End systemic pressures inside the family to end violence against women

The Albanese government has tried to douse the fury over endemic rates of domestic violence with a small bucket of funding for “leaving violence payments”—an extra $1 billion for crisis accommodation. Albanese topped up these meagre offerings with vague exhortations, “We need to change the culture. We need to change attitudes. We need to change the legal system.”

His commitment to the violent status quo is obvious to all those campaigning to halt escalating domestic violence rates. Even before the pressure of the cost of living crisis, it was clear that women need vastly more economic security, not just crisis support, to escape violence.

According to a 2021 report, 7690 women were returning to perpetrators each year because they had nowhere to live. And in 2016, more than 20,000 women who wanted to leave a violent partner said they were unable to because of a lack of money or financial support. But no serious commitment to major public housing builds or drastically raising Centrelink rates is on the table.

The calls for general cultural and attitudinal change are resoundingly hollow. The persistent rates of family, domestic and sexual violence make a mockery of the investment in gendered violence awareness campaigns since the 1990s.

What produces violence?

Author Jess Hill and criminologist Michael Salter have pointed to data showing there was no significant improvement between 2017 and 2021 in attitudes towards violence against women overall, despite the #MeToo campaign, Respectful Relationships school programs, awareness campaigns and national attention on sexism in federal parliament.

Part of the problem, they argue, is that the target of those campaigns is wrong. Correctly, they point out that the premise that gendered violence is equally the responsibility of all men, including little boys, distorts reality, creates the space for backlash, and lets “powerful systems and industries” off the hook.

Waleed Ali, Chanel Contos and other commentators have supported Salter’s call to shift the focus of prevention programs to, “Alcohol, pornography and gambling [which] are clear accelerants to men’s violence”, asking, “Why is it the responsibility of a 13-year-old boy to change the culture around sexual violence, when it’s not the responsibility of an adult man earning millions of dollars a year promoting violent pornography to that teenage boy?”

Salter is right to gesture toward vulturous corporate interests, feeding on and exacerbating alienation and despair. But most of the mooted reforms, including making alcohol more expensive and age-verification for porn, are not concerned to prevent corporate exploitation but only with attempting to more strictly regulate the behaviour of individual, often poorer, boys and men—a strategy that’s already failed.

Top-down efforts to limit access to porn alcohol and gambling singularly fail to address society’s sexism or the underlying reasons for gambling and alcohol use.

Such measures all too often collapse back into repression of the already poor and disenfranchised. Bans on alcohol and pornography, along with welfare quarantining, in Indigenous communities under the Northern Territory Intervention increased racism and further undermined Indigenous self-determination, with no overall impact on rates of domestic violence.

Apolitical public health frameworks like Hill and Salter’s cast domestic violence as an aberration to the system rather than a consequence of the fundamental social organisation of capitalism.

The nuclear family requires the subjugation of women, not to the interests of an individual man or particular set of corporate interests, but to the interests of the entire ruling class, who extract years of free child-rearing and other acts of social reproduction from women through the ideological and social pressure of the family.

Men come under explosive pressure when forces of capitalism, like unemployment or other forms of marginalisation, make it impossible to fulfil their role as family provider.

This systemic dynamic helps explain some “paradoxes” like rates of domestic violence in same-sex relationships equalling those of heterosexual relationships, or the increase in rates of domestic violence when women earn more than their partners.

The problem is not straightforwardly men’s power over women but the unbearable pressure on everybody to perform socially recognisable gender roles in a nuclear family.

Identifying capitalism and the nuclear family as the cause of domestic violence is no reason for delays in the fight for justice for victims and survivors. This analysis provides an insight into the kinds of demands that would materially push back against the ruling class’s pressure on the family.

A fight that unites working class people of all genders, for public housing, jobs, free childcare, wage increases, increases to the single parent payments and all Centrelink payments would, if successful, provide immediate relief for thousands of women stuck in violent relationships.

Most importantly, it would build the kind of class power that could challenge the capitalist system at the heart of violence against women.

By Lucy Honan


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