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Secrets and Lies: Responding to attacks on domestic violence campaigns

Dr Michael Flood

Contemporary campaigns and programs addressing men’s violence against women are under sustained attack. They are subject to repeated, hostile criticism by anti-feminist men and men’s networks. Any organisation which publicly addresses violence against women finds itself under a barrage of e-mails and letters, while any forum which sympathetically addresses the issue is swamped by hostile responses.

The main argument offered by anti-feminist opponents of domestic violence efforts is that domestic violence is in fact gender-equal, and campaigns and programs should address women’s violence against men (and children) to the same extent as they address men’s violence against women (and children). More broadly, anti-feminist men’s and fathers’ rights campaigners claim that men are being vilified and discriminated against by a self-serving and man-hating domestic violence ‘industry’.

The last year has been no exception. VicHealth received hostile mail in response to its release of four reports on community attitudes towards violence against women. The blog for the White Ribbon Campaign was swamped by criticisms of its focus on violence by men. And a document titled “Dishonesty in the Domestic Violence Industry” was circulated by Micheal Woods, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney (1).

While I respond here to Woods’ article in particular, in doing so I also address claims which are the standard fare of anti-feminist men’s attacks on domestic violence efforts. Several claims are typical. Domestic violence efforts are said to use excessively broad definitions of violence and to inflate the evidence of violence against women. They are said to assume that only men can be violent and only women can be victims. They are said to focus too much on gendered causes of domestic violence and not enough on other factors such as poverty, ethnicity, and alcoholism.

The White Ribbon Campaign
Woods’ document is prompted in particular by the White Ribbon Campaign (2). He makes a series of comments on and criticisms of the campaign, other domestic violence campaigns, and the statistics on which they draw. While I reject the criticisms Woods offers of the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC), I should acknowledge that there are other criticisms to which I am more sympathetic. Woods begins by mistakenly describing the White Ribbon Campaign as “[t]he major national campaign sponsored by the Federal government”. He may be confusing the White Ribbon Campaign with the advertising campaign, “Violence Against Women: Australia Says No”, currently being sponsored by the Federal government.

The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) in Australia is organised by a National Leadership Group comprising men and women from a variety of organisations, businesses, and workplaces. The organisation UNIFEM began the WRC in 2003, and the WRC is self-funding and run almost entirely by volunteers. The only government funding received was a one-off grant of $50,000 in 2004 to develop the Resource Kit and establish the National Leadership Group. (The WRC also was run by a network of Men Against Sexual Assault groups in the early 1990s, and in 2001-02 the Office For Women ran small campaigns.)

Defining and measuring violence against women
One of the standard criticisms offered by anti-feminist advocates is that domestic violence campaigns use inflated and abnormal definitions of violence. One target of such criticism is the recent International Violence Against Women Survey. The Australian component of this survey was released in 2004 by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Micheal Woods criticises the statistics from this survey used in the materials for the White Ribbon Campaign. He claims that the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) “includes as violence anything that can leave a woman feeling ‘put down’”. This is based on a misrepresentation of the IVAWS’s treatment of psychological forms of violence. The IVAWS does define violence in terms of three forms: physical, sexual, and psychological. Physical violence includes both physical assaults (being hit, pushed, kicked, and so on) and physical attempts or threats. Sexual violence includes “any form of non-consensual or forced sexual activity or touching including rape”. Psychological violence includes “insults, humiliation, put-downs, restrictions of freedom and constant surveillance”, many of which are also known as ‘controlling behaviours’ (Mouzos and Makkai 2004: 10-11; 22-25).

However, the IVAWS does not include psychological violence in its calculations of the prevalence of men’s violence against women. For example, in stating that 57 per cent of all women have experienced violence at some point in their lives, the report makes clear that this refers to physical or sexual violence, but not psychological violence. The same goes for the survey’s prevalence figures regarding violence against women during the last 12 months and last five years. At the same time, Mouzos and Makkai (2004) note for example that women who experienced controlling behaviours from a current intimate partner were also more likely to have experienced physical or sexual violence at his hands (Mouzos and Makkai 2004: 48-49) (3).

Woods also criticises the use of lifetime estimates of violence in White Ribbon Campaign materials, claiming that such measures are rare and inappropriate. He is mistaken. In the field of interpersonal violence, lifetime estimates of violence are a standard inclusion in survey data. This is in part because experiences of sexual assault or child abuse for example can do lifelong harm. They can have long-lasting effects on people’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. Thus, we do not want to know only how many people were assaulted or abused in the past 12 months, but how many have ever been assaulted or abused. Of course, it is imperative that we know both. The surveys on which the White Ribbon Campaign has drawn, both the IVAWS and the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey, cover both. More generally, lifetime estimates of a particular disease or condition are a standard element in epidemiology and other academic disciplines.

‘Normal’ definitions
Woods comments that anti-violence efforts such as the White Ribbon Campaign, in reporting on the extent of violence against women, give an inflated sense of its prevalence or seriousness. He claims they do so because ‘normal’ understandings of violence refer to severe harm, unlike the broader definitions used in the IVAWS and elsewhere, and anti-violence efforts do not acknowledge their wider definitions. I have five points in response. First, Woods is right on one thing: ‘normal’ community understandings of ‘violence’ or ‘domestic violence’ rely on narrow definitions centered on severe physical aggression and harm. Second, anti-violence efforts routinely acknowledge, and indeed work hard to encourage, broader definitions of violence. Third, such definitions are standard and credible elements in international scholarship. Fourth, relying on ‘normal’ definitions would be highly problematic in assessing the extent of violence against women (or men). Fifth, yes, anti-violence advocates must use methodologically sound and transparent definitions of violence.

While it is not clear what Woods means by “normal”, perhaps it refers to commonsense and everyday definitions held by lay members of the population. Certainly it is true that community definitions of violence are narrower than the understandings enshrined in the law, used by scholars, and advocated by service providers. Community definitions are shaped by social stereotypes, myths, and gender norms. Looking at rape for example, the stereotype is that rape takes place in dark alleys and parks, is committed by strangers and psychopaths, using weapons, and involves injuries. The reality of sexual assault is that most sexual offences take place in the home of the victim or the assailant. Most are by people known to the victim. Women are most at risk of violence from men they know: from partners and ex-partners, male family members, and friends and acquaintances. Also, weapons are rarely used, and force is often psychological rather than physical.

However, Woods is wrong to suggest that anti-violence advocates do not acknowledge their ‘unusual’ – broader and more inclusive – definitions of violence. In fact, most advocates have as an important goal the propagation of such definitions. For example, information regarding the different forms of domestic violence is a standard inclusion in educational materials. Yes, social marketing materials such as leaflets or television advertisements may not spell out in detail the definitions on which given statistics are based. This is not practicable. Nor would it be desirable to construct statistics only for those incidents or acts which do fit community perceptions, as this would simply cement narrow understandings of what counts and doesn’t count as violence and would underreport the extent of violence in our communities.

The definitions of violence used in the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS) are standard in international scholarship in this field, and the IVAWS is part of an international effort involving two United Nations criminal justice agencies.

While Woods’ document implies that it would be more appropriate for surveys to rely on ‘normally understood’ definitions of violence in assessing its prevalence, doing so would be deeply problematic. Given the narrower definitions of violence held by many in the community, we would fail to count as ‘violence’ the experiences for example of women raped by men known to them, women who did not suffer physical injuries, and women raped by men without weapons.

Woods’ criticism is similar to that made by some American anti-feminist advocates of the survey work by Koss and colleagues on college campuses. Koss et al. (1987) included in their estimations of the prevalence of rape those women whose experiences met the legal definition of rape, whether or not those women themselves defined their experience as ‘rape’. The point is, such women were raped, whether or not they use this term themselves. When a woman is forced or pressured into sex by a male partner or ex-partner, she may not identify this as ‘rape’ because it does not meet narrow community definitions of rape, although it meets legal definitions of sexual assault. And, if narrow, ‘normal’ community definitions were used to assess the extent of sexual assault, they would fail to include this woman’s experience and that of many other women (and men).

There are good reasons for including these different forms of abusive and harmful behaviour in assessments of violence. Above all, these various behaviours do harm, physical, emotional and/or psychological, to the victim. Naming them as violence is accurate. And it also communicates to the community that such behaviours are both harmful and unacceptable.

An analogy with alcoholism makes the issue clear. Research-based publications on alcoholism use wider definitions than the lay definitions of alcoholism used by members of the community at large. Many individuals whose drinking behaviour meets official definitions of alcoholism do not recognise themselves as alcoholic. Yet these publications continue to use their official definitions – because lay definitions can be overly narrow while their official definitions correctly identify dangerous levels of drinking.

Anti-violence advocates certainly do have a responsibility to ensure that our definitions of violence and claims regarding its prevalence are transparent. The Personal Safety Survey, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in October 2006, provides a useful object lesson in this. It tells us that in the last year, 73,800 adult women experienced at least one incident of physical assault by a current or previous male partner (ABS 2005: 30). Certainly every woman here is the victim of physical violence by an intimate partner or ex-partner. However, to the extent that we use the term ‘domestic violence’ to refer to women’s experience of chronic abuse and subjection by a partner or ex-partner to strategies of power and control, we cannot claim that every woman here is a ‘victim of domestic violence’. Some, perhaps many, of these 73,800 women have lived in fear of violent, controlling male perpetrators. But for others, the physical aggression they experienced was isolated, did not escalate, did not involve injuries, was not accompanied by other strategies of control and abuse, or even was reciprocal.

Certainly there is an important debate to be had regarding what we define as ‘violence’. Feminist work on violence against women has made an enormously valuable contribution in documenting that men’s physical and sexual violence towards women frequently is accompanied by other forms of abusive and oppressive behaviour. However, for myself, I prefer to reserve the term ‘violence’ for physical forms of aggression or coercion (hitting, pushing, stabbing, throwing objects, forcing one’s body onto or into another’s, and so on), while I am reluctant to use the term for non-physical acts such as verbal abuse, tactics of social control, or even the threat of violence itself. We can name the harms of other controlling or abusive behaviours, without having to use the term ‘violence’ to do so.

Violence by women and against children
Woods criticises the IVAWS for failing to address violence by women. This is informed by the broader concern that domestic violence efforts focus only on violence by men and neglect violence by women. However, the White Ribbon Campaign is typical of domestic violence efforts in recognising that women suffer violence from both men and other women, and that men suffer violence, from other men and from women. Feminist scholarship has long recognised that women can be and are violent. This began with feminist scholarship on and service responses to domestic violence in lesbian relationships, and it has been extended in feminist work on women’s abuse of children, the sexual assault of males, and women’s perpetration of violence against intimate male partners. It is simply false for anyone to claim that feminist or women’s efforts regarding domestic violence assume that only men can be violent and only women can be victims. To give a simple example from academia, the feminist journal Violence Against Women has had three special issues on women’s use of violence. To give a community example, feminist and women’s organisations have been pioneers of services for male survivors of sexual assault.

Like many other forms of men’s anti-violence activism, the White Ribbon Campaign focuses on the positive role that men can play in helping to stop men’s violence against women. The WR recognises that women are most at risk of violence from men. But unlike some previous anti-violence campaigns, it does not address men only as perpetrators of the problem. Instead, it addresses men as part of the solution.

The WRC is concerned with men’s roles in preventing violence against women. Because of this, and because of the fact that women are most at risk of violence from men, the WRC focuses on the positive steps that men can take to help stop men’s violence against women. For these reasons, the WRC does not include materials for example on how men can prevent women’s perpetration of violence, or on how women can stop their own perpetration of violence.

Woods’ article notes that a substantial proportion of violence against children is perpetrated by women. Woods claims that domestic violence campaigns in general refer to ‘violence against women and children’. The White Ribbon Campaign does include mention of violence against girls, given that girls and young women face particularly high risks of physical and sexual assault. On the card which accompanies each ribbon there is a pledge which states that the wearer “will not commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and children”.

Supporters of the White Ribbon Campaign agree that violence against children is perpetrated by both men and women, although we do not necessarily agree that they are equally likely to do so. Woods cites a 2003 conference paper stating that women are “the perpetrators of physical assaults of children in up to 50 per cent of cases”. However, the 2006 Personal Safety Survey, described by Woods as “the ‘gold standard’ of research on interpersonal violence in Australia”, does not support this claim of gender symmetry in assaults on children. Of people who experienced physical abuse before the age of 15, 55.6 per cent were abused by a father or step-father and 25.9 per cent by a mother or step-mother. For people who experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15, fathers, step-fathers and other male relatives made up 43.7 per cent of the perpetrators and mothers and other female relatives made up only 1.7 per cent of the perpetrators. (The remaining perpetrators were non-family members, and their sex is not stated.) In any case, violence against children is not the focus of the White Ribbon Campaign.

Violence against males
Woods’ document is one of a series of recent commentaries which draw on the Personal Safety Survey to argue that domestic violence against men is almost as common or as serious as domestic violence against women. I have critiqued such claims elsewhere (Flood, in press). Here, I critique the common notion that those who focus their efforts on men’s violence against women necessarily are declaring that other forms of violence either do not exist or are acceptable.

Woods’ document includes a series of tables based on the Personal Safety Survey, intended in part to demonstrate that the victims of physical assault, and to a lesser extent sexual assault, often are male. The organisers of the White Ribbon Campaign share this concern about the high rates of violence inflicted on males in Australia. As the 2006 Resource Kit states, “Males too are often the victims of violence. While boys and men are the large majority of perpetrators of violence, boys and men often are also the victims. Males are bashed up, bullied and sexually assaulted… Ending violence to girls and women and ending violence to boys and men are part of the same struggle — to create a world based on equality, justice and non-violence.” (The Resource Kits of previous years have said something similar.)

We would be thrilled to see a major public campaign in Australia addressing the violence that men experience. Such a campaign would be an invaluable complement to campaigns such as the WRC. A campaign focused on violence to males would start with the recognition that males are most at risk of violence from other males. Of the 485,400 men in Australia who were physically assaulted in the last 12 months, 89 per cent were assaulted by other males (4).

The White Ribbon Campaign focuses on men’s violence against women. But this in no way means that this is the only type of violence that occurs, or that it is the most common form of violence, or that other forms of violence are unimportant. It simply means that violence against women is an important social problem that deserves attention. And, like other anti-violence campaigns, the WRC is motivated by the fundamental belief that all forms of violence are wrong, whether their victims are female or male, and whether their perpetrators are male or female.

There are important reasons to have a campaign focused on men’s violence against women, rather than having a single campaign focused for example on all forms of violence. First, men’s violence against women has specific dynamics that should be the focus of specific attention. For example, while the violence that men experience often occurs in public and by perpetrators who are not known to them, the violence that women experience from men often occurs in relationships and families and by perpetrators known to them.

Second, men’s violence against women has specific causes that should be the focus of specific attention. For example, men’s violence against women is sustained in part by cultural beliefs (held by a minority) that men have the right to physically punish their female partners, that males should be dominant in households, that some women ‘ask’ to be raped, and so on. Similarly, men’s violence against other men is sustained in part by cultural beliefs that if a man’s honour or status is challenged, he must respond with violence, violence between males is legitimate and exciting, and so on.

If we had a campaign that lumped together these different forms of violence, we would be unable to address the specific features of these diverse behaviours. And our campaign would be ineffective as a result. (For the same reason, campaigns focused on other social problems such as tobacco smoking or drink-driving often focus on specific populations and/or specific forms of this behaviour, as well as giving out the general message that such behaviours are unhealthy or wrong.)

The White Ribbon Campaign focuses on men’s violence against women because this is an important social problem. And this campaign is compatible with, and would complement, other campaigns focused on violence against men or other, specific forms of violence (such as child abuse, homophobic violence, racist violence, and violence in prisons).

The Personal Safety Survey
Woods’ document includes a series of tables he has constructed using the Personal Safety Survey. However, the figures in some of these tables are incorrect or misleading. For example, Woods’ document includes a table titled “Perpetrators of physical violence”. This table draws on percentage figures given in Table 16 on page 30 of the Personal Safety Survey. However, Woods appears to have misunderstood these figures. Using Woods’ own table, it would appear that, among men physically assaulted in the last 12 months, 74 per cent were assaulted by a male stranger, 16 per cent by a female stranger, and 27 per cent by a female current or previous partner. This is incorrect. Instead, among males assaulted by a male perpetrator, 74 per cent were assaulted by a (male) stranger. And, among males assaulted by a female perpetrator, 16 per cent were assaulted by a (female) stranger and 27 per cent by a current or previous (female) partner. The same goes for the row referring to female victims.

In other words, Woods does not seem to have realised that the percentage figures he quotes refer to perpetration by a specific sex of perpetrator, rather than to all perpetrators. This means that his table misrepresents who perpetrated the assaults. It overrepresents the proportion of assaults on men committed by women, and it underrepresents the proportion of assaults on women committed by men.

If we calculate these figures correctly, to give the breakdown of all perpetrators for physical assaults against men and against women, we arrive at the following figures;

Perpetrator of physical assault in previous 12 months Male stranger Female stranger Male current or previous partner Female current or previous partner
Male victims 65% *3% - *4%
Female victims 15% 9% 30% -

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal Safety Survey Australia 2005, Commonwealth of Australia
*estimate has a relative standard error of 25 per cent to 50 per cent and should be used with caution.

From this table, of all males physically assaulted in the previous 12 months, only 3 per cent were assaulted by a female stranger (not Woods’ 16 per cent), and only 4 per cent by a current or previous female partner (not Woods’ 27 per cent) (5).

Men are most at risk of assault from other men, typically strangers. In contrast, women are most at risk of assault from men, and above all from current or previous male partners.

Responding to Woods
Woods writes that, “The CEO of UNIFEM has been notified about the problems of their quoted data, and provided with a copy of the PSS, but seems disinterested in using figures from the credible source of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.” This is inaccurate. White Ribbon materials draw heavily on the ABS’s Personal Safety Survey, including the 2006 Resource Kit (currently being laid out for publication) and the sheet of statistics made available to WR Ambassadors. The White Ribbon Day leaflet was produced in July 2006, months before the ABS survey was released. All WR materials produced since the release of the Personal Safety Survey have incorporated its figures.

Micheal Woods first wrote a letter to UNIFEM regarding the White Ribbon Campaign on September 1st. It is true that we were slow to respond to this letter. I was given this responsibility, but only wrote to Woods five weeks later.

Contextual factors which contribute to violence
Another criticism often offered by anti-feminist advocates is that domestic violence efforts focus too much on gendered causes of domestic violence. As Woods explains, such a focus “may be attractive to those determined to blame men for all social ills.” Again, Woods’ representation is ill-informed. While he suggests that there is neglect of contextual factors which contribute to relationship violence such as alcohol and substance abuse and poverty, he seems unaware that addressing such factors is a routine element in contemporary policies and interventions regarding domestic and family violence in Australia. Contemporary feminist scholarship on men’s violence against women takes it as given that gender alone does not and cannot account for violence, and that explanations and interventions must address the intersections of class, race and ethnicity, sexuality, and other social divisions and factors (Russo 2001).

The White Ribbon Campaign is typical in this regard. Its organisers recognise that relationship violence and other forms of violence are shaped by alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, and other social factors. As the 2006 Resource Kit states, “Violence against women also is shaped by poverty and community disintegration, alcoholism and drug abuse, and mental illness.” Other White Ribbon materials such as the leaflet are too brief to go into the complexity of the causes of men’s violence against women, but we do recognise that these causes are multifaceted. At the same time, we also recognise that aspects of traditional male roles, sexist beliefs, and power inequalities are central in explaining violence against women.

WRC materials do not focus in depth on contextual factors such as alcohol abuse and poverty which shape some instances of interpersonal violence. Instead, the campaign is defined by a focus on the positive roles that men can play in helping to stop men’s violence against women. In this regard, the campaign highlights gender, without assuming that gender alone explains this violence. Indeed, if men’s violence against women were the simple outcome of maleness, then the central premise of the White Ribbon Campaign – that most men are not violent and that most can play a positive role in ending violence – would be void. White Ribbon Day is built on a fundamental hope and optimism for both women’s and men’s lives, and a fundamental belief that both women and men have a stake in ending violence against women.

We see the WRC as a complement to other campaigns, policies, and initiatives addressing other social factors which sustain violence against women, such as poverty and substance abuse. It is unreasonable to expect that every campaign on the issue of violence against women will address every facet of the problem. At the same time, the WRC encourages men (and women) to adopt the campaign to suit their local communities and contexts. For example, members of particular ethnic or spiritual communities who support the WRC have spoken out to address the forms of tolerance for violence against women which are specific to or more common in their communities.

A ‘domestic violence industry’
Finally, Woods offers a hostile and inaccurate slur on those working on the problem of domestic violence. He writes of a “domestic violence industry”, implying that the individuals and organisations working in the field of domestic violence are motivated by financial self-interest rather than a desire to respond to and prevent domestic violence.

The White Ribbon Campaign is self-funding and run almost entirely by volunteers. Those involved are committing our own time in the interests of changing what is a significant social problem. More generally, individuals and organisations working on domestic violence find themselves in a field which is under-resourced and which cannot meet demand. For example, refuges for women and children escaping domestic violence are forced routinely to turn away such people because their beds are full.

Woods also claims that “sections of this industry are engaging in the use of dishonesty to further the interests of organisational growth rather than contribute to addressing a social problem”, using “falsely inflated figures” to this end. Advocates on domestic violence do not falsify or exaggerate statistics, but they do draw on nationally and internationally credible statistics based on definitions of violence which may be broader than those preferred by Woods. Woods may prefer that statistics on interpersonal violence be guided by far narrower definitions of what constitutes violence. While this would lower the statistics, it would also silence the very real experiences of physical and sexual harm inflicted on thousands of women and men around Australia.

Of course our definitions and measurements of violence must be methodologically rigorous, transparent, and informed by contemporary scholarship. The definitions and measurements of violence on which the White Ribbon Campaign and other campaigns draw meet these criteria.

Micheal Woods’ piece “Dishonesty in the Domestic Violence Industry” offers an inaccurate and ill-informed account of the White Ribbon Campaign and the surveys on which it and other domestic violence campaigns draw. His document is a distraction from the very real and urgent work of addressing the violence which women, and men, suffer.


  1. This document is available from the website of the university’s Men’s Health Information and Resource Centre.
  2. For general information on the White Ribbon Campaign, go to the website.
  3. ‘Controlling behaviours’ were defined to include an intimate male partner “insisting on knowing her whereabouts, calling her names or putting her down, jealousy guarding her interactions with other males, limiting her access to family and friends, and damaging or destroying her property or possessions” (Mouzos and Makkai 2004: 47-48).
  4. 16 per cent were assaulted by females, and 5 per cent by both males and females.
  5. To calculate these figures, divide the total number of males or females physically assaulted in the previous 12 months by the particular type of perpetrator in question. For example, a total of 485,400 males were physically assaulted in the last 12 months. 316,700 were assaulted by a male stranger, 13,000 by a female stranger, and 21,200 by a female current or previous partner.


  • ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2006). Personal Safety Survey Australia. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics (Cat. 4906.0).
  • Flood, M. (in press) Violence against women and men in Australia: What the Personal Safety Survey can and can’t tell us about domestic violence. DVIRC Newsletter.
  • Koss, M.P., Gidycz, C.A. and Wisniewski, N. (1987). The Scope of Rape: Incidence and Prevalence of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of Higher Education Students. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55(2), pp. 162-170.
  • Mouzos, J., and T. Makkai (2004). Women’s Experiences of Male Violence: Findings from the Australian Component of the International Violence against Women Survey (IVAWS). Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
  • Russo, Ann. (2001). Taking Back Our Lives: A Call to Action for the Violence Against Women Movement. New York: Routledge.

Reprinted in whole with kind permission of author.