Entitled to Power: See What You Made Me Do

24 November 2020

Domestic abuse and COVID-19

Content warning: domestic violence, sexism, racism.

Turn on your phone, open Facebook and scroll through your feed. If it’s anything like mine, it should be awash with COVID-19 statistics, the US election, and friends asking how 2020 could get any worse. Switch over to The Age and it’s the same.

One issue that hardly seems to make the headlines – and not just during a pandemic – is domestic violence. Domestic violence – also referred to as DV – is endemic to society: one woman dies every nine days in Australia as a direct result. This statistic pops up whenever the media gets its hands on the most gruesome cases, but realistically, it’s always there under the surface. Australia is always adding notches to the tally of women murdered by a relation or intimate partner. 1 in 16 men have experienced domestic violence at the hands of a past or current intimate partner. Statistics don’t even exist for the experiences of non-binary and trans people.

Surely then, given the widespread nature of the issue, we must be approaching some definitive reason as to why DV occurs on a daily basis? Unfortunately, the hurdle researchers and survivors face when attempting to understand DV is that there is no single reason why domestic violence perpetrators act as they do, other than the vague declaration that they feel ‘entitled to power.’ This hardly seems good enough. One researcher who has spent years uncovering core beliefs found in perpetrators is the Australian investigative journalist Jess Hill. In her 2019 book, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, Hill dedicates 400 pages to investigating the origins, nuances and commonalities of domestic abuse in Australia.

DV is endemic across all demographics: 2.2 million Australians have experienced domestic abuse throughout their lifetimes. Hill dissects this group into various (not necessarily mutually exclusive) categories: middle class, working class, tertiary educated, children, immigrants, queer, straight and non-white Australians, to name a few. She interviews experts and survivors with a level of tact that seems almost unprecedented when it comes to researcher-survivor relations.

Throughout her investigations, Hill muses upon why certain people commit violent acts against certain groups. For example, when delving into domestic abuse perpetrated by Indigenous Australian men against Indigenous Australian women, she surmises that DV in non-white communities may be a conglomeration of two systemic attitudes: that women are worth less than men, and people of colour are worth less than white people. When all men are taught that they are entitled to power, but non-white men have it taken from them due to their race, some may feel the need to reaffirm their power elsewhere: at home, using their spouses and children to prove to themselves that they can still exercise complete control.

Hill then switches effortlessly into investigating ‘why women use violence’. This chapter opens with a middle-aged woman being tried for emotional abuse and threatening violence against her father, who is also her caregiver. The commonality of the father’s situation strikes quickly; Hill tells us that almost a quarter of 2016’s protection orders issued by Queensland’s Southport Court – the specialist DV court – were against women. Hill admits that most female-perpetrated violence relies upon anecdotal reports due to credible research on them: she inquires whether ‘women’s violence is minimised […] because it doesn’t fit the gender inequality narrative’. Hill reminds us, however, that none of these separate groups stand alone. For example, occasionally, female violence comes as a result of male violence; Dad beats Mum, who ‘protects’ the children from his discipline by over-disciplining them herself.

This becomes a category within itself; Chapter 6, titled ‘Children’, explores the abuse of minors by their nuclear relations. The statistics here are mind-boggling; in South Australia, one in four children are reported to child protection by the time they are 10 years old. Unsurprisingly, there is no system in Australia that’s equipped to deal with this crisis. Hill describes children of DV as ‘master tacticians’ who know how to both physically and psychologically protect themselves, finding hiding spots in their homes and teaching themselves to dissociate. Here, Hill raises one of the most important questions of the whole book; ‘instead of assuming we know what’s best for young people, why don’t we ask them, “Do you want to tell your story?”’

But why are we talking about this now?

While I truly understand if the ever-present scourge of domestic violence has collectively slipped our minds right now, it’s time to refocus because Hill’s research is more relevant than ever. Her discussions make it incredibly clear that COVID-19 restrictions – and the systemic racism that is fuelling BLM – are directly linked to both domestic abuse and its current increase.

DV is even more important now because of the current social climate. State-sanctioned restrictions have locked people in with their abusers, or exacerbated already stressful conditions, turning anxious or tightly wound people into emotionally or physically violent ones. In a recent study by Monash University, 60% of the 166 family violence victim support practitioners surveyed reported that current restrictions had caused a marked increase in domestic abuse. The number of first-time domestic abuse reports had also increased for almost half the practitioners surveyed. Will this period, therefore, produce a longer list of women’s lives lost at the hands of current or former partners? Will it raise the proportion of men who experience domestic violence? Hill’s research spreads out the evidence for you, and not only allows but demands that you reach your own conclusions.

I don’t just recommend you give See What You Made Me Do a read, but I implore you. It’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand the epidemic of domestic violence that chokes this nation, as well as the next logical step in the #MeToo movement. Hill’s book is not an easy read, but is full of highlights; her sophisticated chapter set-up is just as satisfying as her wide-spanning discussion about areas of the issue that even an expert would be surprised to see. There is more knowledge held in this book than anyone could have anticipated. Please read it. You will be the richer for it.


If you’re interested in having a look at some more resources, check out these links below. They’re all free to access:

Australian Institute of Family Studies on child abuse and neglect statistics: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/child-abuse-and-neglect-statistics

Australian Institute of Family Studies on immigrant and refugee intimate partner violence: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/events/intimate-partner-violence-australian-refugee-and-immigrant-communities-culturally-safe

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on domestic violence: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/behaviours-risk-factors/domestic-violence/overview

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare general sources on domestic violence: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports-data/behaviours-risk-factors/domestic-violence/reports

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on violence (incl. domestic) against Indigenous communities: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/indigenous-community-safety

Spike in domestic abuse reports during COVID-19 lockdown (The Age): https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/new-reports-of-family-violence-spike-in-covid-19-lockdown-study-finds-20200607-p55096.html

Transgender murders in Australia (ABC News): https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-20/today-is-transgender-remembrance-day-australia-acknowledge/11718366

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