The world of the domestic violence sector is never very easy to navigate, especially if one does not adhere to the strict orthodoxy of violence as a patriarchal act of power and control. Deviation from this political ideology can render one vulnerable to criticism and personal as well as professional attack, as Erin Pizzey, founder of the world’s first Refuge for women experiencing violence knows only too well. As more women however, come out and discuss whether feminist ideology serves the family well or not, Diane Abbot, being one of those high profile women who has already done so in her interview last year with the Guardian, the arguments around gender and violence and the relationship between, are starting to look a little bit threadbare.
Gender symmetry is an argument which causes the debate around family violence to be split down the middle into whether women suffer more than men and whether men or women suffer in the same way. Gender symmetry, which is discussed by academics such as Murray Straus, suggest that far from being an issue which can be set within a feminist analysis of patriarchal power and control ( men have the power and control and violence is simply the enactment of that), violence is an issue which affects nearly as many men as it does women and the route to treating the problem is to recognise that.
Recent days have seen the launch of the Mankind Inititiative’s video on how people react differently when they witness violence enacted by a man against a woman to when they witness violence enacted by a woman towards a man. This neat little video, which has now been viewed worldwide more than six million times, captures the way in which our reactions differ when a man is being attacked by a woman. Watching the video it is clear to see that those people witnessing it are uncomfortable but that they express this discomfort by laughing, being amused and that some people adopt a ‘you go girl’ attitude which underpins the idea that if a women is attacking a man he must somehow have provoked it. This video has prompted wide ranging reactions, from Ally Fogg in the Guardian who comments upon the way in which Women’s Aid, the largest organisation in the UK supporting female victims has done its utmost to damn the video, to the challenges to its authenticity highlighted by spanish researchers who wish to see all of the footage to make sure it is not staged.
All of which is, for me, somehow, beside the point because the arguments about violence in the home, have, as far as I am concerned, nothing to do with political ideologies such as women’s rights or men’s rights and never have had really. This binary argument, in which the two sides representating women and men simply slug it out around statistics and the different ways in which these can be interpreted, simply looks to me, pretty much like the kind of behaviours that those of us working with violence in the home are trying to help people to confront and change. In my view, violent behaviours are a sign of psychological problems and should be treated as such, protecting people from harm being the first step to a triage approach in which violence as an issue is separated out into understandable and therefore treatable strands of behaviours which are categorised in terms of risk to self and others.
This approach is, of course an anathema to Polly Neate, CEO of Women’s Aid who, when being interviewed about the Mankind video suggests that men are far more likely to be the perpetrators of violence in the home and uses a bewildering array of statistics to uphold her stance. Ally Fogg, in his recent article in the Guardian in response to this, criticises Neate for the statistics she relies upon and shows them to be misleading and in some places, simply false. This is all well and good, but what does it tell us about violence in the home? Well, not very much really, other than women’s groups contend that it is largely men who perpetrate it and men’s advocates contend that men are also victims of it at the hands of women. But if we spend all of our time however listening to the ‘he said/she said’ argument, are we not missing the real issue, which is the way in which violence as a behaviour used within the home can harm and even kill adults and children and that violence, as a rage reaction, is a sign that one or sometimes both people using violence are missing something in their psychology?
To examine the issue of violence in the home, it is perhaps important to look first at what we mean by violence in the home or family violence as it is called in other countries. Family violence, in the view of some, can be broken down into categories and differentiated according to the risk that the violence poses to other people. In the UK, we have adopted the notion of controlling and coercive violence as a way of describing what used to known as battering, a term which has largely fallen out of use. Battered wives was a term which became widely known and recognised in the days when Erin Pizzey set up the first refuge in the early seventies, offering a safe place as well as support for those who experienced violence within the home. Far from approaching the issue from a women’s rights perspective however, Pizzey understood that violent relationships are not all the same, that controlling patterns of behaviours occur on both sides of relationships and that finding ways of resolving the problem of revolving door relationships in which women leave and return to violent men several times, is far more complex than applying feminist education to the problem.
In fact the application of feminist education to the problem of family violence appears to me, when one looks at the evidence, to have spectacularly failed in terms of preventing and treating those who are impacted by it. Worse than that, it seems to me when we look at the ways in which feminist ideology has been applied to the issue of family violence, that there has been one outcome and one outcome only and that is the removal of men from the lives of children on a widespread and systematic basis. Is this a treatment plan or is it simply the extermination of fatherhood which is the ‘unintended consequence’ of the feminist strategy to ‘treat’ domestic violence. Whatever it is, it seems to me that it is not working but is, instead, leading to more conflict and not less between men and women and more and not less conflict between the organisations representing the needs of women and men who experience family violence.
It is time then for a return to Pizzey’s original approach and a move beyond the current binary paradigm of men as perpetrators and women as victims or men as victims and women as perpetrator arguments which are put forth by the domestic violence lobby groups. Family violence is not a binary issue, it is not a gender issue and it is not simply an issue which affects adults, it affects children too. In short, violence in the home is about the family, the whole of the family not one adult and the children and the way in which the whole of the family interacts and deals with the conflicts which erupt in it.
The return to a time when family violence was considered in this way means listening again to what Erin Pizzey has to say and drawing upon her experience in supporting those affected. It means understanding the psychological pattern of trauma which causes violence to erupt and the ways in which this can be treated. It also means listening and working with the relationship between men and women, not simply upholding the rights of one and condemning the worth of the other. It means removing too, the lens through which we deliver treatement routes to families where violence is an issue, ditching the punitive and vengeful approach of the Duleth Model and the Freedom Programme and recognising them for what they are, tools by which to educate women in the political ideology which is feminism and tools by which to control the behaviours of men. This approach, which is freely applied to families up and down the land, offers women the excuses they need to take control over men and children and maintain it, regardless of whether they are the victim or the perpetrator. This crude approach does nothing to resolve generational trauma, nothing to educate people on how to change behaviours and ignores completely, the way in which violent relationships are just that, relationships. Not, as the feminists would have it, the enactment of patriarchal power invested solely in men who wield that without conscience if they are not somehow controlled or prevented from doing so.
Family violence continues to be a problem in our country and across the world and feminism has not controlled it, treated it or prevented it. All feminism has done is increasingly set the bar for what constitutes violence, lower and lower and lower, until we have reached a point where anything and everything, it seems to me, could be construed as violence. Even the very fact of wanting to remain involved in your child’s life could, if the mother decided it was so, be considered an act of controlling violence. It is nonsensical, it is fantastical and it is as far away from interrupting the generational cycle of violence in the home that it is possible to get.
With the rise in knowledge worldwide about the impact of early relationships upon the developing brain and the understanding we have about the plasticity of the brain and its ability to learn new behaviours, it is time now for a new approach to family violence, one which is hopeful and which is inclusive and supportive rather than damning and discriminatory. Most of all it is time to break away from the binary paradigm in which we consider violence and rebuild a way of working with the family which offers support for change, not simply the extermination and removal of one person in order to resolve the problem.
Wherever there are relationships, conflict will arise, it is part of being human. Where violence in the home is concerned, feminism has not given us the answer and continued fighting in the domestic violence lobby will not either.
As more women begin to understand the failure of feminism in this field, it is time now to move beyond the binary and into a world in which the models we use to support conflicted families do not exclude but include and do not punish but treat and support as well as protect.