"Being 'poor' or drinking alcohol doesn't ‘cause' domestic violence. Let me explain why."

It’s popped up again. The old, but persistent, alcohol fuels domestic violence narrative.

The more articles written on violence against women and their children the better. But when authors talk about what ‘causes’ this violence, I have to pop my head above the parapet to say – we now have comprehensive evidence about this, so let’s stop perpetuating simplistic narratives.

The large body of evidence reviewed by Our Watch in the last year overwhelmingly shows that although there is no single cause of domestic violence, there are certain factors that consistently predict – or drive – higher levels of this violence.

The strongest of these are clearly associated with gender inequality, and specifically with the condoning of violence against women, gendered power relationships, stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity, and male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

And when it comes to Indigenous communities, research tells us that we must also consider the way in which intergenerational trauma, and the other impacts of colonisation on Indigenous people, play out as significant underlying drivers of violence, including gendered violence.

Alcohol abuse, mental illness and poverty are three among many factors which appear to have some impact in some situations. But the research finds that none of these factors consistently correlate with violence, and none is anywhere near sufficient to explain the gendered patters of violence we currently see across Australia.


Being poor does not ‘cause’ domestic violence. Nor does drinking alcohol. All of us know individuals (many of us are such individuals) to whom these characteristics apply, who are not violent and never would be. So rather than looking at any of these factors in isolation, we need to understand them in relation to the more significant drivers of violence.

"Alcohol abuse, mental illness and poverty are three among many factors which appear to have some impact in some situations." Source: iStock.

In Indigenous communities we need to understand harmful alcohol use in its social and historical context. Yes, it can be a trigger for violence, but seeing it as the primary cause, as Corrine Barraclough does in her article, is both simplistic and blind to the deeper issues impacting Indigenous communities.

More generally, looking at alcohol in isolation can actually reinforce the attitudes and social norms that condone or excuse violence against women. It allows us to justify violent behaviour with excuses like ‘he was drunk so he didn’t mean it, he’s not normally like that’, or ‘well, she was drunk, what did she expect?’

According to the latest VicHealth National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey, one in four young people (16-24) agrees that partner violence can be excused if the person is so angry they lose control. One in 10 of these young people believes that partner violence can be excused if the offender is heavily affected by alcohol.

There is no excuse for violence. We know the one thing that is never absent from an act of domestic violence is a perpetrator with a sense of entitlement – and the power – to be violent.

Violent crime is predominantly committed by men, sexual crimes are predominantly committed against women, and both men and women are almost equally victims of physical assaults, which are almost always committed by men.

how to help someone who has been sexually assaulted
"We know the one thing that is never absent from an act of domestic violence is a perpetrator with a sense of entitlement – and the power – to be violent." Image via iStock.

I am not saying do not address the harmful use of alcohol at all – far from it - this is good social policy for many reasons. Alcohol contributes to a number of social ills and health problems, and it does play a significant role in some domestic/family and sexual violence cases.

As Barraclough points out, alcohol is estimated to be involved in up to half of partner violence in Australia. She rightly states that injuries can be more severe when alcohol is present in incidents of partner violence.


What we do need is a more sophisticated conversation with communities, experts from mental health, alcohol and other drug groups, and academics. One that brings a gender and violence-informed analysis to such issues.

Rather than breeding in bottles, violence against women flourishes in environments that trivialise or excuse it.  Let’s work together to challenge drinking cultures that emphasise male conquest and aggression. Let’s work together challenge attitudes that position men’s drinking as an excuse for violence against women. And importantly, let’s focus on what the evidence says is fundamental to preventing violence against women: creating gender equality.


Mary Barry is the CEO of Our Watch; an organisation that endeavours to create nationwide change in the culture, behaviours and power imbalances that lead to violence against women and their children.

If this post brought up any issues for you, or you just feel like you need someone to talk to after reading it, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 at any time of the day or night.

If you feel unsafe please phone 000 or the relevant emergency services in your area. 

Listen to Rosie Batty tell Mia Freedman about how family violence turned her life upside down.