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InPsych 2015 | Vol 37

Cover feature : Domestic and family violence

When high-quality therapy isn’t enough: What psychologists can do to prevent domestic violence

Many Australian psychologists perform high-quality therapy each week to support survivors of domestic violence and change the damaging behaviour of perpetrators. There is no doubt that remedial work is critically important, but if we are to significantly reduce Australia’s domestic violence rates over the next generation, this work needs to be complemented with population-wide strategies that prevent new violent incidents (NCRVAWC, 2009).

Encouragingly, Australian health practitioners have successfully implemented many long-term prevention campaigns that have coordinated individual, group and community interventions to help prevent deaths from causes such as road crashes and smoking (ANPHA, 2013).

Where should we focus our prevention efforts?

Successful prevention campaigns are difficult at the best of times, but they are particularly challenging on topics such as domestic violence that deal with a complex interaction of factors and behaviours that often occur in private spaces. The main factor that consistently stands out across the world is the gendered pattern of domestic violence that predominantly displays women as the victims/survivors and men as the perpetrators (WHO, 2013).

This does not suggest that all Australian men are perpetrators (indeed, most are not) or deny that other patterns exist, such as violence within same-sex relationships or women’s violence against men (VicHealth, 2014). Prevention campaigns typically start by targeting strong elements that are likely to exert the biggest impact (e.g., road safety’s focus on mandatory seatbelts, speeding, drink driving) and then build in other elements over time (e.g., learners’ experience). Efforts to prevent male violence in Australian homes may also reduce attacks on men and women in public, as both genders are more likely to be assaulted by men there too (ABS, 2013).

Australia’s leading domestic violence prevention agencies, such as Our Watch, VicHealth, DVRCV* and ANROWS**, have drawn upon decades of research to identify a cluster of interacting factors that underpin the most common pattern of domestic violence.

Men tend to be more prone to becoming hostile and violent towards women if they:

  • have been socialised to adopt rigid, traditional gender roles and stereotypes (e.g., men should be competitive and dominant; women should be cooperative and nurturing) (VicHealth, 2007),
  • believe that men’s superiority over women is a ‘natural order’ that should be preserved (Reidy et al., 2009),
  • feel their masculinity or authority has been threatened – particularly if women have not complied with their gender role expectations (Gallagher & Parrott, 2011).

The risk of domestic violence is heightened further if these positions are nested within cultural structures that reinforce male superiority and cultural attitudes that excuse, justify or promote violence. Domestic violence is thus explained as a method of expressing power and asserting control in intimate relationships and families.

The role of other factors identified in the body of research that have weaker associations with domestic violence such as alcohol, emotional dysregulation (aka anger management), poverty, violent upbringing and pregnancy are amplified when they interact with this central dynamic (VicHealth, 2014). Their explanatory power diminishes without this sociocultural fuel.

An increasing number of researchers have emphasised the pivotal role that gender equality plays in the prevention of domestic violence (Wall, 2014). UN researchers who assessed the relationship between violence against women and gender equality across 56 nations, using four gender equality indices found a strong relationship between high rates of physical and sexual violence and high rates of gender inequality (UN Women, 2010). Australia slipped from 15th to 24th on the World Gender Gap Index between 2006 and 2014 (WEF, 2014).

Social pressure borne by rigid, traditional gender expectations and roles (e.g., men should be leaders, aggressive, studs, conquerors; women should be passive, caring, not promiscuous, but put others’ needs first) can powerfully shape many social outcomes including sexual interactions and decisions that pit childcare commitments against career development. Powell (2010), for example, has argued that the promotion of new gender roles and expectations that emphasise equality and respect can help prevent sexual coercion and violence among young people.

The recent National Community Attitudes Survey found that while most Australians do not hold attitudes that support violence, there has been no significant change since 2009 and some areas have regressed. For example, 43% believed rape was due to men being unable to control sexual urges and 53% believed that women often fabricated cases of domestic violence for child custody battles. Almost 1 in 3 Australians believed that “women prefer a man to be in charge of the relationship” and “men make better political leaders” (VicHealth, 2014). Community attitudes are important because they can influence both the behaviour of individuals and broader social and political responses (e.g., resources, priorities).

What can psychologists do to prevent domestic violence?

Many psychologists already work at the prevention end of the spectrum. In Victoria, some are assisting agencies such as Our Watch and VicHealth on projects that train bystanders to act against sexism and sex discrimination in workplaces, implement Respectful Relationship Education In Schools and develop community ambassadors for change (e.g., AFL players, culturally diverse community leaders).

Many psychologists have spent their whole careers helping young people transcend the limitations of traditional gender roles and prevent young people’s disrespectful and violent behaviours from forming into deeply entrenched patterns (Carr-Gregg, 2013). Others have generated vital research on various aspects of domestic violence that has built the knowledge base, dispelled myths and shaped prevention efforts (Allen et al., 2013; Astbury 2006).

Counsellors have helped clients break cycles of domestic violence by being aware of subtle forms of violence and gender dynamics that contextualise particular behaviours, believing survivors and being attuned to methods that some survivors use to minimise the risk of shame and humiliation when they initially present for assessment (e.g., coding their presentation with subtle hints that an “understanding listener” would decipher) (Streker, 2013).

Psychologists working in organisations, such as schools, workplaces and sports clubs can create safer environments by removing structural or normative gender disadvantages (e.g., sexism and discrimination). The strong cultures, norms, formal policies and sanctions of organisations, provide them with tremendous potential to influence more respectful relationships and encourage these standards to be applied elsewhere (Powell, 2012).

The Next Wave of Prevention

The prevention of domestic violence is now a world-wide movement that has more widespread political and media support than ever before. Prevention initiatives have featured in the recent multi-party Federal Senate Committee report on domestic violence and the Victorian government’s Royal Commission into Family Violence (RCFV, 2015; SFPARC, 2015). Our Watch will release an updated National Primary Prevention Framework soon.

While we are still in the very early phases of a national prevention campaign, the prospect of successfully creating a more respectful socialscape through this work could have profound implications for many aspects of Australian society. Men should feel less social pressure to prove their status or resolve social difficulties through violence and women should be safer at home and in public. If Australians genuinely move towards gender equality, we should eventually see childcare and CEO positions split equally across genders. We should also expect to see broader menus of gender roles and expectations available for all and further reduction in the myths and misunderstandings that have been used to justify excuses for domestic violence. This work should also lead to the development of powerful strategies that successfully address all other patterns of violence.

However, we should be under no illusions about the difficulty of this task. It will require sustained, coordinated effort from many organisations, professionals and community members over at least one or two generations. Social issues can quickly be derailed by various forms of backlash and lose momentum without strong, authentic leadership and sufficient resources to support monitoring systems or upscale successful projects. UN researchers found that many of their participants supported the abstract idea of gender equality, but did not always follow up with action that aligned with these ideals (Fulu et al., 2013).

Men play a crucial role in the next wave of action. We should never forget that the burden of work to end domestic violence in Australia has been predominantly carried by women for many decades, including those who courageously set up refuges in their own homes, as men literally hunted for their estranged partners with guns. Men have an opportunity to become important partners in the prevention of domestic violence by supporting their peers to change violent aspects of male culture (Jewkes, Flood & Lang, 2014).

Australians should take some consolation from the fact that they have already prevented enormous amounts of domestic violence through multi-layered, cultural reform. A generation or two ago, smacking and other forms of corporal punishment were seen as legitimate methods of disciplining children. While they are certainly not extinct, they are no longer the norm (Pinker, 2011). Let’s hope that this generation and those that follow it will build on this success so that fewer Australians are hurt, injured and killed by partners or family members.

The Line – an online prevention example

Our Watch’s The Line is a social marketing campaign for Australians aged 12-20. The Line adds some educational fibre to the social media diet of young Australians by using platforms such as Facebook (82,000 followers), Instagram (theline_au), and Twitter (hashtag: #RespectTheLine) to start conversations about sex, gender, online abuse and healthy, respectful relationships.

These platforms integrate with short articles and videos on The Line’s website that are designed to help young people, their parents, carers and teachers learn how to support others and draw the line on disrespectful attitudes and behaviours that create fertile ground for domestic violence. The Line also has a team of ambassadors, including media personalities and AFL footballers, who help reinforce violence prevention messages in their work with young people and the wider community.


Acknowledgements: The author would like to acknowledge Lyn Walker, Emily Maguire, Madeleine Clifford, Bill Lawford, Heather Gridley and Jackie Van Vugt for their comments and thoughts on earlier drafts of this article.

The author can be contacted at peter@communitystars.com.au


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*DVRCV – Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria. **ANROWS – Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on October 2015. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.