The government is set to use the forthcoming International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to announce new measures to tackle domestic violence. This is a prime opportunity to tackle this issue for an entire generation that must not be missed, argues Professor David Gadd. Genuine engagement with young people needs to start early – and it needs to start now.
As you read this, civil servants and policy advisers are beavering away on the details of new measures to tackle domestic violence, set to be unveiled on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November.
Naturally, the details are being closely guarded, but there is enormous potential here. If the good work government has done on teenage relationship violence can now be developed into a programme of preventative engagement and proactive support, then there is the potential to unravel the problem of domestic violence for a generation of people, in a way that has not been seen before.
I hope very much that this opportunity will not be missed.
In the ESRC-funded From Boys to Men Project, we have been looking at the issue of domestic violence, especially young men’s perceptions and participation in it, for over three years now.
We have surveyed over 1,200 young people, conducted focus groups addressing reactions to the first This Is Abuse campaign material, and conducted biographical interviews with young men who had been perpetrators of domestic abuse, witnessed it at home, and/or been victims of it in their own relationships.
What we learnt in this process is that by the time young people are 14 most have some experience of domestic abuse, whether in their own relationships or in that of their parents.
Many, but not all of these experiences are quite ‘low level’, including the use of put downs or other controlling behaviour. But some young teenagers also have experiences of physical and sexual violence, with around one fifth of 13 to 14 year olds admitting to actually perpetrating some form of partner abuse.
There is therefore an urgent need to begin conversations with teenagers about domestic abuse as many are already learning about it way before cohabiting relationships begin in early adulthood.
At the level of national policy, debate has tended to progress slowly with government pondering whether or not to prescribe compulsory domestic violence lessons or leave schools free to set their own curricula.
However, in the research and practice-based communities there is little doubt that such preventative education is urgently needed.
Certainly in our research there is ample evidence that young people welcomed the opportunity to talk about domestic violence – an issue of immediate relevance, of an adult nature, and addressed to things that worry and concern them where there are few obvious solutions. It also strongly suggested that attitudes could be changed. One might argue this is the ideal context for learning.
But even when relationship education is offered there is still unexploited potential for greater joined-up thinking.
When we talked to young people about the first This is Abuse campaign the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were high levels of recognition for the campaign material and a genuine willingness to discuss the issues it raised.
But many young people had not had the chance to discuss the issues in any depth with others, particularly adults, willing and able to ask and answer difficult questions. Those young men who could, at first, see themselves in the campaign material often became defensive and tended to scapegoat other kinds of dangerous men or untrustworthy women for the problems with violence that they too were implicated in.
A similar kind of distancing can sometimes be seen in perpetrators’ narratives where young male offenders assure themselves that the violence was merely a one-off and is unlikely to recur as long as they find a better partner next time.
It is important therefore that any future attempt to engage with the issue of domestic violence through social marketing demonstrates how abusive relationships unfold over time, showing the interdependency of the characters, together with their redeeming qualities as well as their inevitable blindspots.
Moreover, the message cannot be left there with the passive viewer. Rather it needs to be taken forward in the classroom or in other contexts where young people meet with adults they trust so that difficult questions can be posed and confronted.
There needs also to be targeted interventions with young men already known to have problems with violence, many of whom will unfortunately be irregular attendees at school or excluded completely from it. And where debate can be engendered it needs to be rendered much more responsive to what young people actually think and believe.
A common starting point is with the message that domestic violence is wrong or a crime. But most young people already know this. What many young men often fail to understand and anticipate, however, is that intimacy raises difficult, sometimes insurmountable, challenges in terms of trust, respect and feelings of vulnerability: issues that many attempt to resolve through controlling behaviours, without anticipating that this usually amplifies the problem.
Likewise, the common use of the term ‘fight’ to refer to arguments that turn aggressive can often cover up the ways in which physical forms of retaliation escalate, with some young men unwilling to ‘lose’ when they have been pushed or slapped, and who do considerable damage to partners they feel to have slighted, confronted or betrayed them.
Finally, few men, young or old, know how to confront domestic abuse perpetrators without recourse to violence.
The measures that are to be announced on 25 November have the potential to open up a debate – whether national or international – about these kinds of questions, while foreclosing the much simpler question of whether or not preventative education is needed (evidence from our research shows that it is, and just needs developing, resourcing and delivering).
If the policy details announced reflect our deeper learning about the root causes of domestic violence, results could be genuinely transformative and enduring – and they will be warmly welcomed.