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Australians are being told that gender inequality is the root cause of domestic violence. But is it?

A special report by The Guardian’s Gay Alcorn featuring Professor Peter Miller and FARE CEO Michael Thorn

A special report by The Guardian’s Gay Alcorn asks the question: is gender inequality the root cause of domestic violence? You can read the full article here.

In this edited extract, Professor Peter Miller, principal research fellow and co-director of the violence prevention group at Deakin University, and Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education Chief Executive, Michael Thorn discuss alcohol’s role in family violence and reflect on why causal factors such as alcohol continue to be ignored.

As Australia moves towards a world-first national strategy to tackle attacks in the home, some experts say the approach is badly flawed, with too much emphasis placed on sexism and not enough on alcohol, poverty and other causes.

Professor Peter Miller has no doubt gender inequality is critical to understanding domestic violence, especially given the history of courts, police, politicians and the broader population either turning a blind eye to violence against women or condoning it.

Women have struggled for equality, and continue to do so, in both developed and developing nations. Husbands beating wives was once legal under common law – the famous dictum of the 19th century judge Francis Buller was that a man could chastise his wife physically so long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb. It wasn’t until the 1980s that all Australian states made rape in marriage a crime.

But Miller argues there have been significant changes in attitudes in Australia and other developed nations, both legislatively and culturally. The feminist dominance of the debate now is “deeply flawed”, he says, if the goal is to prevent the tiny number of men who do commit violence from doing so.

He says the debate now assumes domestic violence is completely different from other forms of violence, whereas they have much in common. And, he says, the gender inequality thesis ignores that women are perpetrators in a substantial minority of cases, and that there is domestic violence between same-sex couples which has nothing to do with gender inequality.

“The decision for the very small percentage of people to step over that line to strike somebody else is exceptionally complicated and it doesn’t come down to whether their attitudes towards men or women are inappropriate,” he says.

“In other countries there are different discourses that are better informed by evidence – it’s not simply the gender inequality card that’s played, however important that is.”

Miller is finishing a study into the role of alcohol and drugs in family violence. He knows that views like his are unpopular and believes research is too dominated by those who take a strong feminist approach to violence against women.

He says a few years ago, a major health organisation commissioned him to research alcohol’s role in interpersonal violence but refused to publish it because it didn’t like its conclusion that alcohol was a causal factor, a proposition anathema to those convinced of the gender inequality thesis. He doesn’t want the organisation named because he says it wouldn’t help to get past the black-and-white approach in Australia and because there are so few organisations funding research in this country.

“We are in danger of both losing credibility and momentum in Australia,” he says. “As much as I believe that I am some sort of feminist, I am not one that puts that agenda over the agenda of fixing this issue and reducing violence.”

The tension in all this is most obvious when it comes to alcohol. Michael Thorn is the chief executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, and a former senior official in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He knows how policy works and how politics works.

The foundation’s mission is to reduce the harmful effects of alcohol in Australia. It has produced several papers on the role of alcohol in domestic and family violence, with detailed suggestions about how to reduce it through fairly straightforward legislative measures.

A few weeks ago Thorn was at a meeting in Canberra with public servants working with Lay and Batty on the Coag group advising Australian governments. “You can kind of see it in their eyes that after years and years of trying to get domestic violence on to the political agenda – not that I believe it was ever off the agenda – this is their historic opportunity to correct what they see as wrongs about gender equality in this country.”

Thorn believes the issue has been politicised by the dominance of the gender equality framework. He goes to endless meetings, makes submissions, has appeared before the royal commission, but so far, has had nil impact.

“Despite all our efforts over the past year none of the announcements that have been made by various governments, now adding up to probably half a billion dollars of investment, respond directly to alcohol’s contribution to family violence.”

Quentin Bryce’s Queensland report embraced the gender inequality argument, dismissing alcohol’s role in just a few lines. Thorn was at least heartened that Victoria’s royal commission devoted a full day to alcohol and other drugs, and appeared to be taking the issue seriously.

Thorn says alcohol can be considered a “cause” of violence in a public health sense but he avoids the word because it’s “like a red rag to a bull” to domestic violence groups. Yet, he says, alcohol is the “low-hanging fruit” that could reduce violence now, without having to wait for generational change that may or may not happen.

Alcohol’s link to violence of all kinds is undeniable, including violence in the home. It is involved in about half of domestic violence incidents attended by police, and violence incidents involving alcohol tend to be more frequent and severe. Almost 45% of intimate partner homicides are alcohol-related and that rises to 87% of Indigenous intimate partner homicides, which means alcohol had been consumed by the perpetrator, victim or both.

Thorn cites numerous studies that show reducing the availability of alcohol reduces violence. One example is NSW’s 2014 restrictions on alcohol in Sydney’s CBD and Kings Cross. It involves measures such as 10pm closing for bottle shops across the state and a 1.30am lockout. Assaults dropped 32% in Kings Cross and 26% throughout the CBD. The changes have proved controversial, yet the crime researcher Dr Don Weatherburn has said it was “one of the most dramatic effects I’ve seen in my time, of policy intervention to reduce crime”.

The impact of the law changes on domestic violence specifically are now being assessed.

In Victoria the alcohol researcher Michael Livingston has found that a higher density of alcohol outlets is associated with increases in reports of family violence. A 10% increase of takeaways, which are concentrated in disadvantaged areas, were associated with a more than 3% increase in domestic assaults. And in Western Australia the researcher Tanya Chikritzhs reported that for every 10,000 additional litres of pure alcohol sold by an off-site outlet such as a bottle shop, the risk of violence in homes increased by 26%.

Despite findings such as these, liquor outlets in Australia have soared in recent years. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, is a champion of the gender equality thesis (“We must educate that sexist behaviour and gender inequality, if unaddressed, lead to sexual assault and family violence,” he says) but he never discusses the role of alcohol.

Thorn wants measures to reduce or cap the number of alcohol licences and to tighten trading hours: “The big one has got to be trading hours, that is the most cost-effective public policy intervention you can make. From a government perspective it costs very little, it’s a legislative move. There’s no multimillion [dollar] advertising campaign, you don’t need thousands of public servants, you just have to say closing times are whatever, 1am.”

So why won’t government do something so relatively cheap and effective? Thorn has no doubt: “The alcohol industry’s vested interests is extraordinary and the way it has managed to engineer a culture of fear in politicians is extraordinary. The [Victorian government] defunded our research centre, they’re reviewing the Liquor Act, they’ve got the liquor industry deeply involved in the policy discussions. What chance do we have?”

Thorn says many domestic violence groups, especially in Victoria, will barely speak to him, so furious are they that he dares to suggest alcohol is a causal factor in domestic violence in many cases.

There is acknowledgement that alcohol contributes to domestic violence but wariness about overplaying it. The fear, as Fergus puts it, is that focusing on alcohol “lets the guy off the hook … it’s actually saying, ‘OK it’s the alcohol that’s the problem, it wasn’t your controlling behaviour, it wasn’t the attitude towards the woman in your life, it was the fact that you got drunk and lost control.’”

Partridge also points out that those who focus on alcohol as a cause often criticise women for drinking because it may make them more vulnerable to assault. “There’s a lot of victim-blaming in that. There’s a lot of use of terms like ‘vulnerability’ and women’s use of alcohol and feminists just bristle at that.”

Yet Thorn remains sceptical that a long-term strategy to improve gender equality will reduce violence against women in any significant way. “I’ll probably end up beaten up, but I’m a little wary of it. I keep coming down to our argument that dealing with alcohol’s contribution will give you very significant gains now, whereas the gender equality issues are going to take a generation and as some of my colleagues say, ‘Good luck with that, changing the behaviour of teenage boys.’”

One suggestion has been for Australia to follow an experiment in South Dakota in the US. Since 2005 the state has required those arrested or convicted for repeat drink-driving to take two alcohol breath tests a day or wear an alcohol-monitoring bracelet. As well as big reduction in drink-driving offences, the surprise result was a 9% reduction in arrests for intimate partner assaults.

Thorn wants something like that trialled in Australia, targeting repeat family violence offenders, who would have to show zero alcohol use to be allowed to remain in the community. Miller says he has put the idea to Lay, who raised resourcing problems.

“One of the key messages around this is that when you take alcohol out of the picture for a very small group of the population who are obviously indicated as problem people, you get this huge reduction in domestic violence. We are a bit crazy not to have tried it already.”

First published on The Guardian. Photo credits: Ratnayake/Rex Shutterstock



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