their approach to domestic violence from responding to it to preventing it.
Officers made house calls to perpetrators and victims to check that court orders were being adhered to, but “more radically, assess what could be done to improve their lives”. Did they need help with job training, treatment for substance abuse or mental health treatment? They put them in touch with these services or encouraged them to attend a Maranguka men’s group, to talk about trauma and loss.
By 2017, domestic violence-related assault had dropped by 39%. Other crimes, such as drug offences, driving offences and non-domestic violence-related assaults also fell. And more students are completing year 12.
Solutions have to be local, community-led and require enormous cooperation between various service providers. But they can be found.
Hill writes that she agonised that the four years she spent researching domestic violence would prove futile. “The thought of penning yet another ‘call for action’ – one more on the teetering pile – is nauseating,” she writes.
But her book isn’t futile. It’s hopeful. She gives an opening for us to move past firm positions, to use all our ingenuity to prevent violence before it happens. We can’t dismantle patriarchy overnight, but we can do an awful lot before we do.
By Gay Alcorn
This article first appeared in The Guardian