by Sophie Yates

Family violence cuts across many different service sectors — including police, family violence agencies, alcohol and other drugs (AOD), mental health, and many more — and these sectors don’t always agree on what the problem is and what to do about it. Many of these sectors were involved in giving evidence before a recent Royal Commission into Family Violence (RCFV) held in the Australian state of Victoria.

My PhD is about the treatment of gender in this Royal Commission. I’m taking a frame analysis approach, and I’ve found this project to be a useful springboard for analysing the tensions and differences between various sectors’ approaches to the problem.

The relationship between AOD and family violence is extremely controversial, and I argue that much of the controversy boils down to whether it’s acceptable to say that AOD causes violence. I interviewed several of the nine expert witnesses who gave evidence to the Commission about AOD, and one of them explained to me that the way people treat AOD and causation is a ‘boundary marker’. This meant that if you’re not really careful to say that alcohol doesn’t cause violence, you lose your credibility with certain types of audiences, such as the family violence service sector and others who specialise in gender-based violence. Why is that, I wondered?

Growing up on opposite side of the fence

Firstly, my participants said that the AOD sector and the family violence sector have grown up on “opposite sides of the fence”. One (an AOD practitioner) reflected that “we’re all carrying baggage from our history”; the AOD sector stemmed from a group of ‘disenfranchised’ people who had histories of addiction that they’d overcome. They had “picked people up off the streets who were like them”, and were “advocating for them and fighting with them against the world”.

The ‘medical’ model of addiction as disease or disorder favoured by the AOD sector can also be interpreted as allowing men to shift responsibility for violence. To complicate things, AOD workers see more families where violence of varying degrees occurs between all family members, and they also “see more violence and abuse from women than you would within the [family violence] sector”.

On the other hand, the family violence sector works with women and children experiencing relatively unidirectional violence, often from the same men that the AOD sector is supporting. Their history is trying to get the public and the government to realise that family violence is a serious problem, and getting men to take accountability for their violence. These different histories present problems of both language and understanding.

Community attitudes to intoxication and responsibility

Then there’s the problem of community attitudes to alcohol and violence. None of the experts consulted publicly by the Royal Commission said that intoxication could excuse violence, but community surveys show that a significant minority of people in Australia do believe that if you’re drunk, you’re not as responsible for your actions as when you’re sober. There’s this idea that people get drunk, lose control, and then ‘snap’ and become violent.

So, attributing causation to drug and alcohol addiction can imply a lack of control on the part of abusers. This is the exact opposite of the women’s movement’s power and control analysis of violence, where men are seen to use violence instrumentally and deliberately (not reactively), in a way that’s connected to the unequal distribution of power between men and women on a societal level. It also moves the analysis from structural factors that we are all responsible for (e.g. gender inequality), to individual factors that are about personal responsibility.

What does it mean to say that something ’causes’ something else?

Finally, different research traditions use the word ‘cause’ in different ways, leading to clashes and misunderstanding between public health/epidemiology researchers and domestic/family violence researchers. In his witness statement to the Commission, an addiction researcher argued that it’s logical to refer to alcohol as a cause, based on epidemiological and public health arguments that if you take something away (i.e. alcohol) and the problem (i.e. violence) is diminished or disappears, that thing can be termed a cause of the problem (p.5). One of my interview participants made a similar argument:

Well, I think that you can be very definitive [with causes] in public health. With statistical analysis you can show what the variables have been and what the result is if you change those variables.

In the domestic/family violence research tradition, people say that because not all men who use alcohol are violent and not all violence is associated with alcohol use, these substances can’t be seen as causal factors. Gender inequality and violence-supportive attitudes are seen as more ubiquitous factors than AOD use, so these substances are framed as ‘contributing’ to or ‘reinforcing’ the violence, or ‘co-occurring’ with the violence that is already there.

Public health vs feminist framing 

Australia has several formal and well-run policy advocacy coalitions that work to address the harms of alcohol abuse. A strong anti-alcohol lobby saw the RCFV as a potential vehicle for the enactment of a broader policy aim to restrict the supply of alcohol in Australia.

Five alcohol policy coalitions or research centres made submissions to the Commission. Most of these prioritised (degendered) population-level interventions to reduce the physical and economic availability of alcohol. They made these recommendations on the basis that problematic alcohol use is “one policy factor amenable to change, with a robust body of evidence supporting interventions that can make a decisive impact on reducing alcohol-related harms” (p. 16).

While gender is often mentioned as a factor by these groups, it tends to be seen as one category variable among many, rather than an organising principle that structures society and affects the experiences and opportunities of different groups of people. It’s not a focus of their analysis.

Feminist RCFV expert witnesses Prof Cathy Humphreys and Ingrid Wilson agreed with the public health-type advocates on many points, but there were some clear differences of emphasis in their framing. These actors don’t shy away from discussion of the relationship between AOD and family violence, but they are clear that gender is an important part of the equation. In other words, they try to address the problem while staying on the right side of the ‘boundary marker’ I discussed earlier. Their recommendations for addressing the problem are also rooted in gender awareness. For example, they aim to increase the AOD sector’s understanding of the gendered dynamics of family violence, and they want service providers in both sectors to recognise that many women who are abused turn to AOD as a coping mechanism.

In her oral evidence, Humphreys was very keen for gender inequality and violence supportive attitudes to be seen as causal factors, with AOD as a contributor:

So I think …that we can be on the same page and that there is a common language and some common understandings there that we can sign up to or that we could champion (RCFV transcript, p. 611).

Fellow panelist addiction researcher A/Prof Peter Miller disagreed, responding that “it is more than just attitudes and gender inequity”:

I think we have really strong evidence from a big body of longitudinal evidence to show that child abuse, experience of child abuse, growing up in adverse surroundings, in bad family settings, having peers – these are major predictors that go beyond just attitudes. We also have to talk about genetics (RCFV transcript, p. 611-12).

This exchange is a good example of the tension between framing family violence as having primarily societal causes (such as gender inequality), or having primarily individual causes (such as AOD or family of origin factors).

What the commission said about alcohol and violence 

The Commission’s discussion of causal factors positioned AOD as an individual risk factor that “reinforce[s] the gendered drivers of family violence” (RCFV report, vol. III, p. 248) – along with other factors like mental health, exposure to violence, and socioeconomic inequality. It emphasised that much family violence is not linked to AOD misuse. This framing mirrors very closely the input of feminist actors. The RCFV positioned intoxicated perpetrators, particularly men, as responsible for their own actions, and suggested that cultural norms rather than any effect of the alcohol itself are to blame for any disinhibition and subsequent violence.

The Commission further argued that a focus on alcohol consumption does not excuse violent behaviour: rather,

more extensive engagement with all of the risk factors that contribute to family violence is required to appropriately respond to violence, to support victims, and to hold perpetrators to account (RCFV Report, vol. III, p. 300).

Rather than recommend some of the ‘harder’ policy options such as alcohol regulation, the RCFV decided on ‘softer’ options around workforce training and service availability and integration. Many of the recommendations about alcohol and drugs, when inspected closely, contain hints or safeguards relating to gender and accountability. Thus, gender equality advocates appear to have most strongly influenced the framing of this important Royal Commission, and through the Commission influenced the policy landscape in Victoria for some time to come.


An extended version of this piece first appeared on Power to Persuade on 5 July 2017 and is reposted here with permission.

Sophie Yates pictureSophie Yates is a Research Fellow at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of New South Wales. She is Assistant Editor of ANZSOG’s peer-reviewed journal Evidence Base, manages its competitive grants program, and writes teaching cases for its Case Library. Her research interests include gender, domestic and family violence, co-production of public services, and the political astuteness of public managers. She tweets as @MsSophieRae.