Let's bust some myths about what drives violence against women

Male violence: Let's stop repeating the myths.

Male violence: Let's stop repeating the myths. Photo: Stocksy

It's worrying that the discourse about the drivers of violence against women on Monday's Q&A didn't reflect the evidence.

Yet again ideas that it is alcohol or jealousy that drives men's violence against women were bandied about. But these commonly held views are not only misconceptions, they are dangerous myths that actually excuse the perpetrators of violence and blame and silence victims.

Although there is no single cause of violence against women, the latest international evidence shows there are certain factors that consistently predict - or drive - higher levels of such violence.

These include beliefs and behaviours reflecting disrespect for women, low support for gender equality, and adherence to rigid or stereotypical gender roles, relations and identities.

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Put simply, if we look past the myths and misconceptions, what we know about the huge social problem of violence against women in our community is that gender inequality is both the core of the problem and the heart of the solution.

Misrepresenting the drivers of violence against women not only ignores the evidence, it can be dangerous. Myths influence not only how we think, but the judgements we make about victims and perpetrators, and the way we act when we see or hear about violence. When widespread, these myths and misconceptions can cause people to minimise or excuse men's violent behaviour, and can discourage women from seeking help and support.

MYTH: Women could leave a violent relationship if they wanted to

FACT: The most extreme violence, including murder, often occurs when a woman tries to leave a relationship – knowing this is what many women say makes them too unable to leave. But when we assume that a woman who is a victim of violence from a partner stays in the relationship by choice, we ignore that well-founded fear. We also take away blame from the perpetrator. This puts the responsibility for dealing with the violence on the victim herself, when the reasons she feels unable to leave a relationship is because she fears for her life or the safety of her children.

MYTH: Excessive use of alcohol causes domestic violence

FACT: Alcohol is a feature in a disproportionate number of police call-outs to family violence, and is correlated with a higher number of, and more severe, incidents of violence against women. However alcohol does not itself cause violence against women; not all people who drink are violent, and many people who do not drink are violent. While alcohol can increase the frequency or severity of violence, on its own it does not explain the gendered dynamics of violence against women. Rather than looking at alcohol as a factor in isolation, we need to understand it in relation to social norms and practices that condone or support violence against women, in particular those relating to masculinity and men's peer group behaviour.

MYTH: Extreme jealousy causes men's violence against women

FACT: Research has consistently found that it is men who hold 'traditional', hierarchical views about gender roles and relationships who are more likely to perpetrate violence against women. For example, men who use violence are more likely to express a strong sense of ownership of or entitlement to female partners, and more rigid ideas on 'acceptable' or 'appropriate' female roles and behaviour in relationships.

Such rigid beliefs about unequal or hierarchical gender roles can influence the perpetration of violence against women in a number of ways: the sense of ownership or entitlement associated with particular beliefs about masculinity, or men's gender role may drive the use of controlling, forceful and violent behaviour (including forced sex) by some men in intimate relationships; men may use violence to reinforce these beliefs about role divisions or to 'punish' women when they do not conform to expected gender roles; and more broadly, the persistent gendered divisions in society can reinforce patterns of behaviour by men who seek to isolate or make their female partners dependent on them. Men's jealousy can never be a justification for violence against women. It is in fact not a cause of that violence, but a symptom of a much deeper social problem.

Once we challenge these kinds of myths and misconceptions and look instead at the evidence we can see clearly that violence against women is not inevitable. While its drivers are deeply entrenched, like other problematic and harmful social norms, they can be challenged and changed. This means that violence against women is ultimately preventable.

Australia now has a world first national framework to prevent violence against women, Change the Story, and we have concrete, evidence-based recommendations outlined by both the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence and the COAG Family Violence Advisory Group.

Let's stop repeating the myths and start doing what the evidence tells us will work to prevent violence against women.

Mary Barry is the chief executive of Our Watch.