Trigger Warning: This article discusses domestic violence.
Meet Joe: late-twenties, average height, well built. He’s been going hard at the pub with his mates. He gets up, decides to leave, stumbling a little from the alcohol on the way out.
A time later, he picks an argument, unprovoked. He raises his voice, then his hands – his fist connects with the victim’s head.
You’d be forgiven for picturing Joe on the streets, the latest perpetrator in a spate of alcohol-fuelled king hit attacks. But Joe isn’t on the street; he’s just arrived home. The victim isn’t a stranger, it’s his wife.
The past few weeks have seen a huge amount of attention drawn to one-punch victims: killed whilst enjoying a night out, struck by boozed-up strangers, looking for a fight. In the latest incident, 18-year-old Daniel Christie was attacked in the Cross on New Year’s Eve, left comatose, his life support later switched off. Thomas Kelly was killed in almost exactly the same spot, in July 2012, the 6-year sentence recently handed down to the perpetrator was condemned for its leniency. Cumulatively, these homicides have sparked a huge amount of public outrage, a media storm, and a frenzied push for the government to crack down on alcohol-related violence. With Sydney’s major newspapers pushing the campaign, Barry O’Farrell responded on Wednesday by announcing a raft of new measures – CBD lockouts, restricted alcohol trading, mandatory minimums and increased sentences for perpetrators of one-punch assaults. The reaction has been mixed, but the response, incredibly swift.
Between 2000 and 2013, 90 lives were claimed by ‘one-punch’ assaults – a statistic touted time and time again in the media coverage. It’s an awful statistic, to be sure, but as a matter of perspective, consider this: one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. By the simplest of maths, women are dying from domestic violence at a rate more than 6 times that of one-punch victims on our streets. And that is to say nothing of the women who continue to live daily in abusive relationships. That is to say nothing of the thousands of women who each year suffer physical or sexual assault at the hands of a current or former partner.
Contrary to what government and media rhetoric might suggest, rates of alcohol related assaults and homicides have been steadily falling. Not so for domestic violence – whether perpetrators are boozed-up or stone cold sober, rates of domestic violence have remained disturbingly steady.
There is a marked gender dimension to all of this. Men are more likely to experience violence at the hands of a stranger than from someone known to them. Women are overwhelmingly more likely to face violence from someone they know. 240,000 Australian adult women are assaulted every year, nearly one-third of those women by a current or former partner. Where is the media coverage on that? Where is the outrage from the community, the hastily cobbled-together government response?
It’s easy to be outraged by violence when it occurs in plain sight, when it’s drunken louts in Kings Cross, boozed-up boys fighting whilst waiting for the Nightrider. It’s much harder to deal with violence that occurs in the home. It’s much harder to deal with violence when Joe is your friend, or your neighbour, and you can’t possibly imagine him bashing his wife. Though far better than even 20 years ago, the stigma around domestic violence continues to fester. Domestic violence is notoriously underreported – many victims choose not to file reports for feelings of shame or embarrassment, for fear of retaliation from their perpetrators, or in the strident belief that their suffering is too trivial, or the police will do nothing about it.
It’s all well and good for Barry O’Farrell to introduce his raft of reforms. But no amount of curfews or liquor licensing changes are going to help our friends and our daughters, who live in fear of abuse, anytime, day or night. We now talk of mandating 8-year minimums for ‘one-punch’ offenders, but just two years ago, our courts sentenced a man to just 6 years in jail after he slit wife’s throat with box-cutters. The provocation defence had reduced his murder charge to manslaughter. The perpetrator had a history of domestic abuse against the victim – her provocative conduct, apparently, was threatening to leave him.
Politicians and journalists alike were quick to jump on the terminology shift: king-hits, it seems, are now to be referred to as ‘coward-punches’. But perhaps our politicians are the cowards, for failing to advocate for victims of domestic violence, for failing to spur on the legal and institutional reform needed to achieve any kind of change. Perhaps our journalists are the cowards, for pushing the sensationalised story, for failing to cover the one violent epidemic that isn’t looking to ease.
Perhaps it is we, as a society, who are the cowards, to continue be complicit in the brutal and inexcusable violence that continues to occur in our homes. We mobilise easily for our sons, when they are killed on the streets. Let’s try mobilising for our daughters.
Disclaimer: this article primarily discusses domestic violence in terms of its occurrence in heterosexual relationships. However, the author acknowledges that violence also regularly occurs in same-sex, trans-, and intersex relationships, and does not wish to marginalise or discredit the experience of individuals in those relationships.