Domestic violence: identifying causes and solutions

These posts were part of my attempt to debate with the Socialist Alliance (Australia) over the economistic, conservative approach to domestic violence that its newspaper Green Left Weekly was taking.  GLW would not print these either as articles or ‘letters to the editor’, even though the paper proclaimed itself as an open forum for radicals to debate the way forwards. So they were printed in the letters columns of my party’s paper, Direct Action.

GLW & domestic violence

The editorial in Green Left Weekly #777, “End the domestic violence epidemic”, wrongly claimed that the “underlying causes of domestic violence” are “poverty, disadvantage, unemployment and women’s lack of financial independence”. This common liberal analysis is wrong because it overlooks the existence of women’s oppression, many facets of which, in combination, make women most likely to experience domestic violence, and make men most likely to be the perpetrators.

The profit-enhancing roles played by women’s on-average lower pay, drudgery within the family unit, and whole industries based on the provision and marketing of sexist products and services, make women’s oppression crucial for capitalism. So the role played by the family unit, other capitalist institutions and corporate media in reproducing and maintaining social hierarchies and divisions and conservative, sexist attitudes — enabling the ruling class to maintain this status quo — is very relevant to the question of domestic violence, although not a complete explanation of it.

But the editorial’s only explanation for why men are not equally likely to be victims of domestic violence is that men are less financially dependent! Right — so domestic violence is a problem only of the poorest and most alienated sections of society — outside of which no women get attacked — and women who are financially dependent catalyse domestic violence!

This is a backward analysis which overlooks the existence of cross-class women’s oppression. Of course poverty, disadvantage and alienation aggravate the incidence of sexist violence, but alone they don’t explain it. Nor does the explanation of “women’s lack of financial independence”, which certainly makes it harder for women to escape violent situations, but is by no means a cause of them (in fact, it can be an effect).

The article’s conclusion contributes only confusion to the cause of women’s liberation: “It’s not only men who have to change: the empowerment of women is essential for creating long-term change. Rather than constantly being treated as victims, women need to organise to take their fate into their own hands.”

Given the claimed “underlying causes” of DV, this would suggest to many that women should “stop being victims” and organise to become individually wealthier. Should men also organise to help them in this? And are there any systemic causes mentioned of women’s financial situation being on average worse than men’s? Apparently, no.

Nor does the editorial at any stage suggest that the vital gains in anti-violence services for women were largely the result of sustained struggle for women’s rights, rather than a service offered by a benevolent state that has just lately become uncaring. Unsurprisingly, the editorial is also unable to explain why the capitalist ALP and Coalition governments have consistently underfunded these services.

GLW’s apparent “long-term solution” of removing women from domestic violence situations through advocating that they “empower” themselves financially is a travesty of a radical approach. I encourage all readers of GLW to adopt instead the Revolutionary Socialist Party’s approach of trying to build a strong, campaigning grass-roots feminist movement of both sexes that aims to end women’s oppression.

Virginia Brown

First published in Direct Action Issue 8: February 2009

Domestic violence

Earlier this year I criticised the decreasingly radical Green Left Weekly for echoing the conservatives’ claims about the “underlying causes of domestic violence” (see Letters, DA #8). It seems from GLW’s latest article on domestic violence (“Poverty, domestic violence: Women bearing brunt of economic crisis”, GLW #815) that it still believes that “the social basis of violence against women” is “unemployment, insecurity, poverty, disadvantage and women’s financial dependence on male partners”, and/or women having a male partner who has himself experienced recent employment problems.

The GLW #777 editorial I had earlier criticised overlooked the existence of women’s oppression and, particularly, the role played by the family unit, other capitalist institutions and corporate media in encouraging sexist attitudes and hence misogynist violence. GLW’s latest article on domestic violence (DV) continues in a similar vein. While the article mentions “sexist social attitudes” in its last sentence, it at no stage attributes these as a direct cause of DV. And women’s socially-prescribed role as unpaid caregivers is, for GLW, merely significant in that it impedes women’s financial independence.

The article’s author, Resistance national coordinator Jess Moore, lists some very serious statistics on DV. She comments that recent US studies have shown “a strong link between financial stress and domestic violence” and that “women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years were three times more likely to be abused”. This is important information, and it helps feminists demonstrate the urgency of a major increase in funding of programs dealing with many aspects of DV.

But the statistics don’t prove what Moore claims they do. Of course, “poverty” and “disadvantage” aggravate the incidence of DV, but they don’t explain why most of its victims are women and children. Let’s face it, if poverty and disadvantage caused DV, then the majority of perpetrators would be women. But they are not.

We need to be clear about the difference between actual causes and aggravating factors. What GLW does not recognise is that the largely sexist nature of DV is a result of cross-class women’s oppression. While “women’s lack of financial independence” certainly makes it harder for some women to escape violent situations, that does not make it a cause of these situations. It can in fact be an effect, as abusive men often attempt to deter their spouses from leaving by manipulating them into limiting their social and employment activity, causing social isolation and loss of independence.

Another tactic is creating the fear that children and pets will be harmed or kept from DV survivors if they leave. Leaving is not always a completely-effective solution — Australian Social Trends, 2007 noted that in 2005, 25% of women separated from a partner who had been physically abusive towards them “reported that they had experienced violence from their partner during the temporary separation”. It’s also quite obvious that leaving one’s home can itself be a cause of financial problems.

Capitalism (not simply “poverty”) tries to deny solidarity among working people as a solution to our problems (as that denial helps keep the capitalists in power). This lack of solidarity, promoted through sexism, racism, nationalism, homophobia, the competitive pitting of individual against individual, etc., is a major cause of violence, rather than “poverty” and “unemployment” per se. Although Moore advocates “collective opposition to attacks on women’s rights” as the solution, her confusion about this aspect of women’s oppression leaves her implicit conclusion as advocating that all society should work together to improve women’s finances. Not only is this a misunderstanding of the causes of DV, it misses the point that not all of society has an interest in doing that. The capitalists’ basic interest is in maximising their profits, not human rights (which is why capitalist governments support capitalists, not women’s services, whenever they can).

Women will always be oppressed and have inferior conditions of employment under capitalism, just as capitalism will always reinforce misogyny. This does not mean that the fight for women’s rights can be delayed until the overthrow of capitalism. Through this fight, feminists and our allies increase our collective political understanding and strength. And understanding the problem through the right lens is vital. Liberal ideology leaves people recognising the links between problems (say, sexism, poverty and violence), without understanding the causal relationship between them. By contrast, Marxism (scientific socialism) gives us the ability to correctly identify causes, effects and the social forces with the potential for radical progressive change, empowering us with a fighting framework.

Virginia Brown

First published in Direct Action Issue 17: November 2009

Copyright © Virginia Brown November 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article  URL: is included.