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We need to talk about …. Domestic violence and alcohol

As a result of recent high profile tragedies, domestic violence has captured media and public attention like never before. The community is taking a stand and speaking out. Victoria’s highest ranking police officer is calling it a crisis, and at the Federal level, domestic violence is even the subject of a current Senate Inquiry.

Yet the silence is deafening when it comes to acknowledging alcohol’s involvement in the perpetration of domestic violence.

It is estimated that alcohol is involved in 50% of Australian partner violence and 73% of physical assaults. Decades of research across countries has shown that alcohol use is consistently associated with a heightened risk of partner violence occurring, and when it does, the injuries suffered by the victims are more severe.

Alcohol-related violence is a gendered issue. While the risk of violence increases when one or both partners are drinking, women are disproportionately affected. A national representative survey of Australian drinking behaviours found that women are more likely than males to report alcohol-related abuse from a current or former spouse or partner.

Over 21% of females reported being put in fear by a current or former spouse or partner compared with 6.3% of males. Almost 40% of females reported experiencing alcohol-related physical abuse within an intimate relationship compared with 11.4% of males. Alcohol-related verbal abuse from a current or former partner was experienced by 30% of females compared with 10% of males.

And yet calls for action on alcohol-related violence stop at the doorstep. The public outcry about the deaths of young males in the streets of Sydney from alcohol-fuelled violence resulted in swift regulatory changes to licensed venue alcohol trading hours and criminal sanctions for the “coward punch.”

But it’s a different story when that alcohol-fuelled “coward punch” is delivered behind closed doors to a female partner or her children.

A recent review of alcohol interventions to prevent or reduce domestic violence from the last 20 years revealed a disappointingly small and inconclusive evidence base.

Similarly, at the recent Australian Medical Association (AMA) National Alcohol Summit which placed alcohol-related domestic violence on the agenda for the first time, AMA Vice President Dr Steve Parnis observed that current national policy on violence against women pays scant attention to action on alcohol.

Apart for alcohol restrictions in indigenous communities, where women are 80 times more likely to be hospitalised for assault, the issue has been largely neglected from both the broader domestic violence and the alcohol policy fields.

There is concern in some sectors that to focus attention on alcohol will undermine the hard fought gendered understanding of power and control as the root cause of domestic violence, and will in effect give men a “Get out of Jail Free” card absolving them of responsibility for their choice to be violent.

This view dismisses alcohol’s role in domestic violence on the basis that not every man who drinks is violent towards his partner and not every man who is violent drinks. While this is true, irrespective of this debate, when alcohol is involved, the injuries are more severe. And the reality for many women is that they experience significant fear and harm when their partner drinks excessively.

It’s time to remove the blindfold and for both the alcohol policy and domestic violence sectors to work together to engage with this complexity.

As a community, we’re prepared to accept that alcohol contributes to violence in our streets and take action. We’re also prepared to accept that alcohol contributes to family and domestic violence in indigenous communities and take action.

The fact is – alcohol contributes to domestic violence. It is not the sole cause, but it makes a big difference for the women (and children) living with a violent male partner who drinks.

Eradicating problem drinking will not magically stop domestic violence altogether, but it may help to make things safer for some women and children whose experience of abuse is intertwined with their partner’s drinking. And isn’t that what we’re all working towards?

Ingrid Wilson

Ingrid Wilson is a PhD Candidate at the Judith Lumley Centre at La Trobe University.

Her research is exploring women’s experience of fear and harm from an alcohol-affected partner to inform the development of policy and interventions to reduce alcohol-related intimate partner violence.


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