Five things we know about young people's view on domestic violence

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Clementine Ford

Male high school students were among the most likely to agree with gender stereotypes and attitudes supportive of violence

Male high school students were among the most likely to agree with gender stereotypes and attitudes supportive of violence Photo: Stocksy

This week, a comprehensive UNSW study released its findings into young Australians aged 16-25 and their views towards gender stereotypes and violence in Australian society. Co-authored by Jan Breckinridge and Jesse Cale, the study was done in partnership with Youth Action and the White Ribbon Foundation. With a convenience sample of 3193 individuals from around the country, Gender, Age and the Perceived Causes, Nature and Extent of Domestic Violence and Dating Violence in Australian Society gives some fairly stark insight into how far our community has come in regards to understanding violence - and just how far we still have to go.

Encouragingly, it seems that young men have been receptive to education programs around violence and gendered stereotypes. And yet, there remains a huge gap between their perception of what this entails and the views of their female peers. While only 4% of young female respondents believed that "Men are supposed to be in the head of the household and take control of the relationship", a whopping 19% of young men agreed with that statement - a percentage that translates to a worrying 1 in 5. This might be partly explained by the fact that only 54% of respondents report having been taught about violence and gender inequality at their schools, meaning unchecked ideas about 'evolutionary' behaviour are given licence to proliferate.

Some of the findings provide keen insight into the state of play in Australian education and how we can move forward with this information.

1. Male high school students were among the most likely to agree with gender stereotypes and attitudes supportive of violence

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The study found that while a majority of respondents were inclined to disagree with statements that supported gender stereotyping or violent behaviours, young men of high school age were the most 'at risk' of holding onto outdated and harmful ideas. This is a concerning prospect, and one that has to inform our collective approach to education. If young men are exhibiting a sense of entitlement and power over their female peers, why is that and how can we address this? Is it possible that outdated ideas around 'male behaviour' and hot-headed adolescence are governing how young men are raised and enabled? If only 54% of respondents can remember having been taught about gender stereotypes and violence, it seems clear that there are some failings in the national curriculum that need to be speedily addressed.

2. To some extent, female high school students are more likely to attribute DV to individual perpetrator characteristics while their male peers view it as a response to stressors in the perpetrator's environment or relationships

This finding is especially troubling, because it shows that young men in particular are still misattributing violent behaviour to provocation rather than choice. The idea that intimate partner violence can be provoked by stressful family situations is fairly common, but it's entirely misleading. In addressing behavioural change, experts emphasise the individual choices of perpetrators, all of whom are exercising exactly that when they choose to exert power and violence over another person. 'She made me do it' may be a comforting thought to people who don't want to take responsibility for their actions, but it's actually not commensurate with the reality. Based on the results of this study, it's clear yet again that education on this particular issue needs to be overhauled.

Which leads me to...

3. Media and pop culture are the most likely to influence people's views on domestic violence

Respondents to the UNSW study indicated that the majority of their information about domestic violence came from media related sources, with 71.4% learning about it from the news, 59.3% from television more generally, 53.9% from newspapers and 40.9% from magazines. This highlights how vital it is that there be a strict set of media guidelines in place for domestic violence reporting. Currently, there is a woeful lack of education within the media on how to effectively report on violence against women in particular. Victim blaming narratives are not uncommon, nor is the reinforcement of ideas of provocation (as highlighted in the above point).

If we want community attitudes (and the attitudes of young people in particular) to change, we have to ensure that the people influencing those attitudes are doing so from a place of knowledge and expertise. We have legally enforced guidelines on the reporting around suicide and depression - it's high time we instituted similar national regulations on language and stereotypes used in regards to intimate partner violence and particularly violence against women.

4. Female respondents were more likely than male respondents to view women behaving aggressively towards men as abusive, eg yelling, hitting etc

It's not uncommon for the conversation around violence to be deflected by 'whataboutery', with complaints that women aren't penalised for abusive behaviour in the way that men are. But according to this study, it's women who are more likely to apply equality to this area with men reflecting the stereotypical view that women-on-men aggression is 'not as bad'. This is a telling insight into how gendered stereotypes have the ability to hurt everybody, and why it's so important that they be broken down and dismissed as bunk. This is the work that feminism aims to do, and getting on board with that message will actually help men rather than harm them.

5. The majority of respondents considered domestic violence to be widespread in Australia, but women were more likely than men to be in this group

The gap between understanding and reality is still too wide. As the UNSW study shows, young people in Australia have a broad, theoretical understanding of what constitutes violence but they are not necessarily able to identify it in practice. This is a concern, but one that can be effectively addressed with comprehensive education and bold, unapologetic discussions.

Real change requires action and proactive engagement from society. In regards to ending intimate partner violence, it isn't enough to legislate against abusive behaviour. We must also be proactive in changing community attitudes. The second step is a commitment to real, effective education. We have to provide our young people not just with the knowledge but also the tools to challenge gender inequality.

But the first step is acceptance. We have to also challenge ourselves to accept the reality of the world we live in, and understand that we can do better and be better. There is ample evidence out there to demonstrate how damaging the impact of gender inequality is, particularly in regards to gendered violence. Let's take those findings - and let's get on with changing them.