As a society, we commonly understand family and domestic violence to be “wife beating”. Because of this misconception, we often scratch our heads and wonder, “why doesn’t she just leave?”, because we KNOW that if someone tried to beat us up, that’s what we’d do; we wouldn’t stand for it! We’d fight back or we’d run away and that would be that- no more violence. Right? But family and domestic violence isn’t that simple (no epidemic is). FDV is not about beating someone up (although that could be an element of a perp’s abuse pattern, for sure). FDV is very different to our typical or traditional understanding of “violence”.
So then… what the flip is family and domestic violence?
So glad you asked. Family and domestic violence (FDV) is when someone uses violence to control the behaviour or activities of their partner or family member. When I say “violence“, I mean a range of deliberate and ongoing abusive, threatening, or coercive behaviours.
Who decides this? / Where is FDV defined?
Great question. It’s a bit tricky to give you a straight (or short) answer on this, because there is no universal definition. For example, FDV is not a mental illness (nor is it caused by mental illness). This means you won’t find some sort of universal definition in an authority such as the DSM-5. Social science definitions of family and domestic violence vary, but have similar elements (such as I’ve described above).
Family violence (violence towards a family member) and domestic violence (violence towards an intimate partner), are not necessarily the same. The dynamics between family members may differ from dynamics between intimate partners and the implications may be different as well. However, family violence is often considered to be a broader term, so definitions of “family violence” will often also encompass domestic violence. Different definitions may use one or both terms depending on the required level of specificity. When speaking in general terms, it is acceptable to reference “family and domestic violence”.
Our current social science understanding of FDV is based on years of history, research and advocacy. But, definitions of FDV differ depending on the purpose for which we are using it. You will find it defined in many places such as Commonwealth and/or State:
- policy (for example the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children or the WA Family and Domestic Violence Prevention Strategy),
- legislation (for example the Family Law Act 1975, or the Family Violence Protection Act 2008), and
- programs (take your pick).
Social science definitions (often used in policies and programs) are generally broader and more robust, reflecting the latest research.
Legal definitions are usually narrower and less nuanced. For example, because the law is often incident-based, a legal definition might miss the true impact or depth of an abuser’s behaviour. This could happen if legislation frames FDV as an “act” or “incident” rather than “a pattern of ongoing behaviour”. If the law looks at each “incident” as isolated or as separate events, then it might fail to see how each “incident” forms part of a larger strategy to reinforce victim compliance. This would have the effect of making the abuse seem less serious than in actually is. Depending on the area of law, the impact could be that the abuser is not held to an adequate level of accountability, or that the victim is not properly compensated, etc.
The other issue with legal definitions is when there is a discrepancy between how the law was intended and how it is interpreted by magistrates and lawyers. This often happens when laws are designed or amended without adequately consulting those who will be affected by them (or those who work within the system to which the law applies). So even though law makers have good intentions, if they are unaware of the system in which the law will operate, it may not be applied the way they intended. #contextiseverything #jussayin
I don’t want to get unwieldy on you here, so all I’m going to say is that legislative definitions are catching up to social science understandings. States have been progressing definitions found in civil and even criminal jurisdictions over the past decade or more. For example, in 2009/2010 we had this massive consultation into family violence and the law. A butt load of recommendations were made. Some of the recs related to amending the Family Law Act, so in 2011, the definition of family violence in the Family Law Act (a federal instrument) was broadened to catch up with social science understandings of FDV. This has seen a lot of other federal and state-based instruments follow suit (often even mirroring or referring to the s4AB definition).
There are still challenges, discrepancies and limitations between and with definitions and instruments, but we’re getting there.
- No universal definition
- Definitions will vary depending on the purpose of the instrument defining it
- Social science definitions are generally broader and keep a better pace with research
- Legal definitions are usually narrower, but are catching up to social science definitions
How is FDV different from interpersonal violence where the offender is a stranger?
What implications does this have?
Relationship between victim and offender
We know that with FDV there is a relationship between the victim and offender (unlike abuse against strangers). What we often forget though, is that because of this relationship, victims of FDV may have more barriers to reporting than victims who are strangers to their perpetrators. They might: have children, blended families, or shared pets with the perpetrator; have a joint mortgage, lease, loan, or bank account with the perpetrator; face threats of ongoing violence or fatal injuries if they leave; and have to consider heaps of other factors of the relationship that could have negative implications for the victim if they report the violence.
Duration of abuse
We might fail to recognise (and this is an extra tricky one) that unlike violence perpetrated by a stranger, FDV is typically not just an “incident” (which incidentally, is the language that our legal system typically uses). This means FDV is typically never just a one-off event, but rather it’s just that the system might only focus on a particular “incident” or “act of abuse”. In reality, a perpetrator will need to rely on a range of ongoing violent, coercive and controlling behaviours to reinforce their dominance. This essentially creates a vortex of fear and control; an environment where the victim never really feels safe, never really feels in control and is afraid to get help or support, because of the stated or implied “repercussions” of “falling out of line” or not complying with the perpetrator’s demands, and a thousand more reasons.
Purpose of violence
We also regularly fail to distinguish that violence towards a stranger, is typically used to control the situation (or to control the victim in the moment), while violence towards family/intimate partners is ongoing and controls their lives.
Pathways to justice/categorisation of violence
We might also fail to understand that violence towards strangers often falls into the realm of an offence. This means remedies or justice may be more accessible. In contrast, FDV will rely on an entire constellation of violent behaviours. Each “incident” reinforces the control and the threat of more violence. Not all forms of FDV is recognised as illegal behaviour or an offence. This can make it tricky to achieve justice. But even where there is a clear path to the legal system, access to justice may be difficult. Victim blaming and secondary abuse (to the victim, by the system) are an all too common experience for survivors.
Lastly, we often fail to notice (or admit) that overwhelmingly, it is women who are the victims of men’s FDV (although men are also largely the perpetrators of other types of violence).
What causes FDV in the first place?
A perpetrator of FDV is always responsible for their violence as they have made the choice to use and continue using violence to their benefit. However, there are broader cultural factors that drive violence, particularly violence against women. This includes power structures such as gender inequality, racism, colonialism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Basically- the dominant culture which we subscribe to, marginalises particular groups in policy and legislation, resources, and power generally, causing these power structures to exist. These power structures minimise or limit the rights or social inclusion of women, people of colour, people who’ve had their lands colonised (stolen), people with a diverse sex or gender, etc…
If you are part of the dominant group, then you will often reap the benefits of norms, policies and structures that were made in your favour. By virtue of not being oppressed, you would have access to resources, power, voice, and respect that other groups do not. If you have always had access to a particular privilege- it might feel more like a right. It can be very easy to develop a sense of entitlement and even a subconscious belief that you are better, or more deserving than people in the non-dominant groups. Most people with privilege believe this in some way or another, whether we realise it or not. We have been socially conditioned to believe this (consciously or unconsciously) our entire lives.
Domestic violence can often mirror and leverage these oppressions. Abusers typically have a sense of entitlement and treat their victims like they have a particular role in society. They will often rely on social norms to justify their abuse or to hide in plain sight.
What are we doing about it?
If FDV (particularly in the context of violence against women) is driven by gender and other intersecting inequalities, then part of addressing the issue needs to include working towards social equality. To this end, we have a National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. The Plan seeks to reduce violence against women by a range of strategies related to gender inequality and to some degree, other intersecting inequalities. The Plan runs for 12 years (2010-2022). The Plan is supported by 3-year “rolling Action Plans” and also by individual State and Territory jurisdictional plans.
The Plan seeks to achieve 6 key outcomes:
- Communities are safe and free from violence.
- Relationships are respectful.
- Indigenous communities are strengthened.
- Services meet the needs of women and their children experiencing violence.
- Justice responses are effective.
- Perpetrators stop their violence and are held to account.
Under-pinning principles of the Plan
The Plan recognises that policy solutions to address domestic violence and sexual assault must take into account the diverse backgrounds and needs of women and their children. Thus, the Plan is under-pinned by the following values and principles:
- Domestic violence, family violence and sexual assault cross all ages, races and cultures, socioeconomic and demographic barriers, although some women are at higher risk.
- Everyone regardless of their age, gender, sex, sexual orientation, race, culture, disability, religious belief, faith, linguistic background or location, has a right to be safe and live in an environment that is free from violence.
- Domestic violence, family violence and sexual assault are unacceptable and against the law.
Governments and other organisations will provide holistic services and supports that prioritise the needs of victims and survivors of violence.
- Sustainable change must be built on community participation by men and women taking responsibility for the problems and solutions.
- Everyone has a right to access and to participate in justice processes that enable them to achieve fair and just outcomes.
- Governments acknowledge the legacy of past failures and the need for new collaborative approaches to preventing violence against Indigenous women.
- Responses to children exposed to violence prioritise the safety and long-term wellbeing of children.
The Plan is by no means perfect. It is not the golden answer we have been waiting for that will solve all our problems. But, it is a massive, coordinated, national strategy, which we will make stronger and more effective the more we as individuals step up and demand better for our society. Effective prevention work requires consistent messaging, action and advocacy on individual, relational, community and societal levels in order to reinforce the desired shift in our culture. This means we all have a role to play.
How can I make a difference?
In so many ways my friend. Which means you can pick an area for action that can intersect with your interests and your skills (or skills you wish to develop). Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
- educate yourself about domestic violence,
- join a lobbying/activist group (can’t find one? start your own on MeetUp!),
- volunteer at a women’s refuge, or a help-line,
- buy or donate useful stuff to a refuge (pro tip: call first and see what their residents actually need- they get a lot of essentials, so sometimes movie tickets or something you might consider to be a bit of a treat or luxury can be nice),
- get a job in the violence-prevention sector (I’ve pre-loaded the search fields for you- all you have to do is add your location),
- attend a march/protest to raise awareness (just google “16 Day of Activism March (your location)” or “White Ribbon March (your location)” or “Reclaim the Night March (your location)” to get started),
- interrupt sexist/racist/transphobic/etc attitudes,
- donate or raise money,
- sign up for membership with your State’s peak body for domestic violence organisations,
- have discussions with others,
- write a letter to, or meet with your local member of parliament about your concerns about FDV/resourcing in your area,
- learn about the legal or policy landscape,
- check if your work offers domestic violence leave,
- learn how to respond appropriately to disclosures of domestic violence,
- get a Graduate Certificate in Domestic Violence,
- Use your $ and your voice as social change tools. If you know a product/brand/musician/athlete perpetuates inequality or supports violence in some way, boycot their product/event/etc. For example, if you know there’s a sporting event that is showcasing players who haven’t been held accountable for their violence- don’t buy tickets, don’t attend and encourage others not to do so.
There is a way for you to be a domestic violence disrupter or a sexual assault saboteur- you just need to find it. For more ideas, check out these pages by OurWatch.
Still have questions?
Let me know any questions you have in the comments below.