It's not a woman's job to teach violent men how to behave

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It's not a woman's job to teach violent men how to behave.

Don't play the victim blame game with family violence.

Don't play the victim blame game with family violence. Photo: Stocksy

Down the murky rabbit hole of social media, there are many toxic claims about women's supposed complicity when men choose to use violence against them. That - and I'm removing the expletives and fixing spelling errors – women are somehow to blame.

They don't stand up for themselves, they don't push back, they play the victim. Or conversely, that they answer back and infuriate their attacker, don't know their place. That women wear the wrong clothes (too short/long), walk in the wrong places (the park/the dark), raise daughters to be too submissive/aggressive, or want too much (or expect too little). That women bear some responsibility when they are battered, beaten, terrorised, or killed. Deeply – often wilfully – misguided, yes. And dangerous.

But surely, a view shared by a vitriolic minority, the bottom feeders of the online world? No, according to this comment piece by clinical psychologist Sallee McLaren published in The Age on May 13, which made me choke on my coffee.  

To summarise, a woman makes a "50:50 contribution to the final outcome of violence" when a man assaults her. When he becomes violent she just tolerates it, and thereby gives him a green light to increase his aggression, she writes.

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This "failure to object" allows his violence to escalate until this has reached "9/10" and he is "smacking her head into the wall". And then (stay with me), we are told this is partly because girls are raised to be too submissive. The evidence? "Almost every girl wants to wear pink". Right.

McLaren argues that "We need to give young girls better avenues than looking 'pretty' if they are to gain the levels of real power and authority that would put a swift end to domestic violence." She says we needs to train young girls to take themselves more seriously and develop mental toughness.

I wonder what Jess would make of this. I interviewed her at her kitchen table last week in the two hours she had free between picking up her three girls and caring for her elderly mother.

This room is also her bedroom, she sleeps on the sofa and the kids bunk in one room, granny the other. Housing for those fleeing violence in Victoria is almost impossible to find.

Jess's ex-husband was brutal. Daily beatings, psychological torture, intimate terrorism. He owned a cupboard of guns (all licensed). He beat the family pets.

Violence began during the honeymoon and continued for a decade. She never reported him to the police. Why? She was scared he would kill her. When she threatened to, he put a gun to her head. No arguing with that.

But nor did she "tolerate it". Over many years she tried – despite her straitjacket of terror – to push back. It made no difference, she told me. Often it made it worse.

So what "rating" do we give Jess? Did failing to stop a man with a gun to her head mean she gave him permission to escalate the violence to 9/10? Do we perhaps need to have a word with her about letting her daughters wear pink? Instead of blaming victims, we should turn a blinding spotlight on men like Jess' former husband, and the forces that shape them.

Yes, please let's have a wider discussion about the immense pressure we place on young women and girls to play the princess, and adhere to a fatuous version of femininity.

While we're at it let's also consider the corroded version of masculinity that tells young boys emotional fluency is for wimps and they need to man up. In this retrograde world, achievement is measured on the sporting ground, or in the boardroom. And let's face it – there's not enough women at either.

The research in family violence shows – again and again – that is rigid gender stereotypes that fuel perpetrator's attempts to use power and control women.

Look at any government framework for reducing family violence and the message is clear: the key to reducing family violence is promote equal and respectful relationships between men and women. 

Parents don't need to be told that there is pressure on their children to follow rigid gender roles. They're the ones scratching their heads in the two-aisle toy stores and wondering how to best prepare kids for a world so intent on squashing vigorous little people into a mould.

Women are never responsible for behaviour of abusive men. Nor is it their job to "teach" their partners how to behave.

Instead, we need to tell women like Jess that they amaze us. They are survivors. She lived for 10 years in a hell on earth – her words – and now it is up to us to support her as she finds a safe life.

There have been 36 women who have been killed violently in Australia since the start of this year. We are counting.

Miki Perkins is The Age's social affairs reporter.