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Report on Violence: the research does not support the conclusions

Filed under: Domestic Violence — JohnPotter @ 4:39 pm Wed 16th August 1995

The recent Justice Department-backed study into violence in the family is deeply flawed by a failure to look candidly at all aspects of a disturbing issue, writes Dr Greg Newbold.

“The danger now is that, in the way of moral panics generally, false ideas about men’s violence in the home will lead to bad public policy, asinine law and, ultimately, the destruction of innocent people.”

First published in the The Press on 16th April 1995.

Hitting Home Report Flawed

There are few New Zealanders who would deny that domestic violence is a compelling problem. In 1994, the police were called to 19,000 domestic disputes: more than double the figure of five years earlier.

Every year, more than 6000 women seek shelter in women’s refuges. Forty per cent of all murders occur as a result of a domestic dispute and they are the greatest single cause of homicide in this country.

These high and rising figures are frightening, because we know that a disruptive home environment can have such a devastating effect on the life chances of children. Not only that, as we have just seen in the case of the rapist Joe Thompson, exposing children to prolonged violence can set up a cycle of violence that continues across generations.

With such facts in mind, research into the extent and nature of this dark area is welcome. “Hitting Home“, a recent report by Julie Leibrich, Judy Paulin, and Robin Ransom on men’s abuse of their women partners, has been hailed as the most comprehensive study of attitudes towards domestic violence that exists anywhere.

The conclusions of the research make disturbing reading. Twenty-one per cent of the 2000 men surveyed admitted having physically abused their female partners in the pervious 12 months. Fifty-three per cent had psychologically abused their partners. A substantial number of men, the authors say, showed an underlying acceptance of domestic abuse, and tended to blame women for its occurrence.

No link was found between being abusive and education level, socioeconomic status, or employment status The problem, it seems, is pervasive and has no connections with class. Although the researchers caution that it is pointless to lay blame, they say that there is a significant need for men to take responsibility for their abusive actions in order to end the cycle of family violence.

With conclusions as powerful as these, it is no wonder that the research received such prominent attention by all of New Zealand’s major television and radio stations and in all of the principal newspapers. The “Listener” made it a cover issue and the Department of Justice presented a summary of results in a special edition of “Criminal Justice Quarterly”. As far as it goes, the research is clear and comprehensive. But all research has faults and the major fault of this inquiry is that the findings do not justify the conclusions.

A major weakness of the project lies with the definition of abuse. The study defines abusive behaviour as, “a range of physically and psychologically abusive behaviours”, in other words, abuse behaviour is abusive behaviour.

Moreover, this range of behaviours is extremely broad. “Physical abuse” includes acts such as pushing, shoving, grabbing and “throwing something” (anything) at a female partner, “Psychological abuse” includes criticising a female partner’s family or friends, throwing of kicking something, swearing at a partner, preventing her from having money (amount unstated) for her own use, of “trying to keep her from doing something she wants to do”.

It is beyond belief that, according to the respondents, 45 per cent lived in such perfect harmony with their partners that they had done none of these things in the previous 12 months. I would bet a year’s salary that if the men were honest, nearly of them would have “abused” their women in at least one of these ways.

And I would bet another year’s salary that if the women were asked and were honest, close to 100 per cent would admit they had “abused” their husbands as well.

In fact, when the figures are analysed the men don’t look too bad at all. Only a tiny fraction of the “physically abusive” 21 per cent had assaulted their partners in a way that was likely to cause any injury. The vast majority had only pushed, shoved or grabbed.

Likewise, of the 53 per cent who admitted “psychological abuse”, the great bulk had only insulted their partner or her friends, tried to stop their partner from doing something she wanted to do, or broken or kicked something. Unfortunately, there was no comment on the context in which any of these acts occurred. There is little doubt that if women’s treatment of men had been surveyed, though, the results would have been similar.

Men‘s attitudes towards women showed up pretty well, too. The men were asked whether they accepted the use of any physical force against women. Seventy-five per cent said they did not approve, not even of pushing, shoving or grabbing, in any circumstances. The forbearance of the men towards women is revealed in the fact that more than 72 per cent of them strongly or moderately disapproved of hitting a woman even if she hit them first. If a man did hit a woman back in these circumstances, about a quarter felt that only the man would be at fault.

But for the researchers, this was not enough. For them, no retaliation was justified. Only complete male docility would suffice.

The men were also asked whether they approved of “psychological abuse’. Forty-two per cent said they did not approve of it in any circumstances. The astonishing fact that this means that 42 per cent of men would not approve of trying to stop a partner from doing something she wanted to do, even if it involved driving home drunk, spending their life savings on Lotto, committing suicide, burning down the house, or killing the kids, passed without comment.

One of the most serious areas where domestic abuse be concerned, is that involving Maoris. In crimes of serious violence, particularly rape and murder, Maoris overwhelmingly predominate. Maoris are about five times as likely as non-Maoris to be convicted of rape and about four times as likely to be convicted of murder. One of the major reasons for this is that Maoris are more likely to have had abusive childhoods.

Maori men are about six times as likely as non-Maoris to be imprisoned for assault on a female and 14 times as likely to be imprisoned for child abuse.

A Maori child is about eight times as likely as a non-Maori child to be hospitalised as a result of parental abuse, and five times as likely to be sexually abused. Of the eight children killed by their parents in 1993, six were Maori.

Given these dramatic facts, the researchers’ decision not to record the ethnicity of their respondents is extraordinary. Their apparent rationale, that to record ethnicity would lead to “unhelpful, inappropriate and insensitive cross-cultural comparisons”, is a confession that the study was influenced by cultural safety. Call me ignorant, but I don’t know of any culture where a smack in the mouth isn’t a smack in the mouth.

Equally perplexing is the conclusion that domestic abuse has no class preferences. The results do not show this at all. Like most other studies, this one confirms that domestic abuse is more likely to occur when the male partner is poorly educated, of low socio-economic status, and unemployed. As we know, Maoris are disproportionately concentrated in the lower educational and economic sectors of society.

This study surveyed only men, apparently with the notion that men are responsible for the majority of domestic violence. The assumption is false: women are often violent. Research from the United States and Britain shown that women are slightly more likely to assault their husbands than the other way around.

In America, where handguns are freely available, the likelihood of a husband shooting his wife is about the same as the reverse. In this country, women are about twice as likely as men to abuse their children. Women are also at least an skilled at psychological abuse as men are.

This is not to deny that men are responsible for the most serious forms of spousal assault. Because men are stronger and inflict more damage, their violence is more often noticed and is more of a problem. But “Hitting Home” does not focus on serious violence. Although it concentrates on aspects of violence where women’s involvement is high, it inexplicably excludes women from scrutiny.

There are several reasons why such an approach is dangerous. First, by including minor levels of violence in a survey designed to help cut serious violence, it trivialises serious violence and obscures its true nature and extent. Second, by excluding women from the survey and by concluding that the solution lies in men controlling their aggression, the survey ignores half of the problem and proposes a naïve remedy. The fact that family relationships involve complex male-female dynamics is overlooked. Simplistic explanations of problems tend to simplistic solutions, which guarantee that the problems remain.

Finally, the production of sensationalistic figures about abuse reinforces popular misconceptions and encourages public hysteria. We have already seen the results of this. In 1988, Telethon publicised Miriam Saphira’s findings that one in four girls is sexually abused by the time she reaches the age of 18.

The research was later found to be deeply flawed. But by then it was too late. A crusade against “sexual abusers” was under way, beginning with the persecution of a family in Christchurch Hospital’s “Ward 24″ fiasco and continuing with the absurd allegations against the staff of Christchurch’s Civic Creche. The damage done to these who were unjustly accused can never be repaired.

Now we hear that one in five men physically abuses his wife. The researchers caution that their work should not be misused and the problem thereby made worse. But that is precisely what is likely to happen. The belief that one in five men abuses his wife will create a fantasy in some people’s minds about the nature of domestic relationships.

It was a false belief in black magic which preceded the medieval witch hunts, and it was a false belief in satanic abuse which preceded the madness at the Christchurch Civic Creche. The danger now is that, in the way of moral panics generally, false ideas about men’s violence in the home will lead to bad public policy, asinine law and, ultimately, the destruction of innocent people.

Dr Greg Newbold is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Canterbury.

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