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Gendered drivers of family violence in the context of prevalence and identity

Outlines the particular dynamics and forms of family violence experienced by individual victim survivors and communities, from people using violence who identify as belonging to, or who are outside of, that community.

11.1 Introduction

The guidance in this section outlines the particular dynamics and forms of family violence experienced by individual victim survivors and communities, from people using violence who identify as belonging to, or who are outside of, that community.

The MARAM Framework Principles recognise different forms and dynamics of family violence, across ages and communities. Drivers of family violence risk are consistent with the overarching drivers of violence against women and children including: condoning violence against women, men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence in public and private life, rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity, and male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.[60]

Central to this is an understanding about how gendered drivers of family violence, in context to social norms and culture, influence a perpetrator’s choice to target the victim survivor’s identity.

Perpetrators may use family violence to target victim survivors’ identity, circumstances and experiences. This can exacerbate adult and child victim survivors’ experiences of structural inequality, barriers and discrimination. As part of their pattern of behaviours and tactics of coercive control, this can also have significant impacts on the safety, autonomy, freedom and health of victim survivors.

Most commonly, family violence presents as violence from cisgender men from the white dominant culture, who predominantly target women and children.

However, dominant gendered drivers, social norms and culture also produce the societal conditions and attitudes that influence perpetrators’ use of family violence across relationship types, identities and communities.

These social and cultural norms are referred to as the drivers of family violence . Examples of these drivers include gender inequality, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, ableism, classism, racism and the ongoing impact of colonisation.

In your work with any victim survivor or person using violence, being attuned to their identity and experiences will assist you to understand these factors.

In practice, you should seek to understand:

  • how the identity, needs, circumstances and experiences of people who use violence relate to their choice to use violence, the risk they present to intimate partners, children and other family members, and how they engage with your service
  • how each perpetrator uses aspects of a victim survivor’s identity and experiences and exploits these real or perceived ‘vulnerabilities’ as tactics to coerce or control them, or in the forms of violence they use
  • how social inequality impacts on access to both formal and informal justice and social support systems, and whether family, friends, community and services believe victim survivors to offer support, or collude with perpetrators.

11.1.1 Gendered drivers in the context of social conditions, norms and culture [61] (prevalence of men’s use of family violence)

It is gender, not cultural background, that drives men’s perpetration of violence against women and family members.[62]

Research shows that men’s attitudes towards women and gender equality are the strongest indicator of their use of aggressive and violent behaviour towards women.[63]

You should understand the prevalence and drivers of family violence and the experiences of victim survivors before you proactively engage with known or suspected perpetrators of family violence.

Focusing exclusively on a perpetrator’s culture makes ‘invisible the violence that emerges from the dominant “culture”’.[64]

In Australia, the dominant white culture inherently condones violence and reflects the structures of power and privilege created, perpetuated by and primarily that benefits white, ‘masculine’, heterosexual men.

This also informs the way structures of power that marginalise some men contribute to ongoing violence against women and children.[65]

In dominant white culture, the use of violence against women and children, predominantly by men, is often presented as a juxtaposition of positive descriptions of ‘a good bloke’ with the minimising of responsibility when he is ‘pushed too far’.

In contrast, family violence in non-dominant Australian cultures is framed by comparing ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, incorrectly assuming that non-white cultures are more tolerant of men’s violence against women than white cultures.[66]

Reflections of family violence prevalence often locate the perpetrator as someone ‘other’ or ‘evil’, and not someone who is or could be a member of any family or social network. This is inconsistent with the evidence on the prevalence of family violence in the community, which demonstrates that perpetrators are usually ‘ordinary’ people whose presentation and circumstances may also be ‘ordinary’.

The role of social norms

Social norms and contemporary expectations about ‘ways to be a man’ are interwoven with our broader cultural ways of life and the way our political and economic institutions operate. This is not to suggest that all men embrace these norms. However, all men are affected by norms and expectations about masculinity, and their performance is often measured against these by themselves and others.

Examples of identified masculine norms for men in Western societies include[67]:

  • independence and self-reliance
  • stoicism
  • suppression of emotion
  • risk taking
  • aggression
  • competitiveness
  • toughness
  • hypersexuality
  • rejection of homosexuality and femininity
  • dominance and control.

These norms or expectations influence men differently. They create incentives, pressures and learned ‘acceptable’ or encouraged behaviour.

This has a bearing on men’s behaviour in certain contexts and with certain peer groups. For example, expectations of the way men relate to men and women differ in the workplace and the home, compared with what has been historically acceptable behaviour in sporting clubs or on a ‘boys’ night out’.

There may be contexts in which men feel more comfortable or socially safe to call out sexist or homophobic behaviour, based on what is socially acceptable and the extent to which that will be ‘policed’ by other men.

Community expectations about social norms relating to gender, sexuality, sexual identity, race, religion and disability are fluid and are evolving.

At the same time, these norms are deeply embedded in our social, economic, political and cultural narratives. They may go unperceived, as they are considered ‘normal’ due to their predominance in the culture in which we live.

Public discourse on acceptable behaviour may also be at odds with beliefs in action. For example, public messaging about the unacceptability of violence against women is at odds with the findings of national relationship surveys on beliefs and attitudes towards women and children.[68]

Social conditions, dominant culture and norms contributing to prevalence and use of family violence by perpetrators, is discussed across each identity and community group, below.

11.1.2 Coercion and control

The underlying intention or choice for perpetrators to use or threaten violence against family members is to attain and maintain power over family members. They do this through a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour that serves to undermine, disempower or isolate victim survivors. The social conditions underpinning intention and choice to use of family violence is detailed in Responsibility 2.

The way a perpetrator uses family violence depends on the personal, social and structural aspects they perceive as available to them to exert control over family members.

These may vary and be compounded by attitudes and social norms that operate within the perpetrator’s or the victim’s community.

While the perpetrator’s behaviour and tactics may manifest in different ways due to these factors, they ultimately seek to exert and maintain power and control within a relationship.

Perpetrators may internalise and invoke social norms and attitudes to undermine the victim survivor’s self-esteem, confidence and capacity to resist controlling behaviour.

Common beliefs and attitudes

As described in Section 12, the common drivers of family violence in all communities are influenced by the gendered beliefs and attitudes of entitlement of the perpetrator in their personal, community and social context.

Perpetrators may express beliefs or attitudes about their own characteristics, circumstances and role in the family context. This includes gender-related social norms and extent to which they subscribe to heteronormative social norms.

They may also attribute beliefs and attitudes to, and expect them of, victim survivors. This includes expectations of gender norms and roles of an adult or child victim survivor. Perpetrators may express these beliefs as entitlement to authority, such as expectations the victim survivor will defer to them on family decisions.

They may expect women or older people to assume caring roles and look after family needs and children and support their (the perpetrator’s) life and career decisions without question.

They may also have expectations of behaviour of female or male children that perpetuate gendered norms and expectations.

In addition, they may have views about how family relationships should be conducted, rights to discipline and who has family decision-making rights, including across relationships between intimate partners, carers, adults and children and the extended family.

For example, a man may view themselves as physically and emotionally strong, invulnerable and virile. Within the family, he may view his role as the ‘owner’ of the family. This may be reinforced if he is the main income earner and view himself as the head of the household or family.

Finally, these beliefs may reflect ‘norms’ within a perpetrator’s peer group or community, which may reinforce or challenge a perpetrator’s use of violence towards family members. This includes widely held social norms such as gendered roles and adherence to heteronormative identity and ‘relationship norms’.

Structural and institutional factors

Similarly, perpetrators can use structural and institutional features of society to enact systems abuse.

They may use, leverage or manipulate systems to reinforce their coercion and control of victim survivors, or by engaging with services in ways that seek collusion.

For example, they may:

  • make vexatious threats about parenting arrangements for children, threatening to report the non-violent carer to child protection or to disrupt immigration processes or visa status
  • seek intervention orders against the real victim survivor
  • access and use data or records from official sources as a method of continuing coercion and control, stalking and undermining of the victim survivor’s perceptions and experience of safety and wellbeing.

Perpetrators may also create barriers to community and institutional structures to further erode the victim survivor’s access to rights, services and other external support.

For example, they may undermine the victim survivor’s:

  • ability to gain/maintain employment or education
  • access to medical or support aids
  • connection[69] to family, community and culture.

You should be attuned to the interplay of all these factors. They will vary in each situation and require you to understand the way in which power and control tactics manifest in different family and community contexts.

Reviewed 21 July 2021

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