'He Raped Me During Labour, And Then During Q&A He Snapped'
In early 2015, ABC's Q&A program hosted a domestic and family violence-related episode, with a panel that included campaigner and former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty.
It was a first for Australian television, and despite middling reviews as to its success, was intended to be a frank discussion about the scourge of violence in Australia.
But for people in violent relationships (who are statistically more likely to be, but are not exclusively, women), the episode was yet another dangerous moment in a country were 'awareness campaigns' are frequent.
Sarah* had been suffering abuse from her partner Carl* for more than a year and a half before the Q&A episode aired.
Things were already bad: he had 'flipped' from the moment she fell pregnant, turning into a controlling, abusive partner overnight. He raped her twice during labour, and later ripped her episiotomy stitches because he wouldn't wait for her to heal after the birth. He would control how much she fed their baby, Alice*, and ejaculated onto her face in the middle of the night. To protest was dangerous: he kept a baseball bat by the bed.
During this time, Sarah was doing everything in her power to bring back the man she met, "walking on eggshells" to mitigate his rage. She told friends, family and her GP what was happening. She attended relationship counselling with him, and he himself was seeing a psychologist who specialised in domestic violence.
"While these professionals pointed to small improvements he was making, his behaviour actually just kept escalating," she recounts.
But it was during the Q&A episode that her situation came to a head. Carl exploded in rage.
"He watched that episode and got very angry, storming around the house, swearing and insisting that the women that had died that year all deserved to be killed, and that the men in their lives were the real victims," Sarah said.
She was so alarmed she called Carl's psychologist, who told her he thought "lots of men would have struggled with that episode, and that Carl's behaviour wasn't abnormal."
But over the next week, it escalated. A few days later, Alice, who was seven months old, was crying, unable to settle. Carl went into her room, and shook her so hard he put her at risk of brain damage.
While Sarah called an ambulance for her baby daughter in secret, Carl went back to bed.
'Like Throwing A Match Into A Bottle Of Petrol'
Author Jess Hill recounts Sarah's story in the pages of See What You Made Me Do, a book that asks us to re-examine how we view domestic and family violence.
"I wanted to step back from this narrow answer that [perpetrators] do it for violence and control, and go, okay, what does it feel like to be a perpetrator?" she told 10 daily.
"What we find is: men will often say, before they lash out violently or in the moments before they impose control over their partner, they feel vulnerable, powerless and even afraid."
To say that men perpetrate abuse in order to simply "reclaim control" is short-sighted, Hill argues, using a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't get to the core issue.
What they're feeling is shame.
"They're feeling this incredibly bad feeling, a type of shame, a type of compromised masculinity," Hill said.
"They're trying to put their finger on it, and it feels so bad they need to expel it immediately, and so they do that by either violence, or by reasserting control."
The danger here is that confronting men to proof of their violent, unwanted or shameful behaviour -- such as with an awareness campaign, or a DV-themed episode of Q&A -- can inadvertently put men and women in violent relationships at risk of harm.
"For a guy who potentially has deep-seated feelings of shame, of unworthiness, of a deep sense of humiliation or compromised masculinity, that message is just like throwing a match into a bottle of petrol."
The issue isn't exclusive to Sarah, who ended up leaving her partner.
Victorian organisation Safe Steps, one of three organisations Australia-wide providing specialist counselling to people who call the national helpline 1800 RESPECT, has reported both an increase in the number of calls over the past five years, as well as an increase in the severity of the calls.
Hill quotes former CEO Annette Gillespie, who described women in abusive relationships begging for the public to stop talking about it.
"Women will call and say, can you get them to stop the ad on TV, can you ask them to stop talking about family violence?" Gillespie told Hill. "Because every time he sees that ad he goes nuts."
Hill told 10 daily she initially thought it was an anomaly noticed by Safe Steps only.
"But then I started hearing it from people as well," she said.
Why We Should Care That Men Are Afraid Women Will Laugh At Them
Hill said she became "obsessed" with the Margaret Atwood misquote: men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them. She spoke to every male expert working in the field she could find, asking them to unpack this quote. Why does it feel so true?
What she found was that every single man she spoke to had their hackles raised by it.
"They were saying to me, yeah, well, when I hear you say that about women laughing at men, I feel a little thing rising in me as well," Hill said.
It also came down to men being vulnerable to other men's violence. The patriarchy isn't just about men's control of women, it's about a certain type of man being dominant over others. While women have being doing the work of feminism over the past several decades, Hill said, men have almost "left themselves behind".
"It's not just that some men have this terribly fragile ego, although that's certainly part of it," she said.
"It's the self-consciousness and fear that men feel towards other men, that makes them afraid of women laughing at them. If they're being humiliated by women, it means they're being emasculated, or revealed as weak, and that makes them very vulnerable to the ridicule, control and violence of other men."
She describes a documented backlash to waves of feminism, one we saw in the 1990s and one we're seeing play out in Australia today, where on average, one woman is killed by a current or former partner each week. (In addition to the Safe Steps reported numbers, Rosemary O'Malley, of the Domestic Violence Prevention Centre on the Gold Coast, says they're now seeing a "terrifying" level of reported sexual and physical violence which is "tantamount to torture".)
"Once you start thinking about how this language [around domestic violence] sounds to the men we're trying to change, it sounds adversarial," Hill said.
"We're telling perpetrators that not only do we reject the kind of men they are and what they do, but that we want to take ... the last kind of power they have, which is in the home. And in return, we offer them nothing. We're saying, suck it up, it's time for you to step aside."
She's careful with her words, and stresses that she would never claim to have the absolute answers.
"But I think part of that conversation, which tells men to step aside, is partly why we're having a pretty obvious violent backlash in Australia right now."
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Names have been changed.
See What You Made Me Do is out now from Black Inc or at major bookstores.
To speak to a trained counsellor about family or domestic violence at any time, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732. For men who are either experiencing violence or using violence in their relationship, the Mensline is available for a confidential call on 1800 600 636 between 9am and midnight, seven days per week. If you are in danger, call 000.