A new survey of Australian attitudes towards violence against women reveals that a lot of those attitudes are incredibly disturbing. While the full study (pdf) certainly shows some good news — for example, only a very tiny percentage agreed that a man hitting a partner was ever “justified,” in a wide variety of presented circumstances — as well as many significant improvements since a similar 1995 study, many attitudes still held by respondents perpetuate a culture that promotes violence.
One subject of concern is that a rather high numbers of men and women agreed that there are some situations under which domestic violence is “excusable.” Twenty percent of men and 17 percent of women thought that “Domestic violence can be excused if it results from people getting so angry that they temporarily lose control.” Further, 27 percent of men and 18 percent of women agreed that “Domestic violence can be excused if, afterwards, the violent person genuinely regrets what they have done.”
The study authors carefully note:
Viewing the perpetration of domestic violence in terms of a ‘loss of control’ misses the fact that domestic violence is chosen behaviour. Studies of relationships in which violence occurs suggest that in order to escape detection and continue their control, many men choose with care how, where and when they will be violent (Pringle 1995). Australian research finds that men who are violent in their intimate relationships are more likely than other men also to be violent outside the home (Mouzos and Makkai 2004, p59). At the same time, most men using violence against intimate partners do not use violence elsewhere, with the research just mentioned finding that only 12 percent of men who had inflicted violence on their intimate partners had also been violent towards anyone outside the family. In other words, those men who use violence against their female partners or expartners typically do not also use violence in the workplace or in other non-intimate relationships. Men can and do exercise control over their violent behaviour.
It is concerning too that substantial proportions of the community agreed that violence against an intimate partner can be excused if the violent person ‘truly regrets’ what they have done. Expressions of regret or remorse are a regular feature of men’s patterns of abuse of their female partners. Men using violence may apologise for motives ranging from genuine contrition to manipulation designed to receive forgiveness or win post-abuse favours (Stark 2007, p246). In addition, male partners’ apologies for the abuse (as well as promises to change, denials of responsibility, withholding of contact with children, threats of harm, and other actions) make it more likely that women will stay with or return to violent partners (Holtzworth-Munroe et al. 1997, p197). Community support for this excuse has the potential to compromise women’s own resolve to take action as well as the responses of service providers and law enforcement personnel.
Questions on the subject of sexual violence returned some similarly distressing results. In addition to 16 percent of both men and women agreeing that “If a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible,” a truly staggering 38 percent of men and 30 percent of women thought “Rape results from men being unable to control their need for sex.”
Just when you think that work on a particular rape myth is going pretty well, the truth hits you in the gut. Let me just repeat the fact that the above myth is incredibly misandrist. Every single decent man I know is hugely offended by the idea that he doesn’t have enough self-control over his sexual urges and genitalia to avoid seriously traumatizing another human being. The idea that men are ruled by their impulses and cannot exercise critical thought to control themselves is hugely insulting to men. And the myth is not just misandrist, it’s also used to prop up misogyny, by saying that men cannot be truly blamed for their sexual violence anymore than one can be blamed for blinking. As portrayed under this viewpoint, both are natural phenomena that are simply out of human control. One just happens to result in violence, usually against women.
One last disturbing finding I want to touch on is the rate at which respondents believe that women lie about different types of violence. Only 28 percent of respondents disagreed that “Women going through custody battles often make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence in order to improve their case” (with 49 percent agreeing and 23 percent unsure). Just as chilling, only 61 percent of respondents thought that “Women rarely make false claims of being raped” (with 26 percent disagreeing and 13 percent unsure). In other words, Men’s Rights Activist’s myths are working, especially in the case of beliefs regarding custody battles. And the myth that women regularly lie about rape is nothing new, but proving extremely resistant to change.
The full study is 80 pages long. Having been unable to peruse the whole thing, I’m sure I missed quite a bit, so let me know what you find. I do wish that the survey had worked with a definition of sexual violence and intimate partner violence that was a bit more open. While it’s important to notice that the vast majority of such violence is committed by men against women, it’s not useful to erase violence committed with different gender pairings or to overlook the serious rates of violence against people who are trans*, including those who don’t identify within the gender binary. So regularly seeing research that seemingly deliberately excludes the various forms that these kinds of violence can take, and how structural oppression is still linked to them much more often than not, is frustrating and not conducive to an end goal of ending IPV and sexual violence for everyone.