On what we talk about when we talk about “domestic violence”

Why do we, as feminists (collectively), and as anti-violence activists in general, typically ignore the largest group of victims when we talk about domestic violence?

The group that can’t get away under their own steam, no way, no how? The group that can’t defend itself effectively? The group that has no self-advocates who are listened to?

The group that it is not just tolerated, but outright legal to hit? The group that is told that hitting is their own damn fault, not only by the hitters but by bystanders and society? The group that is instructed that being hit is the only way they will ever learn? The group that is told that freedom from violence would make them into terrible people?

The group who are victims of family violence at rates upward of 80%, maybe even 90%, in this country? (Figures are hard to find.)

When we talk about the ways in which family violence is tolerated and ignored and excused, about power structures reinforcing our violent culture, about victim-blaming, about victims being disbelieved and dismissed – why are we quietly ignoring so many victims?

From now on, I’m committing to noticing this. Every time “domestic violence” or “family violence” is mentioned in the mainstream media, on blogs, in other places, I’m going to try to notice whether the writer has considered violence against children. And possibly point it out, here and there.

Note: No pro-violence or apologist comments will be tolerated here.

Categories: violence

22 replies

  1. /cheer
    So true.
    Hitting children teaches them that violence an acceptable way to resolve problems.
    No spanking, please!
    The Effects of the “No Spanking Law” on Child Abuse in Sweden

  2. In my previous work in a women’s shelter as a case worker and then as the children’s worker, children were considered ‘secondary victims’ of Family Violence. If they were directly being abused (physically, sexually, emotionally etc) that was regarded as Child Abuse and was therefore reportable to DHS Child Protection. I am not saying this is right or wrong, just commenting on how it was when I worked in the field (5 years ago).
    I definitely think children suffer a great deal in an environment of family violence and it does often (if not generally) get overlooked. Especially when the main form of abuse is verbal, emotional or financial. I know SO MANY perpetrators of those kinds of abuse who then turn around and say it isn’t affecting their kids or that their kids don’t hear it/see it which is of course, impossible. If they don’t see/hear the abuse directly, they definitely see/hear the results of it (ie Mum or whoever being bruised/crying or whatever). And this ‘secondary abuse’ that is inflicted upon the kids is just as damaging as what is being done to the primary victim and in some cases is MORE damaging because it is overlooked by society at large.

  3. THIS.
    Kinda reminds me of my thoughts last week when I spotted this in my feed reader.
    It’s just so wrong that kids who need to escape are institutionally denied agency to do so, because they’re treated as possessions of their adult relatives (or Arbitrary Guardian Figure as it may be). Is it any wonder that these kids grow in to adults who don’t necessarily realize that they’re allowed to get the heck out of a bad situation?

  4. Absolutely, this.
    The UK Government announced that it will be (on some unspecified timescale) closing a so-called “loophole” that allowed violence against children by people outside the family. Their speeches on the subject show that they really don’t view violence inside the home to be a problem at all.
    ”Banning physical punishment outside of the family home sends a straight forward message that it is entirely unacceptable in any form of care, education or leisure.” says the chief adviser on child safety, who presumably thinks that children at home get no education, care or leisure – I wonder what exactly, other than violence, he thinks children should be getting at home.

  5. Co-signed, Lauredhel. This is a powerful and necessary post; thank you for writing it.

  6. Just a thought: Maybe the reason that the effect on children isn’t talked about is because any effort to put the kids front and center would invariably end up with the abused women becoming invisible. (Not like the powers that be pay much attention to domestic violence anyway.)

  7. I once hear a psychologist on the radio say that “people abuse children because they can”. And he’s right. We need to see children as human beings with the same full rights to safety and bodily autonomy as adults for that to change.

  8. Here in Germany, (and in all other EU countries, I believe, except the UK) it is illegal to hit children. Not a bad idea and one that I have taught my children to understand. Adults can’t hit them, other children can’t hit them, and it is the job of schools, when children are in their care, to ensure that children are not hit by staff or fellow students.
    I hope that it makes a difference. I know that it has required me to think differently about the swat on the toosh concept (and I do mean swat, not hitting- but all violence against children is illegal). I wonder if the common perpetrators of violence—men— will grow up differently and less violently in a society where their rights as people, even if small and weak, are protected.

  9. A clarification: “Swatting” is hitting. “Spanking” is hitting. “Tapping” is hitting. “Smacking” is hitting.
    Politicalguineapig: I see no reason to ignore the less privileged victims of violence in favour of the more privileged, and find that a really quite terrifying justification.

  10. Just to clarify: when I said that it had made me reconsider my position on swatting, I meant exactly that. Although a swat is violence, it is another type of violence than using a belt and knocking a child down. It is a type that clearly was not, in my head or in my home culture, defined as such. I found it illuminating to see that from the outside.
    Was that not clear in my comment? Both are violence against children— as is screaming at a child, bullying the child (verbally), even using certain tones that are frightening. But do you see no difference between leaving welts and- your word- a tap on the toosh when a child has, perhaps, run into the street?
    Perhaps both cause equal trauma— although I do not think so— but I find it illuminating and useful to live in a culture where, by law, the two are the same and both illegal.
    I live in a community that comes from many parts of the world with different attitudes towards violence against children, women and even men: I prefer to live in this society where the legal decision has been made to overcome the cultures of incomers with a law that renders all such violence illegal, even where I may consider that law extreme. Perhaps the next generation won’t have such baggage to work against.

  11. Well, “swatting” would certainly be reportable, G, at least here in NSW. Mandatory reporting laws also require me to report domestic violence if there is a child involved. The DoCS website has some excellent sources on the long term impacts of domestic violence on children, and there are currently around 30 000 children in out-of-home care on any given night in Australia, and many of those children will have been removed due to domestic violence.
    Unfortunately, “friendly parent” provisions in the 2006 amendments to the Family Law Act have deterred a lot of women with children experiencing violence/abuse from reporting, for fear that they will be labelled “unfriendly” or not being seen to be nurturing a good relationship between the child and the perpetrator, who in most cases is male. Women often lose the primary care-giver role if they report men for violence/abuse.
    In family law and many human services discourses, it actually is the woman’s needs/experiences who are marginalised and invisibilised. Family law refers to “family violence” as if it’s something which just occurs, like a storm, or as if all members of the family are equally responsible for it. Many women are forced to allow contact between children and perpetrators, ensuring that the long shadow of domestic violence with all it’s emotional and psychological power, becomes even longer and darker – this is supposed to be in the interests of the child, unbelievably.
    Perhaps in the blogosphere there is neglect of child victims of male violence, but anyone who works in human services will be painfully aware of child welfare issues and discourses so I suppose it depends on your perspective. Usually not a week or even a day goes by when I am not either faced with or hearing about horrendous cases of violence against children. In the interests of self-care, and client confidentiality, I rarely talk about this to anyone other than colleagues, let alone blog about it.
    In mainstream media children tend to be treated like things, like possessions of the proper grown up people, not humans with human rights. This is a reflection societal hierarchies and of the way society sees children, generally. Non-violent parents also often see their children this way, so it’s a broader issue than just media/blogosphere. We could also reflect on the way children experience violence in that other great institution from which they legally have no escape til they’re seventeen – education. Incidentally, I have seen discussions about this in the femisphere but they tend to be in the more radical spheres.
    I think it’s also very dangerous to make any attempt to set up victims of violence to compete with each other, or to make assumptions about women’s capacity to “get away” from violent situations as opposed to children’s. What would be better is to focus on the structural causes of violence in the home and the structural, cultural and economic barriers to escaping it. We also need to focus more on the perpetrators, on men, who also tend to be conveniently invisibilised when we talk about these issues.

  12. I made a decision a while ago to never use any form of violence on my (future) children. I made this decision after working with children. There were times when they were trying my patience and I just want to hit them.
    This did not come from a place of love, or from a place of wanting to “correct” them or “discipline” them, despite excuses I might make for my behaviour. It was a place of anger and frustration, pure and simple. And if I’m hitting someone in anger and frustration, it’s abuse, no questions asked.
    So now I think, if ever I was to hit a child, it would be from a place of anger.
    And then I thought, but even if it’s not, I’m still hitting a human being, a human being smaller and more vulnerable than myself. That’s bullying plain and simple. It is abusive. And I can’t stand the thought that I might ever do that to someone I profess to love.
    .-= PharaohKatt´s last blog ..The Treatment of Women in the X-Men Films =-.

  13. @PharaohKatt – I have to admit that I have lost my temper and smacked my kids in the past. Definitely coming from a place of anger, and “I’m in charge and you must do what I say” etc etc. It doesn’t work as discipline, it makes you feel like crap and solves nothing. Nowdays I prefer to put them in their rooms and let them play if they want to because it gives me time to calm down. Then within a few minutes they are either saying “I’m sorry, can I come out?” or they have forgotten all about it and are happily playing in their rooms. They still have to apologise, or clean up the mess they made or whatever but it is done without violence and actually works.

  14. I find the focus on what kind of violence counts as violence tends to derail discussions of child abuse. The fact is, it’s not the physical pain that makes the abuse – children get worse pain than a spank gives from falling down in the schoolyard – it’s not the pain, it’s the knowledge that somebody you love wants to hurt you, that you have no control over your body, that there is no course of action you can take to avoid punishment that does not involve turning into a robot.
    Emotional abuse creates and underpins physical abuse, and the focus on “what counts as hitting” and similar topics just tends to erase that. A tiny slap that doesn’t leave a bruise, delivered in anger, is more hurtful than a dozen strokes applied calmly as a consistent, expected and non-arbitrary punishment. (I am not saying that the latter is necessarily okay, either – I generally think non-corporal punishment is the better kind – I am just saying I would place that lower on the abuse scale despite more pain being inflicted.)
    Similarly, there’s a lot of purely emotional abuse that outweighs a spanking by a ton. I’m not saying physical abuse is not something we should be on the lookout for and campaign against, but I think treating it as a symptom of emotional abuse, rather than a separate or greater phenomenon, would be much more true to life and philosophically consistent.

  15. Hitting kids makes their behaviour worse – Tulane University research
    We have the “sitting chair” in our house. Any chair, placed in the middle of the room, where the child(ren) who has been obnoxious is sent to sit for a few minutes – usually just a couple. The clock starts again if the child talks, gets up, whatever. It’s very calming for everyone, including the parents. It’s also a social punishment – no one is isolated from the rest of the family, or made to feel like a pariah.
    The girls have been known to subvert the process, with “coughs”. Which makes us laugh… and defuses the situation some more.

  16. The defensiveness is palpable. Mine I mean. I started writing a completely different comment, but it’s funny how someone pointing out that kids are victims of domestic violence too, immediately results in people (like me) defining abuse, and trying to make sure what they (I) do is not inside it.
    I don’t believe that my occasional abusive outbursts create an abusive environment, but it’s amazing how much I feel the need to see other people agreeing that my bad behaviour, while ineffective and wrong, is understandable and balanced by my parenting when I haven’t dropped my bundle. Perhaps my guilt-free parenting has a weak spot.
    But, back to the topic at hand, I’d not noticed this phenomenon. My only personal experience with domestic violence has been from the point of view of the kids, so I think I just read the kids’ position into reports, when in reality it isn’t there. Another post to change the way I read stuff.

    • @Ariane

      I don’t believe that my occasional abusive outbursts create an abusive environment, but it’s amazing how much I feel the need to see other people agreeing that my bad behaviour, while ineffective and wrong, is understandable and balanced by my parenting when I haven’t dropped my bundle.

      Oh, me too. I do have moments where I lose my shit and be ineffective and wrong, partly because its the example of parenting I myself had (more from one than the other) and overcoming those childhood scripts is *hard*. I don’t lose my shit anywhere near as often as it was lost towards me, and that’s an improvement I’m proud of, but it’s far from ideal.
      I’m sure that the teenage years I’m going through now with my kids would be less fraught (and compared to many people’s experience they’re not too bad at all) if I’d controlled myself better on too many occasions when the kids were younger.

  17. The dismissive attitude of Children’s rights is long long overdue being addressed. Violence against children enrages me more than I can say. Probably because I’ve seen at close quarters the damage it does.
    It is terrifying to observe the deeply ingrained believe that inflicting violence on a child by a large adult is proof of parental responsibility. What many adults find acceptable for children would not be tolerated for one moment for adults.
    Whenever this comes up the ‘but, giving a 3 year old a smack to stop it from running in front of the bus saving the child from a horrible death is surely a caring and loving act?’ This makes me see red.
    Punishing a child with violence to assuage the adult’s guilt, because the responsible adult was not paying attention to the 3 year old in a dangerous environment is justified? This is effectively blaming a child for something the child cannot take responsibility for as yet. Instinctively a child knows this and feels enormous resentment at this blatant abrogation of acknowledging responsibility. It teaches resentment, not respect. Not for the self or others.
    Or hitting and screaming is used to exert power, which is mistaken for establishing personal authority. Nothing as pathetic as an adult having a tantrum, because a little person is not letting her have her way.
    I’m 52. Hitting was not in my parent’s culture. It’s not in mine. And guess what, my three young adult children are considerate people engaged with the world around them.
    Violence in any form whatsoever is not a parenting tool. It does not teach any value that is becoming to a human being. it teaches that violence by a bigger, more powerful person is justifiable.
    By the way, one of my children came to me as a disturbed, violent 4 year old. It was very, very difficult at times. Especially as I had a 4 year old cosseted and adored son already who had this little person come into his previously safe and calm home. Both boys taught me everything I know about parenting and myself as a person. It was a challenging and above all humbling experience.
    A child is but a young human being. No less deserving of courtesy and respect as any adult is. Arguably more so, because children watch us and learn.

  18. I think I’ve recycled the weekend magazine from the SMH that had the article about smacking in it. There were three interviews – one couple who never smacked and did not use any form of physical punishment; one couple who did previously but have since stopped because they didn’t think it was effective and didn’t like how it made them feel as parents and the effect on their child; and one couple who believed that we are born inherently sinful and that we need to ‘learn’ to be good. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you which parents identified as Christian. I was pleased to see a week later someone had written in to say that as a Christian they found that practice appalling. You don’t have to be religious to smack a child, but to use it as an excuse for harsh discipline makes me very angry indeed. Especially since the child involved was 4. On reflection it doesn’t matter what age the child is, it’s not on.

  19. Regarding getting things wrong: my younger brother (four kids – two teenage, two pre-school, one stepchild, three birth children, two boys, two girls, three live with him, one doesn’t – so he has a fair mix of parenting experiences) commented a year or two back that as a parent, he knows that from his own perspective, and from his kids’ perspectives, he will get some things wrong, and he’s not always sure which things they are. I found that a very useful piece of parenting advice.


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