A perpetrator's story - but not the whole story

By Loni Cooper
Fri 20 May 18:57 AEST
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This article contains references to domestic violence.

The media are increasingly hungry to tell stories about domestic violence – and many of the stories we’re hearing are increasingly personal.  High profile survivors like AFL star Jimmy Bartel and the Victorian Family Violence Minister Fiona Richardson have come forward with moving accounts. Other survivors are telling their stories, too, and striking a chord with audiences. Voices that were silent for so long are finally beginning to be heard.

What we don’t hear as often are the stories of perpetrators. Apart from a few notable exceptions (like Jess Hill’s excellent Background Briefing about men who abuse their partners) it’s still relatively rare to hear from abusers themselves, about what they do and why they do it.

So it was encouraging to come across an article published by Quest Newspapers and the Courier Mail this week, which told the story of a domestic violence perpetrator keen to speak out and stop others from going down the same road. And this wasn’t your stereotypical perpetrator. This was a woman.

Amanda Oates had been placed on probation after assaulting her partner. She said the involvement of the law made her realise she needed to change. She’d also been emotionally abusive to her daughter.

Ms Oates grew up in a violent home and said she believed abuse was an intergenerational issue. She was an alcoholic for 20 years, but had recently sought treatment for alcohol abuse and anger management. She also had some excellent advice for perpetrators – especially people who hadn’t yet identified themselves as such.

“It’s hardest to recognise it in yourself,” she said. “Don’t be ashamed to admit you have done bad things. It’s about recognising them and focusing on what you are going to do now to become a better person.”

Ms Oates also shared her views about gender and domestic violence.

Ms Oates said there was a popular misconception that women could not be the perpetrators of domestic violence. “I see the ads on the television and they’re all centred around men,” Ms Oates said.

“Women can also be abusive, it may not be as physical in nature but mental abuse can be just as bad … I’ve learnt that when I feel angry, that I just need to stop and think about what I’m doing.”

Ms Oates’s reflections make for compelling reading. But there’s a problem with this story. And that is that Ms Oates’s story is not the whole story. By presenting it without context, this article is potentially misleading audiences about the nature of domestic violence.

Ms Oates cited alcoholism as part of her issue and indeed, research shows that alcohol is often involved in domestic violence incidents. But experts don’t believe it's the underlying cause.

According to the Victorian domestic violence resource, The Lookout , “although many abusive partners also abuse alcohol and/or drugs, and some are more likely to be physically violent or use more extreme violence when their judgement is impaired, this is not the underlying cause of the abuse. Many people who abuse alcohol or drugs are not violent and abusive.”

Ms Oates also blamed her abusive upbringing. Some research has found that witnessing and experiencing violence during childhood can be an influencing factor in violence perpetration. Yet domestic violence organisations stress that it’s not a factor that operates in isolation.

The Brisbane Domestic Violence Service says while it’s true that some people who are violent in relationships do come from violent backgrounds, many don’t – and many others who come from abusive homes don’t become abusers.

Ms Oates believes there are societal ‘misconceptions’ around the gendered nature of domestic violence. Of course, it’s understandable that she, as a female perpetrator, would be concerned by the emphasis many education campaigns place on male abusers.

But that emphasis exists for a reason.

The reality is, while women can - and do - perpetrate domestic violence, men are far more likely to do so, and women are far more likely to be the victims of it.

Dr Michael Flood is a violence researcher at the University of Wollongong and a research partner on the ARC-funded project ‘Violence Against Women: A Media Intervention’. He said both men and women are most at risk from male violence.

“Men and women alike are three times as likely to be physically assaulted by a man as a woman,” he said.

“Among men and women who experience violence, women are far more likely than men to be assaulted by someone known to them. Women are most likely to have experienced violence perpetrated by a known person, specifically a former partner. Men are most likely to have experienced violence perpetrated by a stranger.”

Dr Flood cited the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Study 2012, and the ANROWS 2015 state of knowledge paper ‘Sexual assault and domestic violence in the context of cooccurrence and re-victimisation’, among other studies. He said the research shows that in intimate relationships, men’s violence towards women occurs far more frequently and severely.

“If we focus only on women’s and men’s experience of any physically aggressive act by an intimate partner or former partner, the victims of such acts are about three-quarters female and one-quarter male,” he said.

“And once we consider the character and extent of a range of violent and abusive behaviours, the vast majority of victims of intimate partner violence are women. Among victims, women are more likely than men to be subjected to frequent, prolonged, and extreme violence, be sexually assaulted, sustain injuries, and fear for their lives.”

It's also possible that in addition to physical violence, men may use harmful emotional violence more than women. Ms Oates referred to her own use of ‘mental abuse’, which she said could be just as bad as physical violence – and implied she thought it was more commonly used by female perpetrators.

"Some studies among perpetrators find no differences in the overall use of emotional abuse," Dr Flood said.

"However, recent research has found that male perpetrators are more likely than female perpetrators to use specific forms of abuse."

These include death threats, and emotional abuse designed to control their partner.

Amanda Oates bravely chose to speak out about her own abusive behaviour in a bid to help the public better understand the nature of domestic violence. But Dr Flood said that if journalists don’t properly contextualise stories like hers, it could actually hinder understanding.

“An individual’s personal story of victimisation or perpetration can be incredibly powerful. Yet because those stories also are particular and idiosyncratic, they can also mislead as much as they inform,” he said.

“Stories of any individual, whether victim or perpetrator, may not be representative of the typical dynamics of violence and abuse. So when we tell an individual’s story of domestic violence, we also need to tell a wider story about the typical patterns of violence, drawing on the best available research and data.”

We know that domestic and sexual violence in Australia is overwhelmingly committed by men against women. Experts believe control is central to this violence and that the underlying driver is gender inequality. The stories of domestic violence perpetrators like Amanda Oates are important, and we, as journalists, need to keep telling them. But if we do so without putting them into context, we’re doing those stories, and our audiences, a disservice.