real life

Women victims blamed as '50% contributors' to violence against them.

The Australian public have worked hard to make domestic violence a nationally-recognised issue. And now….? This.

Trigger warning: This post discusses domestic violence and may be triggering to some readers. 

The hour has arrived: domestic violence is finally in the political spotlight.

For the first time ever, Australians are having a national conversation about this vital issue.

For victims and their advocates, it is an exciting time, and there is a real sense that if the energy around that conversation can just be harnessed correctly, it could be the game-changer that literally saves women and children’s lives.

So why, at this crucial moment – when we are on the cusp of something huge – has The Age published an article, which claims victims of domestic violence bear fifty percent of the responsibility for the choices and actions of their perpetrators?

domestic violence victim blaming
Sallee McLaren’s article as it appeared on the site.

And why, when we have such an important opportunity at our fingertips, have those editors squandered valuable column space on outdated, unsubstantiated, and frankly dangerous assertions, which if uncritically accepted, could massively set back the community’s understanding of domestic violence and jeopardize the headway being made in regards to perpetrator responsibility?

In case you missed it, today Dr Sallee McLaren penned an outrageous opinion article claiming that domestic violence victims (including, presumably, the ones who are murdered each and every week) contribute “50:50” to the situation, and are equally responsible for violence that occurs. Her reason? Because female victims don’t try hard enough to “command enough authority to stop [violence] in its tracks.”

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McLaren’s logic is as problematic as it is simple: if victims nipped inappropriate behaviour in the bud when they first saw it, then violence wouldn’t happen. Presto! All male violence would magically disappear.

But because domestic violence does continue to happen, then according to McLaren, it must be because women are failing in their responsibility to educate, train, and coach the men around them. See? It’s simple right?

Here is McLaren in her own words:

Early on in the relationship [a male perpetrator] becomes aggravated for some reason and raises his voice at her. She tolerates it, lets it go by, thinks to herself “he’s not too angry – no need to rock the boat”.

At that stage he is at 4/10 in his level of anger. By not objecting she has just trained him that 4/10 is acceptable. So he continues to regularly reach that level.

Then a few weeks or months later something more aggravating happens and he yells at her and swears “you bitch”. He is now at 6/10 in his level of anger. She tolerates it, lets it go by, thinks to herself “that’s not much worse than before – no point in just aggravating him more”.

By not objecting, she has just taught him that 6/10 is doable and calling her a “bitch” is OK. Eventually he escalates further and she fails to object, teaching him at each stage that his level of anger is tolerable and has no consequences.

Before you know it, he has reached 9/10 and he is smacking her head into the wall and calling her a “fucking c—“. [Thus, the woman has] contributed 50 per cent to how this domestic violence situation came to be.”

Actually, no. Not even close.

Not even a little bit.

The woman has not contributed fifty percent to that situation. And any man who smacks a woman’s head into a wall and calls her a “fucking c—‘’ needs to take full – 100 percent – responsibility for his actions.

domestic violence victim blaming
“The woman has not contributed fifty percent to that situation. And any man who smacks a woman’s head into a wall and calls her a “fucking c—‘’ needs to take full responsibility for his actions.”

You know, what he doesn’t need? A reputable broadsheet that tells him that his victim is equally to blame for the violence because she failed to parent him out of his bad ways.

But even if we ignore the fact that it’s morally repugnant to blame a victim for the violence they experience (and that to do so only further enables and excuses that violence, by shielding the perpetrator from responsibility), McLaren’s argument falls apart the moment you extend it to its logical conclusion: children.

Consider this: Since children are often the victims of domestic violence too, and since (just like battered women) children also suffer from a power imbalance between them and their abuser, should we then also place the onus on to children to educate and train violent fathers not to molest or abuse them? And if a child fails to nip inappropriate behaviour in the bud the first time they experience it, should we also hold them “50:50” accountable for the violence that occurs?

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Ah, but adult women have far more agency than children, you say. And adult women have far more power in their relationships, you say. True. In general. Except in cases where a woman’s power is robbed from her through… oh, I don’t know… a subtle and insidious grooming process which she may be invisible to her, perpetrated by a male who has a penchant for undermining and subtly sabotaging people he is in a relationship with?

23 women have lost their lives due to domestic violence or alleged domestic violence. We will not forget them. Post continues after gallery. 

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McLaren’s position totally ignores the dynamics of power and control that operate within an abusive relationship, even before the relationship turns overtly toxic. In fact, her article betrays a complete lack of understanding of the complexities of violent relationships, and the social factors that contribute to them, including gendered arrangements of power and (yes, I’m going there) patriarchy.

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More to the point, it’s not ethical, realistic, or even desirable, to expect a woman to parent her male partner into good behavior. Not only is it infantilising to men, it also allocates the burden of responsibility to women, who in violent relationships, already suffer from a power imbalance.

It is no more a woman’s responsibility to train her partner not to use violence, than it is a child’s responsibility to train their parent not to assault or molest them. And the responsibility for any violence in any family dynamic must always sit squarely with the individual who makes the choice to abuse the power they hold.

Leaving that point to one side though, McLaren’s model of how violence escalates (and whose responsibility it is) is also completely unfounded and backwards.

Indeed, contrary to McLaren’s unsubstantiated assertion (she doesn’t cite a single expert, study, or piece of research) that violence escalates in the face of passivity, multiple studies show the exact opposite: that when a victim begins to assert herself, this will often bring violence to a head.

According to Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, the most dangerous time for a woman in a violent relationship is often when she begins to find her power and assert herself. So much so, that breaking up with a violent partner (which is the ultimate act of assertiveness) is the most dangerous time for a woman, and indeed, women are 70 times more likely to be killed in the two weeks after leaving a violent relationship, than at any other time during that relationship. Multiple other studies also demonstrate that violence tends to escalate when women assert themselves or leave a relationship (see for example, Flood 2007, Brownridge 2006, Riggs et al 2000, DeKeseredy, Rogness et al 2004).

So no. Male violence does not escalate because women fail to assert themselves. In many cases it is the reverse.

Of course the other problem with McLaren’s piece is that she claims that girls grow up to experience domestic violence because they are essentially socialised to be “be passive”, through the “colour pink”, and through avoiding “physical pursuits, requiring mental toughness” such as sport. McLaren writes:

If women are to command proper authority with men we need to train young girls to take themselves much more seriously and develop the necessary mental toughness to push their own physical and mental limits….Engaging in hard sport with much higher expectations attached to performance would be one important avenue to help girls develop the mental and physical toughness required to stop domestic violence.

First of all, as a woman and a feminist, I don’t want my relationship with men to be one where I am expected to “command proper authority” over them. I want to be equal with men, not dominating of them.

But second of all, McLaren’s argument for girl’s sports as a possible solution to domestic violence hinges on the mistaken belief that women who experience domestic violence often do so, because they “don’t take themselves seriously”, “lack mental toughness” and are physically weak. Oh, really? I wonder what Rosie Batty would have to say about that.

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domestic violence victim blaming
Rosie Batty with her son, Luke.

Because, the reality is that many women who experience domestic violence are not wilting wall-flowers, as per the extremely unhelpful stereotype being perpetuated here. Many are smart, educated, tough cookies (again, just talk to Rosie Batty).

And while I’m all for girls learning sports, and pushing themselves, and being socialised to stick up for themselves, it is completely erroneous (and counter-productive) to insinuate that strong, smart, educated, fit, willful women, with high self-esteem to begin with, and a good tennis arm, don’t also find themselves in violent relationships.

It’s equally ludicrous to think that urging girls to play sport is the answer to a social problem as complex as domestic violence.

If we want to prevent and eradicate domestic violence, then the answer is not for women to sit around waiting for the first transgression, so they can then correct it. And as Karen Willis so aptly says, instead of teaching women and girls to “identify, manage, and avoid violence, we need to be telling blokes ‘Just Don’t”.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

To read on about the domestic violence epidemic…

We’re not tackling domestic violence education in the classroom, but we should be.

Enough talking – it’s time to act on domestic violence.

Rosie Batty just did something incredible for victims of domestic violence.

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