At the end of October 2018, I went to the monthly meeting of my local branch of the political party I’m a member of. I’m not hugely political, mostly because talking about politics is a good way to lose all your friends when you realise they think in a fundamentally different way to you. If you think joining a political party and making friends with the other members resolves this problem, then you’re wrong. I’ve yet to meet a single person who thinks exactly the way I do.
There was nothing particularly special about this meeting. There was some discussion about how the two branches that meet together wouldn’t be meeting together for much longer because the federal boundaries had been changed and they were no longer in the same seat. We briefly discussed the upcoming state election and I asked them to look into whether my 92-year-old grandfather would automatically receive a postal vote or whether he needed to apply for one. We talked about federal politics and how the ALP had been sitting back quietly doing pretty much nothing while the Liberal-National Party coalition was tearing itself apart over personality politics. We talked about solar panels, the 25% of people who didn’t vote in a recent by-election even though voting in Australia in compulsory, the local member who had unselfishly nominated for the unwinnable fourth position on the Upper House ticket and a dinner being held by the local Muslim community for Remembrance Day. None of these topics got anyone particularly riled up.
And then the subject of domestic violence was raised. One of the more active members of the branch passed around a flyer inviting people to a walk against family violence. I noted that it started just before lunch on a mid-week day, that I would be at work and therefore unable to attend. I also noted that the statistics were out of date. One woman murdered every week, it said. But those statistics were out of date.
In October 2018, women in Australia were being murdered in family violence circumstances at a rate of three every week. A 200% increase. Which I pointed out.
“It’s all about education,” someone said.
“We’ve already reached peak awareness,” I reminded them.
“And it’s never been worse,” said the person chairing the meeting, an older gentleman who I could have forgiven if he had tried to downplay it given the several generations separating us, our experiences and our viewpoints.
“Perhaps it’s time we shifted the focus to enforcement,” I suggested. “Punishment,” I added in case my meaning wasn’t clear. And that was when several men closer to my generation piped up.
“We should focus on resources.” It was a valid point. There isn’t enough money being dedicated to family violence. “There’s nowhere for men to go when they need to get away.”
For a moment, I was confused. “For victims or perpetrators?” After all, men do make up about 5% of the victims of family violence. But they didn’t like the word “perpetrators” and my question was ignored.
“Sometimes men just need somewhere to go to cool down. Maybe for a night or two.”
So it wasn’t that they thought resources needed to be directed to education or enforcement or safe houses for victims. They thought we should spend money setting up retreats for men who need to get away from their families in order to prevent them from killing their wives and children.
I was stunned into silence. It wasn’t that men needed to be better at controlling their tempers, it was that they had nowhere else to go to get their anger out and so inevitably ended up taking it out on their supposedly nearest and dearest. It wasn’t the fact that they got irrationally angry in the first place, it was that they didn’t have a socially acceptable place to expel or manner of expelling that anger.
There were twice as many men at that meeting than there were women. One of them was the wife of one of the men making these comments. Another was an electorate officer for the local member. I looked at them both, a silent plea for back up, but they didn’t say anything. I hoped it was because they were as stunned into silence as I was.
Since I didn’t know what else to say, I said, “I think this is something that men and women see from completely different viewpoints.” I was reminded of the Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
“It would be good to have an expert speaker on this subject,” I said as a way of winding it up. The unspoken portion of my message was, “Someone who can refute the absolutely ridiculous notion that the reason women are being killed is because men don’t have the opportunity to get away from their families for a little respite.”
And that was it. The meeting was closed and I drove home, still stunned. I am still stunned as I sit here and write this five days later. But perhaps I’m a little closer to the reasons why domestic violence continues to get worse, not better, despite concerted efforts. It’s because some men – certainly not all but definitely some – think a man getting uncontrollably angry is perfectly natural. It’s because some men think self-control isn’t possible and it’s unreasonable for anyone to ask for it. It’s because some men think the women in the lives of domestic violence perpetrators are merely bystanders getting in the way of their rage rather than the unfair focus of it.
I think – and I may be wrong, I frequently am, about many things – that until we treat all domestic violence perpetrators as criminals (in the same way we do people who rob convenience stores or traffic drugs or make child pornography) instead of victims of their circumstances (whatever those circumstances happen to be), nothing is going to change. Or worse, the situation will continue to decline and even more women will die.
I’ve seen commercials saying that in order to change viewpoints on this subject, we need to focus on children, the way we bring up both boys and girls, so that the boys don’t think this is acceptable behaviour or something they’re entitled to do and the girls don’t think this is an inevitability or something they will need to expect. “It’s too late for us,” I had joked to the group of mostly middle-aged people in that branch meeting before the discussion got serious. Maybe it is. But I sure hope not.