The facts are that women and children are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators. Photo: SIMONE BECCHETTI
The claim made by many men's rights advocates that one in three victims of domestic violence are men is false. Utterly false.
It is, however, a myth that has taken hold, having been cited in The Sydney Morning Herald, Q&A and the Daily Telegraph to name only a few. As the basis of a submission to the Senate enquiry into domestic violence, this myth now also poses the serious risk of altering the way governments approach the issue.
As Dr Michael Flood, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University of Wollongong, said, the One in Three claim "could be described more accurately as a campaign against efforts to address men's violence against women."
So let's look at where the myth comes from, and exactly why it is wrong.
At first glance, the data in Table 3 of the PSS does appear to suggest that males are 33 per cent of people who have experienced an act of violence from a current partner in the last 12 months. That number, however, is clearly marked with a warning that states: "Estimate has a relative standard error of 25 per cent to 50 per cent and should be used with caution."
Apart from the statistical issue, the very nature of the question is problematic. Domestic violence is extremely complex and it's not unusual for victims to be confused about whether their relationship is actually abusive. Nor can it always be defined by simply identifying "an act of violence".
As Leslie Morgan Steiner said in her TED talk:
"I didn't know he was abusing me. Even though he held those loaded guns to my head, pushed me down stairs, threatened to kill our dog, pulled the key out of the car ignition as I drove down the highway, poured coffee grinds on my head as I dressed for a job interview, I never once thought of myself as a battered wife."
Even if that were not the case, disclosing abuse to a stranger would be confronting. The PSS is not a compulsory survey and the response rate in 2012 was only 57%. It's obviously impossible to know how many of the people who refused to take part did so because they were afraid of their partner or of confronting the truth of their relationship, but it would have to be considered as a possibility.
Additionally, Will Milne of the ABS confirmed that staff who conduct the surveys are highly trained and would not proceed if doing so could endanger the respondent. Given this, it seems likely that at least some victims of domestic abuse would self-select out of the survey.
Milne also told Daily Life, "the survey isn't asking about the lived experiences of domestic violence. What a person is saying when they end up in this table is just that they have had this experience. The question doesn't consider the complexities and nuances of domestic violence".
A question from the PSS that takes a longer view, which may be both statistically and slightly inherently more reliable, asks about the respondent's experience of violence from a previous partner since they were 15 years old (Table 4). 21 per cent of the people who answered yes to that question were men, so already we've gone from 1 in 3 to 1 in 5.
But this isn't the full story.
Violence is defined in the PSS as "any incident of physical or sexual assault or threat". What those datasets don't include is how often a person experienced such violence. So someone whose partner once threatened to throw a potato at them has the same representation in that data as a person who was controlled, beaten, raped, or humiliated every day for a year.
Table 22 of the PSS gives some information about the frequency of partner violence. As above, current partner violence is unreliable, so we need to look at the more robust data on previous partners. 84 per cent of the people who reported more than one violent incident from a previous partner were women.
Even if you were to accept the problematic claim that PSS is a reliable indicator of domestic violence, what it actually says is that only 1 in 5 of the victims are men, 4 in 5 victims are women and most of those women experienced more than one incident of violence.
So much for the One in Three theory. But this is still not the full story:
The PSS does not address the effect of the violence on the victim.
It doesn't ask if the victim was physically injured by the violence.
It doesn't ask if they felt frightened or helpless or controlled.
It doesn't ask if the violent act was committed in self-defence.
It doesn't ask if respondents wanted to leave the relationship because of the violence, or if they were able to do so.
It doesn't ask if they needed help to leave, or if that help was available and effective.
As Dr Flood told Daily Life, "the real issue here is that the PSS is limited as a tool in understanding the dynamics of domestic violence."
The One-in-Three claim deliberately ignores those limits in its attempts to divert attention away from male violence.
Obviously this does not mean that we should ignore the needs of male victims. Nor does it mean that we are doing so.
Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services NSW, told Daily Life:
"In terms of service provision, safety from domestic violence or sexual assault, or assistance with the criminal justice system, we should be, and are, gender-blind. Anyone who needs help will get it, gender is just not relevant.
The problem is that by that point, the violence has already occurred.
If we are going to talk about prevention, and we take gender out, we are never going to get anywhere, because the perpetrators of violence are almost always men. Gender analysis of the perpetrators is critical in understanding and therefore preventing sexual violence and assault."
The purpose of debunking the One in Three myth is not to vilify men or win some macabre abuse competition. Nor should anyone suggest that it is an excuse to ignore male victims – where they are in need of assistance it should absolutely be available to them. But in a discussion about how we address domestic violence and where the resources need to be concentrated, we must understand the facts.
And the facts are that women and children are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence, and men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence, both against women and against each other.
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) offers specialist trauma counselling as well as support and assistance for people who have experienced sexual assault or family violence.