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‘Shocking findings’ on domestic violence are worth questioning

White Ribbon failed miserably in its first iteration in Australia and only recently started up again under new leadership. The name retains enormous goodwill. It is one of the few organisations that encourages men to be part of the solution to violence against women and no one wants it to fail again.

A few days ago, White Ribbon got a big bump in the news cycle. It announced a “shocking” poll that found 42 percent of men aged 18 - 34 don’t recognise "hitting, punching or restraining" as domestic violence”.

This was a surprising result and didn’t fit with more robust research. For example, the National Community Attitudes Survey (NCAS), found 97 percent of males aged 16-24 said “slapping or pushing to cause harm or fear” was domestic violence.

White Ribbon executive director Brad Chilcott said he “was as shocked as anyone by these results”.

Credible research shows young men are the group least likely to understand domestic abuse and most likely to have troubling attitudes towards it. But overegging the pudding doesn’t build trust with the public or help in finding solutions.

Over the last few years White Ribbon damaged their reputation in Australia with a series of what could generously be termed missteps.

While there were undoubtedly some highly effective White Ribbon ambassadors, others embarrassed the organisation. One warned that Australian of the Year awards could become “dominated by radical feminists” (referring to Rosie Batty). Another said he was “tempted to give her a slap” (after a woman spoke in parliament). Yet another sneered at a woman who walked past with her daughter (“here come the strippers”).

In 2017, the organisation accepted a promise of a $50,000 donation over five years based on anticipated increase in poker machines at the Fairfield Hotel (there’s a strong link between gambling and domestic abuse).

In 2018, then CEO Tracy McLeod Howe said White Ribbon was “agnostic” on women’s reproductive rights (withholding access to reproductive safety is a known form of domestic abuse).

As Walkley award winning journalist Nina Funnel once wrote, “White Ribbon treats men like white knights and women like white noise”.

White Ribbon finally went into liquidation in 2019. It was a sad end to what should have been a worthy endeavour.

Earlier this year social services provider Communicare revived White Ribbon, with new ED Brad Chilcott promising to lead it out of tokenism and into advocacy. Chilcott said that they are “ready for the challenge of redefining White Ribbon Australia at both a cultural and structural level”.

Redeeming White Ribbon requires more than just taking over a brand name and issuing press releases.

The organisation has to show the sort of boots-on-the-ground action that has seen so many women’s groups provide refuge, clothing, food, crisis counselling and safety for traumatised women.

Rather than diverting desperately needed funds away from those groups, White Ribbon must be an ally and a support to them. It needs to prove it respects the unrecognised (and frequently unpaid) work women have been doing in this space for so long.

It needs to demonstrate that the people running the organisation understand the complexity of men’s violence against women and the equally complex task of reducing it.

Their media coup this week with an opinion poll commissioned from Essential Media was not a good sign. Essential are very good at what they do but they do not pretend to be experts in domestic violence. They offer rapid turn-around polling on public opinion about issues of the day, based on answers from a representative sample of around 1,000 people.

Essential provides a timely, reliable and useful service. But it’s not (nor does it claim to be) the equivalent of the deep analysis of responses from more than 17,000 people that the NCAS research delivered.

Heather Nancarrow, CEO of Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety (ANROWS), says there is an important difference between measuring knowledge (which the Essential poll did) and attitudes to violence. “Understanding young people’s attitudes is important because attitudes form the social context that condones, minimises, trivialises, dismisses, or makes excuses for men’s violence against women.”

For the NCAS data, questions were reviewed, tested and examined by many experts in men’s violence against women. The questions were asked over the phone rather than online, so clarification could be offered where needed. Answers were staggered so people could respond with degrees of feeling (very important, moderately important, not important etc). It was designed to tease out specific and detailed information and measure changes over time by repeating the survey every four years.

NCAS data is available to White Ribbon, as it is to everyone, so it’s difficult to understand why they wanted to do their own, much smaller and less robust survey. The sample was only 140 in the male 18-34 age group, so there is a much higher margin of error to establish the already proven fact that some young men and boys do not understand domestic abuse.

Dr Kristin Diemer, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne, is one of the experts who worked on the NCAS research. She said it was difficult to reconcile the discrepancies between the White Ribbon poll and the NCAS data and she worried that people might assume they both were conducted with the same level of rigour and expertise.

But, she said, “we need organisations that are doing work with men. White Ribbon has a real opportunity to give men a strong role in dealing with the problem and finding effective solutions. I would hope they could work closely with other national peak organisations such as ANROWS to avoid conflicting messages.”

Karen Willis, CEO of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, agrees that a men’s organisation is a critical component in preventing men’s violence against women. “Men and women are going to have to work together on this. A men’s organisation doing strong work with a thoughtful and articulate voice is vital if we’re going to succeed.”

Brad Chilcott has mostly shown the best of intentions so far, but this week’s effort looked more like a publicity stunt than a genuine contribution. It’s nothing like the failures of White Ribbon’s past, but it’s not a good sign for the future either.

Jane Gilmore was the founding editor of The King’s Tribune. She is now a freelance journalist and author, with a particular interest in feminism, media and data journalism and has written for The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Daily Telegraph, The Saturday Paper and Meanjin, among many others. Jane has a Master of Journalism from the University of Melbourne, and her book FixedIt: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media was published by Penguin Random House in 2019.

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