Gender and domestic abuse

People who experience or perpetrate domestic abuse may be either men or women.  Shine provides the same support to women and men who experience domestic abuse through our Helpline, frontline advocacy services, and KIDshine services.  

Domestic abuse happens within Rainbow relationships (for people who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, or intersex) at similar or higher rates than within heterosexual relationships.  

We know that:

  • All abuse is damaging to individuals and relationships, irrespective of gender 
  • Most New Zealanders in an intimate relationship are not abusive to their partner
  • Attitudes and beliefs supporting abuse that are held by individuals, and widely held throughout society, are key components of its prevalence and reoccurrence.
  • Ensuring effective support for people who experience domestic abuse is critical to ending abuse in New Zealand.  

Context is critical

In order to understand how to best intervene in domestic abuse situations, you need to first understand who is perpetrating the abuse, and who is experiencing the abuse. In other words, which person in the relationship is controlling and dominating the other person?  

If it’s intimate partner violence, which partner is fearful of the other?  Which partner will change how they look, dress, speak, behave, who they have contact with, what activities they participate in, what books they read and movies they watch (and the list could go on and on) as a result of their partner’s wishes and behaviours? 

It is critical to look at how someone’s abusive behaviour impacts on their partner. This means understanding not just the more obvious impacts such as fear, injury, and hospitalisation, but also the less obvious impacts such as mental health, financial autonomy, and all of the myriad ways that the abusive partner may be limiting the other person’s freedom and attacking their dignity

It is also critical to look at patterns of behaviour over time.  Looked at in isolation, one incident of violence will not always provide sufficient information to identify who is the dominant partner or ‘predominant aggressor’ in an abusive relationship and who is the ‘primary victim’ or person being controlled and abused

The context of past behaviour, fear and the effects of past violence can give certain behaviours vastly different meanings.  For example, following an argument between a couple, one person has left a steak knife out on the kitchen table and left the house. 

If the relationship is abuse free, the partner who notices the knife left on the table will most likely attach no significance to it, and think about it no further.

  • If there has been a history of violence in the relationship, the partner who notices the knife may well believe that it was left as a warning, and it may cause anxiety or fear.

Understanding context is critical to understanding how to intervene safely, effectively and appropriately in a domestic abuse situation.  Context includes past patterns of behaviour in a relationship, whether one partner is fearful of the other, whether one partner has been effected by violence perpetrated by their partner in other ways such as injury or hospitalisation.

Of all of the contextual factors, fear is one of the most important for people who experience domestic abuse.  Living with constant fear and/or regular episodes of extreme fear, is debilitating and has far-reaching consequences for individuals.  A major consequence is the impact on sleep.  Sleep deprivation can play a major role in depression, anxiety, poor work productivity, poor parenting, and so on.

Someone trapped in a relationship by a controlling and abusive partner may be afraid of physical violence, or psychological abuse, or of any range of threats being carried out – including kidnapping children, harming children or other family members, and even of their partner committing suicide. 

The other critical contextual factor is entrapment. Behaviours ranging from overt threats and physical domination to much more subtle behaviours like emotional manipulation, ‘gas-lighting’, and using guilt and jealousy can increase a person’s isolation, dependency on the abusive partner, and ultimately serve to entrap them in a relationship, leaving them with few if any realistic options to leave without risk of harm to themselves or their children.

Research that looks at domestic abuse through a lens that includes factors such as fear, injury and entrapment show quite clearly that men are far more often the ‘predominant aggressors’ who perpetrate control, abuse and violence, and women are far more often the ‘primary victims’ who are abused and entrapped by their partner

So why is this the case?

One obvious factor is that men usually have superior physical strength over that of a female partner.  In most heterosexual relationships, a man threatening his partner with physical violence using ‘standover tactics’ would have the ability to cause fear, whereas a woman using the same tactics would be far less likely to cause fear in her male partner.

Another key factor is social conditioning and widely held beliefs and attitudes about gender roles that specifically devalue women.  These attitudes relate to women not having equal power or resources as men, and that their voices, ideas and work are not valued in the same way as men’s. These beliefs are about the idea that women and men should act in certain ways or are better at certain things based on their gender.

In the timespan of human history, it was not so long ago in western civilisation that wives were considered the property or ‘chattel’ of their husbands.  So it is unsurprising that there are still many widely held beliefs in our society that devalue the role of women.

We believe that changing these attitudes and beliefs is a critical and necessary step towards eradicating domestic abuse.  This is the reason we feel that it is important to understand the relationship between gender and domestic abuse.  We do NOT want to minimise or discount the experience of men who are abused by an intimate partner or family member, as these men need and deserve support just as much as women who are affected.  We are NOT ignoring the fact that women also perpetrate violence, as they certainly can and do.  We certainly believe that it is important that everyone who experiences domestic abuse – whatever their gender – should have access to the support they need to be safe.  

At the same time, we believe that improving society’s attitudes about women and working to prevent violence against women, is congruent with working towards a society that rejects all violence and abuse within families and all relationships.

If Shine supports women and men who experience domestic abuse, then why does Shine talk more about the women?

This is simply because most of our adult clients who experience domestic abuse are women.  Therefore, most of the stories that we tell relate to women and their children.

At least 85% of the victims of family violence crimes referred to Shine by Auckland Police are women. With limited resources to respond to a huge demand for our advocacy, we prioritise ongoing support (after the initial intervention) for clients who are at high risk of serious injury or death. 

Our risk assessment looks at a range of factors including history of violence, threats, injuries and hospitalisation, possession and past use of weapons, military or martial arts training, and so on.  Clients assessed as high or extreme risk of serious injury or death are about 99% female.  High risk clients who are men are also prioritised and receive the same level of service and support.  

This situation is far less than ideal, as we would dearly LOVE to have the resources to be able to respond to a greater number of people experiencing domestic abuse who are at less extreme risk of being killed or seriously injured.  It is a tragedy that there is not more support available for each and every person experiencing domestic abuse.

Our experience of mostly supporting women does nothing to change our core beliefs, which are: 

  • All abuse is damaging to individuals and relationships, irrespective of gender
  • Most New Zealanders who are in a relationship are not abusive to their partner
  • Attitudes and beliefs supporting abuse that are held by individuals, and widely held throughout society, are key components of its prevalence and reoccurrence.
  • Ensuring effective support for people who experience domestic abuse – women or men – is critical to ending abuse in New Zealand.  

Following are some websites we suggest for finding more information about research and statistics relating to domestic abuse in New Zealand and worldwide:

    “'It stands out to me that nearly half of people experiencing violence at home are likely to talk to a work colleague. That makes it all the more important that our employees know we are an organisation that is approachable and will be understanding through tough times.  Our DVFREE Tick is an ongoing commitment to our people that we will show care in their time of need.”

    — Catherine McGrath - Westpac NZ CEO

    “The DVFREE customer response training reinforces being the bridge to help our customers, opens our eyes to signs and provides real life examples that we can apply to our job - it was very practical, with great facilitation.”

    — IAG Care Team member training evaluation

    “With specialist support from Shine, we are able to provide our people with a work environment where those affected by domestic violence are able to and feel supported to speak up, are treated with dignity and empathy, and where safety and privacy is protected."

    — Catherine Dixon - Suncorp New Zealand Executive General Manager People and Culture

    "It is our duty as a responsible employer to ensure our people feel safe and supported at work. Shine’s DVFREE programme has given us the knowledge and tools to be confident in how we respond to any of our people who experience domestic violence.”

    — David Stevenson, General Manager, Parliamentary Service

    “The model we have developed with Shine has given our managers tools to deal with some of the issues faced by our people. The systems we have put in place are already working." The Ministry of Justice was the first state sector agency awarded the DVFREE Tick. CE Andrew Bridgman urged other public sector organisations to follow its lead.

    — Andrew Bridgman, Chief Executive, Ministry of Justice