In the last few weeks two rather disparate male journalists, Martin McKenzie-Murray in The Saturday Paper and Mark Latham, late of the Australian Financial Review, have observed that the current orthodox position on domestic violence against women and children holds that domestic violence can affect any woman, in any demographic, and is not socioeconomically determined.
Both men contest that position, arguing instead that women living in poverty are disproportionately vulnerable to domestic attacks, and that current opinion is based on the erroneous belief that patriarchal notions of male domination, entitlement and privilege (otherwise known as rape culture) are the cause of violence against women.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to the concept of so-called rape culture as the sole cause of violence against women, but neither do I agree that violence against women is predominantly determined by socioeconomic conditions.
What I find interesting is that two white middle class males have within weeks of each other put forward the argument that middle class women are significantly less subject to domestic violence perpetrated by intimate partners than are less affluent women. It’s interesting because feminists have spent the last few decades struggling to expose middle class violence, and it has been a far more difficult exposure than one might at first imagine.
Both Latham and McKenzie-Murray point to statistics to support their view, however, neither explores the possibility that domestic violence is quite likely underreported by middle class women. Without even trying, I can think of a wealth of examples of women and children living middle class lives, all of whom have endured or are enduring violence perpetrated by intimate partners and who have not, and will not, report the crime to police.
The middle class life has long been associated with denial and repression, and a pathological dedication to privacy, all of which are designed to build a wall of silence intended to keep things in the family. The common prescription is to refrain from airing dirty family linen in public. To transgress these bourgeois norms is to commit a social crime that is not readily forgiven or forgotten by peers. If you doubt me, reflect how only very recently have we begun to hold institutions and public figures to account for decades of sexual transgressions against children, and how so many offenders got away with it because it was wicked of them to say bad things about that good kind man. Why, even our Prime Minister appears in court to provide character references for paedophile priests!
It’s perfectly possible to account for domestic violence as both a socioeconomic issue, and a product of male privilege and entitlement. There is also, as McKenzie-Murray points out, the criminological aspect of domestic violence, which acknowledges the individual pathologies of perpetrators. Surely, if we are to have any chance at all of halting this epidemic we have to address all possible contributing factors?
I am uncertain why this argument that ostensibly pits the middle class woman against the less affluent in terms of their comparative rates of suffering, has suddenly emerged. I don’t think it’s a good sign. For far too long domestic violence was framed as an us and them problem: consigned to the poor, to Indigenous communities, far removed from the middle class whom, it was unquestioningly assumed, did not behave like that.
What we ought to be doing is making it easier for middle class women to come out of the closet about our experiences of family violence, not advocating a caste system of suffering based on socioeconomic factors. Domestic violence and violence against women is not an us and them situation, however comforting that delusion might be to some. It’s alarming to note the beginnings of a swing back to that delusion, after so many years of feminist efforts to escape it.
In the interests of fairness I disclose that I grew up in a professional family whose male head, a doctor, perpetrated unspeakable violence on its members.