Controversy: Alcohol, drugs and family violence

Alcohol and other drugs (AOD) is an interesting topic to analyse, because the relationship between AOD and family violence is extremely controversial. I argued in my paper 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 from the Commission’s AOD topic, 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 sides 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”:

So the drug and alcohol sector’s baggage is that we sprung up out of a group of disenfranchised people who’d had histories of their own addiction, who’d come through the other end, who had picked people up off the streets who were like them, and it was 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 seen 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 in particular, said one of my participants, “they 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 uni-directional 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 at the 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.

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, in a way that is connected to the unequal distribution of power between men and women on a societal level. Researchers from this tradition argue that the problem is not due to reactive anger. Thus, attributing causality to drug and alcohol addiction can imply a lack of control on the part of abusers. It also moves the analysis from structural factors that we are all responsible for, to individual factors that are under the domain of 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, addiction researcher A/Prof Peter Miller argued that it is 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:

The Royal Commission’s treatment of AOD and family violence

The Commissioners were determined to incorporate factors other than gender into their investigation of the Victorian family violence service system. According to Commissioner Neave (interviewed and identified with permission), their terms of reference required them to look beyond men’s violence towards women, and they very much treated those ToR as ‘ground rules’. They wanted to operate innovatively and “explore things that added to our knowledge, rather than repeating what had been said in so many other reports”.

For these reasons, coupled with submissions and community consultations that repeatedly referenced the role of AOD, the Commission decided to focus some of its attention on this issue – despite push-back from the family violence sector, who were concerned that this would dilute the message about gender. The Commission argued that a focus on alcohol consumption did 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).

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