H. L. Mencken once famously observed that, for every complex problem there’s an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. So it is with domestic violence.
Far too many men see violence as a legitimate response to any frustration or any threat to their perceived authority.
There have been some rather bitter exchanges of late about what causes domestic violence. Some people blame male attitudes to women, while others blame poverty and welfare dependence.
It’s always prudent to avoid talk of blame when trying to understand human behaviour. The search for blame can too easily undermine the search for causes.
Most of what we know about the causes of domestic violence comes from surveys designed to identify the predictors or correlates of such violence.
Single point in time surveys are not an ideal research strategy, because we can never be sure whether a factor identified in such a survey is a cause or a consequence of violence. Still, they do at least give us some clues as to likely causes.
We know, for example, that women who live in relationships with men who restrict their freedom and control their lives are more at risk of being assaulted by their partners than women whose partners are less controlling.
This suggests that the attitude (some) men hold towards women is an important part of the explanation for domestic violence. This, in turn, suggests that changing male attitudes towards women and violence would help reduce the prevalence of domestic violence.
There is much more to domestic violence and its prevention, though, than can be explained by the attitudes of men towards women.
Attitudinal factors cannot explain why domestic violence peaks between 6pm and 9pm, why it is higher on weekends than weekdays, or why the incidence of domestic violence rises in summer and falls in winter.
Nor can they easily explain why a woman is more at risk of domestic violence if she was abused as a child, recently experienced financial stress, suffers from a mental illness or lives with a partner who drinks heavily.
Nor, indeed, can the attitudes some men hold towards women explain why 20 per cent of the reports of domestic assault received by police involve male victims. Clearly, developmental, socio-economic and lifestyle factors also play a role.
Some people fear that acknowledging the importance of these factors will just create excuses for violence or cause people to blame victims for what happens to them. Once we start limiting our discussion about what causes domestic violence, though, we are, in effect, placing limits on our response to the problem.
On the available evidence, it is clear cultural change is needed in male attitudes towards women and violence. Far too many men see violence as a legitimate response to any frustration or any threat to their perceived authority.
We can’t afford to sit by, however, and wait for cultural change to take effect. We need to take steps to reduce domestic violence now.
If that means providing more effective treatment programs for men convicted of domestic violence, helping parents manage children without assaulting them, reducing the availability of alcohol, stricter enforcement of apprehended violence orders or providing more avenues of escape from domestic violence, we should pursue all these things.
The argument over whether domestic violence is caused by male attitudes towards women and violence or by poverty and welfare dependence is sterile and pointless. No single factor causes domestic violence. As with all human behaviour, a multiplicity of factors are at work.
There is no single solution to domestic violence. We need measures that address all of the factors involved in it.
Don Weatherburn is the director of the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.