Saturday, November 25, 2006

Why I won't wear a white ribbon

It's International White Ribbon Day today. We men are supposed to wear a white ribbon to show our opposition to domestic violence.

But there is a problem. The message being spruiked in the media is not a simple "show your opposition to violence". Instead, we get the following themes:

a) All men are responsible for domestic violence. In the Herald Sun for instance we get this:

Demons coach Neale Daniher has a message for all men - take a good hard look at yourselves.

And this:

Men's Referral Service counsellor Bruce Colcott said all men should stop and think about their relationships with women.

b) The rate of domestic violence is high. According to the Herald Sun: "more than one in two women will be physically or sexually assaulted".

c) Women are at risk from their own partners.

d) Male culture accepts violence against women. Andrew O'Keefe tells us: "Our aim is to change the culture of silence, inaction and acceptance that surrounds violence against women."

These ideas are repeated over and over in the media. It's a serious thing as a shocking picture is created in which the average woman can expect to be attacked physically or sexually by a man, especially by her partner, and that all men are implicated in a masculine culture which condones such behaviour.

Not a happy picture, is it? Not something to attract women to relationships with men. Not something for men to feel much masculine pride about.

But is it true? For evidence, let's take a quick look at a major, official research project carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Women's Safety Survey (1996).

This survey was commissioned by the Office for the Status of Women. Some of the staff at the ABS complained at the time that it was advocacy research designed to inflate the level of domestic violence.

Even so, the survey found that in a twelve month period about 2.6% of women experienced an incident of violence from a married or de facto partner. Of these 2.6% of women, about half experienced milder forms of violence such as threats or pushing or grabbing (and of the approximately 1.3% of more severe cases about 50% involved alcohol abuse).

What this means is that in a twelve month period 97.4% of men desisted from any conceivable form of violence against their partners, including threats.

When you consider the amount of alcoholism, drug use, mental illness and family breakdown in society, the figure of 97.4% of men not even committing a single instance of a threat is a creditable one to men.

Another interesting statistic from the survey is that women are physically safer when they are partnered - by a large factor of 250%. It is single women who are more vulnerable to violence. Women therefore should not go into a relationship assuming that they are at higher risk of assault - the very opposite is true.

Finally, the survey revealed that 25% of the physical assaults committed against women are perpetrated by women. Although this is a minority of assaults, it is a significant minority. So when discussing violence against women, it would be more reasonable to discuss both male and female perpetrators, rather than focusing on men alone.

And is it true that male culture condones violence against women? This hasn't been my experience. I've always felt there to be a strict taboo against such violence in the social circles I've moved in.

The research seems to confirm my own experience. A Vic Health survey from earlier this year found that over 97% of men rejected the idea that violence against women was ever justified.

So the picture built up by the media is false. Men overwhelmingly reject violence against women both in theory and practice. Women are safer having a partner than not having one. And when women are attacked the perpetrators are frequently other women.

Which raises the question of why the false picture is encouraged. The answer has much to do with politics.

The feminism of the 1970s was based to a considerable degree on patriarchy theory. According to this theory, gender is a construct designed to secure a systematic male dominance over women: a patriarchy. All the institutions of society are shaped to secure this male control over women. Marriage and the family are simply instruments of control in which the work of the patriarchy is carried out either through emotional manipulation or violence.

So patriarchy theorists won't accept the idea that men are generally protective toward women and that a masculine culture discourages violence against women. Instead, they'll emphasise that all men are implicated in the systemic subordination of women through violence, and that women will be most directly controlled within the family.

You can see such assumptions at work when feminist Gloria Steinem declared that,

Patriarchy requires violence or the subliminal threat of violence in order to maintain itself ... The most dangerous situation for a woman is not an unknown man in the street, or even the enemy in wartime, but a husband or lover in the isolation of their own home.

The Australian feminist Kate Gilmore voiced a similar belief when (as head of a federal campaign against domestic violence) she claimed that:

You can see the tyrants, the invaders, the imperialists, in the fathers, the husbands, the stepfathers, the boyfriends, the grandfathers, and it’s that study of tyranny in the home ... that will take us to the point where we can secure change.

So if we accept the talk about all men being responsible for domestic violence, or masculine culture condoning domestic violence, or men alone being responsible for violence against women, or marriage placing women at greater risk of domestic violence, then we are lazily adopting the legacy of a radical feminist politics, one which assumes that gender is a social construct and that marriage and the family should be abolished as instruments of patriarchy.

Queer theorists also seem prominent in promoting the false picture of domestic violence. Queer theory is also based on the idea of gender being an oppressive social construct. The focus, though, is on the privileging of heterosexuality and a heterosexual masculinity. Queer theorists, therefore, have an interest in deconstructing a "hegemonic" masculinity, and so have a reason to blame an existing male culture and an existing pattern of heterosexual relationships for domestic violence.

In Australia Dr Michael Flood is a prominent figure in White Ribbon Day. He is someone who writes about "the academic destabilisation of dominant constructions of men and manhood" and who insists that we should not "take as given the categories of "men" and "women". The binaries of male and female are socially produced ..."

So we do need to be careful about the agenda behind the whole domestic violence issue. It is not politics free. There are political reasons why men in general and husbands in particular are targeted in these campaigns, and why the incidence of violence is exaggerated.

Yes, an opposition to domestic violence is a good cause. It is a cause, though, which urgently needs to separate itself from a bad politics.


  1. An excelent post on this topic Mark and I apreciated your comments over at L P . Have they stopped putting your comments up over there as they have with mine? they were sadly predicttable on that score.Despite the fact that I was polite and on topic in theface of some nasty personal attacks.

    Of topic; would you consider adding me to your blog roll ?
    Best wishes

  2. Iain, thanks. I haven't tried posting any more comments at LP. I think we already made our point effectively - perhaps too much so as the moderator "TigTog" has now declared that letting us comment was an oversight and that "I don’t plan to let it happen again."

    Interesting that this is the second occasion now in which we've replied to the left and the left has decided to cut and run (the ACRAWSA folk having done the same thing).

  3. Shane, LP is Larvatus Prodeo. It's an Australian left-wing website with a sizeable readership. There is at least some effort by its writers to respond to opposing views with argument, but only to a certain degree it seems. There is not a large input from heterosexual males.

    The thread we've been discussing is here.

  4. After reading that thread, I’m reminded why I don’t visit left or right wing liberal websites.

  5. Interesting that this is the second occasion now in which we've replied to the left and the left has decided to cut and run (the ACRAWSA folk having done the same thing).
    Absolutely right Mark They just won't come at looking much beyond the slogans will they? which is very sad for political debate.

  6. "There is not a large input from heterosexual males."

    I don't know how or where to begin to reply to that. How do you know? Why would it matter?

  7. Hello,

    Mark, I'm a counsellor working particularly in domestic violence prevention.

    99.99% of my clients are women. They come to me either as a private client, or through police referral.

    I've extensive involvement with the police, and the problem of domestic violence is so severe that many police stations have specialised domestic violence units. My small town has 3 full time policemen/women, devoted solely to Domestic Violence prevention, and their recourses are stretched to the limit.

    White Ribbon Day is not a feminist inspired event as often depicted. It was started by men, for men in 1991. It’s not a day to be embarrassed, it’s a day to say no to people who cause awful damage.

    The White Ribbon Day site goes to great lengths to state that a vast majority of men do not use violence against women. This makes the simple act of wearing a white ribbon so powerful, as it creates a majority culture that states that violence is not acceptable.


    PS - I doubt it is appropriate for this site, but I smiled with amusement when I noticed your commenter, Iain, lamenting the moderation tactics of Larvatus Prodeo. The reason being is that the only time I've tried to comment at Iain's site, he deleted it!

  8. Alex, the majority culture already rejects violence against women.

    You talk about your professional experience. Well, let me tell you some of mine.

    Last week a boy showed me on his mobile a clip of a school fight at a school in the northern suburbs of Melbourne.

    It was the most violent fight I've ever seen. A group of girls was laying into another girl. They had her on the ground and were kicking her so hard in the head you feared her neck would break.

    The statistics tell us, both from 1996 and 2005, that 25% of assaults against women are committed by other women.

    We know also that women commmit a high percentage of assaults on children, and that domestic violence exists in lesbian relationships.

    We know also that a significant percentage of hospital admissions as a result of domestic violence are men.

    Yet all of this gets filtered until we are left with a male oppressor and female victim scenario.

  9. The statistics tell us, both from 1996 and 2005, that 25% of assaults against women are committed by other women.

    So what you're saying is that 75% of all assaults against women are committed by men?

    I've got another story. I saw a lady a couple of weeks ago who had just been released after spending 4 months in hospital. Her husband in a rage picked her up and threw her, severing her hip ball joint.

    For every story about female violence, I've got 50 about male violence.

    No body is trying to create a culture depicting the 'male oppressor'. I'll repeat what I said in my earlier post - White Ribbon Day recognises that a VAST majority of men don't use violence

    If you chose not to make a stand, that's your prerogative. However, I’d ask you not to criticise those of us who want to make a statement.

    I just quickly wanted to say that my program runs workshops for women who struggle with anger and aggression. I also assist men who have been victims of violence from women.

  10. Alex said:

    So what you're saying is that 75% of all assaults against women are committed by men?

    Alex, this is what two research surveys by the Australian Bureau of Statistics say: that 25% of physical assaults against women are committed by women.

    No body is trying to create a culture depicting the 'male oppressor'.

    No? As I've explained already the 1994 national campaign against domestic violence was based on exactly this aim. Let me repeat what Kate Gilmore, the head of this campaign, said of the national strategy:

    "You can see the tyrants, the invaders, the imperialists, in the fathers, the husbands, the stepfathers, the boyfriends, the grandfathers, and it’s that study of tyranny in the home … that will take us to the point where we can secure change."

    Gilmore then admitted that this view was difficult to sell to the general public as:

    "there are a lot of men who feel very resentful of this message"

    She didn't let this stop her from insisting that all men were to blame for domestic violence. In fact, she went a lot further than this - she denied that "men that are violent are different from any other man in the country".

    The Strategy itself, endorsed by the then Keating Labour Government, stated officially that:

    "Male violence against women is a product of the social construction of masculinity".

    The Strategy made the familiar, exaggerated claim that 33% of women were victims of domestic violence.

    Has much changed since then? The recent Australia Says No campaign continued to assume that men were the perpetrators and women the victims of domestic violence.

    And the media in the lead up to White Ribbon Day continued to point the finger at all men and to suggest that male culture somehow condoned domestic violence.

  11. Kent, a number of the leading figures at LP have been open about their homosexuality. It's strengthened my impression that the left intelligentsia is becoming older, more female, and more homosexual in its demographics. The younger heterosexual males are much more frequently right-liberal these days.

    This is a significant change to how I remember the situation in the 1980s. It seemed to me then that leftism was such an orthodoxy within the political class that it had a near stranglehold over the political culture.

    Why might the change have occurred? One reason, I expect, is that the leftist tendency to vilify white heterosexual males as an oppressor class alienated a significant number of young men from their side of politics.

    Why would a young man support a politics which cast him as the villain?

    At any rate, I take it as a good development that the left-wing orthodoxy has been broken, even if it is right-liberalism, rather than conservatism, which has been the main beneficiary so far.

  12. I think I agree Alex that although there are of course cases of violence by women against women and women against men, I think it is more likely that if there is domestic violence, it will involve violence by a man towards a woman. This is not to suggest that all men are violent or that all men are complicit in such violence.

    But, for example, if you look at the criminal law cases involving the defence of provocation to a murder charge, they tend to involve men rather than women.

    I have written a post on the topic here.

  13. Legal Eagle, thanks for the comment. I read your post, and I think you've discussed the issue reasonably.

    I've written a short post on the provocation issue myself. It's true that more men than women use the provocation defence, but it's not uncommon for women to do so (8 out of 26 in the period I looked at).

    Furthermore women generally use the defence more successfully than men and receive lighter sentences than the men who do succeed in using the provocation defence.

    Legal Eagle there are a lot of studies suggesting that women use violence in relationships to a similar degree, or even more frequently than men.

    Perhaps this isn't obvious to criminal lawyers as most of the very worst cases (e.g. homicides) do involve male perpetrators.