The hierarchies in NZ’s domestic violence problem

Opinion: Debbie Hager examines the role of power and male hierarchies within New Zealand's domestic violence problem which is the worst of countries in the OECD.

The image shows a man in a No to Violence t-shirt by the White Ribbon organisation: One in three New Zealand women has experienced physical, sexual or coercive violence from an intimate partner in her lifetime. Photo: Lynn Grieveson, Newsroom
One in three New Zealand women has experienced physical, sexual or coercive violence from an intimate partner in her lifetime. Photo: Lynn Grieveson, Newsroom

New Zealand has the highest rate of intimate partner violence against women in the OECD. One in three women here has experienced physical, sexual or coercive violence from an intimate partner in her lifetime; the rates are higher for Māori women, New Zealand born non-white women and migrant women.

Of course, there are examples of changes in our attitudes to power and discrimination. Our New Zealand Prime Minister is a woman whose husband is raising their child is a perfect example. But individual anomalies are just that – for many people, very little has changed.

We understand increasingly that intimate partner and family violence is about hierarchies of power and the misuse of this power. It is about patriarchy, sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, racism, ableism, religious intolerance, classism. It is why disabled men are significantly more likely to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused than able bodied men in domestic situations – and disabled women even more so. In many studies more than 90 percent of intellectually disabled women disclose sexual abuse.

This year’s White Ribbon Campaign focuses on the negative outdated socialising messages given to men and boys that encourage and enable this violence, and on the attitudes that enable young men to think violence is okay. Where do these attitudes come from and what are the underlying reasons for the violence?

Violence in some domestic situations isn’t always obvious. Newly introduced into legislation is the concept of coercive control – a range of behaviours (not necessarily physical) that one person uses to have power and control over another. A person who is abusive in a relationship is not necessarily violent and controlling in any other aspect of their life – they are making a choice about who to abuse and control. Mostly this choice is about social norms of who is (or perceived to be) dominant and important, and who isn’t.

To understand what this means we need to look at who is primarily harmed by family violence. Those who are harmed are women, children, older men and women and disabled men and women. Some people in same sex relationships use the same tactics to abuse and control their partners. There are men who are harmed, and women who abuse, but primarily it is men’s violence against women and other men. If you look at this list of who is harmed, what you see is decreasing levels of power and increasing levels of powerlessness.

This brings us back to the hierarchies of power and, underpinning this, hegemony, particularly hegemonic masculinity. Hegemony is the dominant, invisible, taken-for-granted world view; the unquestioned, powerful group. The dominant hegemonic attributes in New Zealand are white, English-speaking, able-bodied, hetrosexual, nominally Christian, wealthy or middle class, independent, strong, powerful men. This group is accorded the highest power in society – they are the respected voices and hold the respected positions, attitudes and attainments to be aspired to. These are all also the attributes of hegemonic masculinities – and it is hegemonic masculinity that creates the attitudes that the White Ribbon Day campaign is trying to address.

Those who study hegemonic masculinities say there are four tiers in this hierarchy. There are those on the top of the pyramid who have many of the attributes referred to above. The rewards for achieving this position are honour, prestige, recognition, respect, acceptance and heroic status. These men may misuse power to control others (all others) because they can – and because being seen as powerful and controlling cements their positions at the top of the hierarchy.

There are many men who may never achieve the peak positions – but who aspire to them and who are complicit in the hegemonic project – they engage in behaviours that are designed to move them up the hierarchy and to gain the rewards of honour etc. These men may use power to control and harm others – other men, women, children – to prove themselves worthy of acceptance and respect.

Then there are marginalised men – those who are seen as lesser – because they lack the power and prestige of the hegemonic position. These men may feel powerless as they lack access to the power and rewards of the hierarchy. They may misuse power to control others and to make themselves feel more powerful – harming those they perceive to have less power – women, children, disabled people, gay men.

Finally, there are subordinated men – men perceived to have traits normally associated with women – so, for example, some elderly frail men, disabled men, gay and transgender men and men who may be rendered powerless because of detention or illness. These are men who can be harmed.

Note that nowhere in this list are women; women are not part of the hegemonic project. They are not part of this hierarchy. Yet women see this behaviour modelled as the way to gain power and so will use the same or similar behaviours against those they have power over.

A few years ago, I was talking to men who worked with abusers about why they didn’t talk to these men about power and control in the stopping violence courses they were running. One person told me it was because men didn’t like talking about it. Another told me that men don’t abuse because they feel powerful, it’s because they feel powerless. The question I didn’t know to ask was who men feel powerless against. I don’t think it’s women.

It's useful that as a country we are starting to talk about attitudes that cause violence against women and children. However, I don’t think we are going to change our family violence statistics until we begin a very difficult conversation about power and how we think about it, model it and use it in New Zealand.

Dr Debbie Hager is from the Department of Social and Community Health in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom The hierarchies in NZ’s domestic violence problem 7 December 2020.

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