An open letter to Natasha Stott Despoja


28 Nov 2013

Dear Ms. Stott Despoja,

I refer to the address you gave at the National Press Club on behalf of the Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and their Children (27 Nov 2013)[1].

Firstly let me say that I strongly support preventing violence and I do understand that violence against women and children is an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Violence or abuse of any type is unacceptable in a civil society.  However, framing domestic violence, family violence, intimate partner violence, child abuse, elder abuse and sexual assault as “violence against women and their children” (a term you further entrenched today by repeating it 17 times in your address) contravenes principles of equality, tolerance and understanding by viewing all such violence as part of a false dichotomy, reinforcing essentialist stereotypes of violent male perpetrators and passive female victims.

For over 50 years this feminist theory (the Duluth Model, a gendered paradigm) has guided policy and service delivery in Australia and other developed nations. Yet, given the “shocking statistics” you quoted, can it be seen as anything other than an abject failure?

Perhaps you can explain why, when quoting from gender inclusive data sources such as the National Homicide Monitoring Program and the ABS Personal Safety Survey you find it necessary to ignore a principle you otherwise exposé, gender equality, by only citing the data for female victimization?

For example you state:

“89 Australian women were killed by their partners between 2008 and 2010; that’s nearly one woman every week in that two year period,” yet the report from which that statistic is taken[2] also notes that of the 541 victims killed throughout 2008–10, 68% were male and 32% were female.

In relation to domestic homicide the same report found that throughout 2008–10, of the 194 victims who were killed by an offender with whom they shared a principal domestic relationship, 39% of these victims were male, while 61% were female.

With respect to intimate partner homicide although female’s accounted for 73 % of victims (the 89 deaths you quoted), this still means males make up almost 1/3 of victims.

Data for the period 2006-07 found that 48.7% (almost one in two) adult victims of family homicide and 35.4% (over one in three) victims of intimate partner homicide were male.[3]

That’s one Australian man killed by an intimate partner or family member every 2 weeks.

The executive summary of the National Homicide Monitoring Program clearly states,  “Female victimisation decreased from 1.0
 per 100,000 (n=112) females in 2007–08, 
to an historic low of 0.7 per 100,000 (n=80) females in 2008–09. However, females remain overrepresented as victims of intimate partner homicide.” (Emphasis added)

Despite your rhetoric of an epidemic of violence against women, violence is not a contagion and epidemics are not characterized by historic low mortality rates.

You proceeded to quote data from the ABS Personal Safety Survey[4]:

“1 in 3 women experience physical violence; and almost 1 in 5 women experience sexual violence since the age of 15”

Regarding violence overall, in the 12 months prior to the survey, it was estimated that 5.8% women experienced an incident of violence compared to 11% of men, whilst since age 15 the rates are 39.9% of women and 50.1% of men.

The same survey also found 29.8% (almost one in three) victims of current partner violence since the age of 15 were male and 24.4% (almost one in four) victims of previous partner violence since the age of 15 were male.

With respect to sexual assault 29.4% victims of sexual assault during the last 12 months were male and 26.1% victims of sexual abuse before the age of 15 were male.  The Personal Safety Survey does not include the prison population where it is estimated that a quarter of young male prison inmates experience sexual assault.[5]

It is true that men account for a majority of the perpetrators of violence overall with the survey finding that people were three times more likely to experience violence by a man than by a woman. Nonetheless a 25% rate of female perpetration is not an insignificant proportion.  Men who were physically assaulted by a male perpetrator were more likely to have been assaulted at licensed premises (34%) or in the open (35%), however if the perpetrator was female then 77% of the physical assaults occurred in the home.

It is fashionable to minimize and conceal the plight of male victims behind statements such as the “vast majority” of violence is perpetrated by men, a curious view that would be seen as unethical if applied on the basis of other discriminators such as race or religion.  Unfortunately this preconception denies male victims and their children access to much needed services just as it denies female perpetrators access to suitable rehabilitation and most importantly denies mutually violent couples (the largest group) who wish to remain together access to couples therapy. This represents gender discrimination, not equality. Are not all victims equally deserving of compassion and care regardless of gender or other discriminators?

Perhaps the most malevolent misrepresentation however was the isolated use of this half-truth:

“in a survey of 5000 young Australians, 23% had witnessed physical domestic violence against their mothers.”

The Crime Prevention Survey (2001) [6] surveyed young people aged 12 to 20 and actually found that while 23% of young people were aware of domestic violence against their mothers or step-mothers by their fathers or step-fathers, an almost identical proportion (22%) of young people were aware of domestic violence against their fathers or step-fathers by their mothers or step-mothers.

Much more common and damaging than either male-to-female or female-to-male unilateral violence was mutual (or reciprocal) couple violence with the authors concluding “the most severe disruption on all available indicators occurred in households where couple violence was reported.”  The study also noted that an almost identical proportion of young females (16%) and young males (15%) answered, “yes” to the statement “I’ve experienced domestic violence.”

Indeed the rates of violence in teen and dating relationships are confronting. The Crime Prevention Survey (2001) also found that one in three females and males say they have experienced at least one type of physically violent behaviour from a girlfriend or boyfriend – this included children as young as 12.  The Secondary Students Survey of Sexual Health (2008)[7] reported that amongst young people who experienced sex when they did not want to, one third were male.

As a physician I certainly concur with your assertion that primary prevention is the ideal focus for reducing violence in our society and a huge part of this will as you note depend on education around respectful relationships and promoting gender equality. Yet I fear you and others who advocate only for action to prevent violence against women and their children do not understand that respect and gender equality are reciprocal ideals.

If you have studied some of the programs that purport to encourage respectful relationships in schools you will know that many are rooted in the same gendered paradigm acknowledging only male abusers and female victims.  I can assure you that shaming boys and young men as abusers and rapists in waiting and promoting the flow of respect in only one direction is the antithesis of true respect and equality.

Most even minded and reasonable individuals I contend would find the statistics about male victimisation equally as disturbing as the ones for women. But public figures such as yourself and campaigns with an exclusive focus on “violence against women and their children” seem intent on keeping the public ignorant of these particular “dirty little secrets.”

The willful denial of such evidence by the domestic violence sector, in my view, will continue to make the goal of lives free from violence unattainable for men, women and children. One thing is certain violence is an inter-generational relationship dysfunction of complex aetiology, requiring a complex inclusive response rather than ongoing blind adherence to a failed gendered paradigm.

Open up the discourse, embrace principles such as equality, tolerance and understanding from all perspectives and the ideal will certainly come closer to reality.

Yours faithfully,

Dr. Greg Canning

Advocate for Men and Boys


[2] Chan, A and Payne, J (2013). Homicide in Australia: 2008–09 to 2009-10 National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report. Canberra. Australian Institute of Criminology. mr/21/mr21.pdf

[3] Dearden, J., & Jones, W. (2008). Homicide in Australia: 2006-07 National Homicide Monitoring Program Annual Report. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

[4] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2006). Personal Safety Survey Australia: 2005 reissue 4906.0.

[5] Heilpern, D. (2005). Sexual assault of prisoners: Reflections. University of New South Wales Law Journal, 28(1), 286-292.

[6] National Crime Prevention (2001). Young people and domestic violence : National research on young people’s attitudes to and experiences of domestic violence. Barton: Attorney-General’s Dept.

[7] Smith A, Agius P, Mitchell A, Barrett C, Pitts M. 2009. Secondary Students and Sexual Health 2008, Monograph Series No. 70, Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University.

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