We need to change the language we use to describe domestic violence

by Clementine Ford - 12/12/14, 12:00 AM


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Anyone can be a victim of violence. And 'normal' people are the perpetrators of the vast majority of it.

Anyone can be a victim of violence. And 'normal' people are the perpetrators of the vast majority of it. Photo: Stocksy

There's no doubt that the last couple of years have seen the conversation around violence against women increase dramatically in this country. Once a hidden issue, the concentrated effort of recent activists and service providers has shifted the topic into the spotlight. No longer will we tolerate cover-ups and downplaying of the violence women experience, most often at the hands of men. While there are still some people learning the statistics, it is a now an oft cited fact that on average, one woman will be murdered by her partner or ex partner in this country every week.

Unfortunately, with heightened awareness comes the obligatory dragging of feet by those people who remain opposed to investing time, energy and attention to the issue of men's violence against women. The rise of Men's Rights Activism has occurred in swift correlation with this increased attention to issues largely affecting women, and it's not unusual to have every evidence based argument presented regarding men's violence to be accompanied by squawks and diversionary yelling of WHAT ABOUT THE MEN and WOMEN DO IT TOO.

While technically this is true, it isn't true in exactly the way some seem to want to believe, nor should the family violence experienced by men be co-opted as a means of derailing conversations about violence against women. Unfortunately, rather than appearing to defend men against legitimate problems, this approach appears to be more about maintaining male power.


Men's power is the lynch pin behind gender inequality, and it accounts for a large amount of denial of the latter 's existence. Consider the maintenance of men's power in the way violence against women is reported. When men Geoff Hunt murdered his wife Kim and three children Mia, Phoebe and Fletcher with a shotgun before turning the gun on himself, he was overwhelmingly described in positive terms. A man who loved his family. A man who doted on his wife. A man who was tormented by an unknown private anguish.

Like many similar circumstances, the subsequent news reports provided links to support services like Lifeline, Mensline and Kids Helpline - with no mention at all of services which are well placed to support women experiencing violence, or who may be in fear for their lives. When I later discussed this on Twitter with an editor - someone who is a professional acquaintance of mine and with whom I have a respectful working relationship - he was non-committal about my idea that links to service providers designed to help the women victims of men's violence should be mandatorily included in pieces like this, in the same way Australia has mandatory reporting guidelines around suicide. "It's an interesting idea," he replied.

Since then, there are still no mandatory reporting guidelines around family violence - but I consider this paramount to changing the way the public perceives violence and suffering. Daily Life does consciously practice this but we are, as far as I'm aware, one of the only ones doing so. By putting the issue of men's mental health front and centre, the media perpetuates this insidious idea that the real tragedy is that of male suicide and depression and not the women and children murdered or harmed by male violence. Their deaths are terrible, yes - but moreso because they are the regrettable by-product of a society in which men are apparently unable to express themselves, or to share their frustrations and emotions. If only we had more Men's Sheds and open conversation about men's emotions, these poor, tragic figures wouldn't be compelled to kill the families they are emotively remembered as having loved more than anything else. There is no shortage of irony in the fact that the the overwhelming focus on mental health and family violence entirely leaves out the issue of how such behaviour impacts on the mental well-being of women - or that, while men certainly make up the majority of suicide victims, women reportedly attempt it in greater numbers.

But leaving that aside, the other great irony is that it is feminism that has tried to highlight the issue of men's emotional spectrum - to radically challenge the idea of stoicism and gendered differences in expression and feeling. And the same Men's Rights Activists who now bemoan the lack of love and care for men are the ones who also decry feminism's influence on society and apparent demonisation of the male gender. From the evidence provided to me, I have to conclude that this great male tragedy is not actually a loss of men's ability to cry but a loss of men's ability to control.

And then there is the dubious speculation on disability and violence, especially in the Hunt case. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald's article opened with this line:

"Police believe unbearable strain and hardship brewed within quiet grain farmer Geoff Hunt, following a car crash that left his wife Kim disabled."

Pains were taken to quote friends, all of whom spoke in glowing terms of Hunt and his stoic resilience in the face of his wife's accident. A friend said,

"He was super, super patient. He would help her get out of the car, he would hold her arm. You couldn't get a better bloke. The most gentle, considerate bloke...a pillar of society."

As the late Stella Young wrote at the time, "When we hear that a murdered wife is also a woman with a disability, we can find ourselves a little bit less horrified. As though her status as a disabled woman gives us a little more empathy towards the perpetrator of violence. It's victim blaming at its very worst."

This sentiment did not go down well with some commenters on The Drum, the website which published Young's piece. One person responded with "Not true at all. What may be true though is this: when we attempt to understand the strain Geoff Hunt was under since his wife's accident, we view the situation as more 'tragic' than 'horrific'."

Language is important, and it means something. It matters that in circumstances where women - especially disabled women, who are more likely than anyone to be the victims of abuse and violence - are victimised and abused, a social narrative emerges which positions it as 'tragic' rather than 'horrific'.

If we are to continue the great inroads made recently in the field of challenging men's violence against women, it is vital that we address the language used to discuss it by content creators and in trusted news sources. I mentioned Stella Young earlier. Stella will long be remembered as someone who radically changed the discourse around disability politics and dignity in this country. Her approach - which was both patiently educational and yet uncompromising - influenced thousands if not millions of people to rethink the way they perceived disability. She had a knack for language and she had a talent for calling out bullshit. It needs not be stated that her loss to the community is immeasurable.

But this is the kind of work we need to be doing in the various platforms we have now. Using our uncompromising language to both challenge people's understanding and perceptions of violence and also to call out the bullshit which tries to minimise it or make excuses for it. There is enough education available to those who care to seek it out and then take that knowledge to others in a way that need not be couched in gentle terms or acquiescence to sensitivities or hurt feelings.

Anyone can be a victim of violence. And 'normal' people are the perpetrators of the vast majority of it. Currently, we normalise violence against women through a range of apologetic language, gendered stereotypes and entrenched sexism that proliferates in news, language and cultural attitudes and output. What I have tried to do in my writing on violence is to normalise the perpetrators - because the community needs to understand that this isn't the work of evil monsters or outliers, but people who live within a system that encourages male privilege and entitlement. The kind of entitlement and privilege that allows for men who murder women and children to be described as 'loving fathers' and 'depressed husbands'.

We still have a long way to go but we have made a lot of progress. And by continuing to work together, with the committed partnerships of service providers, media, government bodies, politicians and the public, we can take something that has always been excused as an inevitable by-product of the human condition - and we can make it a relic of the past.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT

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