Smacking didn’t hurt me. Or did it?

How many times over the past year have we heard people state that they were smacked as a child and it didn’t hurt them? Over the years I have sat with men in numerous stopping violence programmes and heard this statement spoken. The irony is not lost that we are sitting in a group of men who have been violent as adults towards their partners.

Thirty percent of men attending stopping violence programmes have admitted to fairly serious abuse of their children. They have moved a long way on from the gentle smack approach promoted by some.

A good debate is based upon sound evidence, not merely personal experience. Only relying upon personal experience can blind us to a larger reality. In order to answer the question, “Does a smack hurt or not?” we need to consider the issue in a much wider context.

Entitlement to use force against family members is a well embedded concept in Western societies. The secret to this lies in history. A long time ago two men by the names of Aristotle and Plato extolled the virtues of the public world (occupied by men) over those of the private world (occupied by women). The idea of greater entitlement for those who occupy the public world became embedded in most Western societies. In Roman society, for example, the concept of ‘paterfamilias’ translated into men having power to do what they wanted with family members without any redress from the State. The idea of what occurs behind closed doors being a private affair was established.

Western societies have been dogged by this concept for a long time. In Britain in 1782 Judge Buller legitimated the right of a husband to beat his partner and children. As he was deemed responsible for her misbehaviour he was entrusted with the right of using reasonable force (sound familiar in the current debate) in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his servant or children. It is interesting that although this law was not repealed until 1891, its legacy, like that of Aristotle and Plato live on. For example rape within marriage was not outlawed in New Zealand society until 1985. Police practice of intervening in the situations of family violence was a hands off approach until the early 1990’s. This has clearly changed.

In my own research, a study of 366 men attending a Christchurch based stopping violence programme, 13% of the men said they were rarely hit and signalled they had a positive childhood experience. This same group however, accounted for 12% of arrests for assaults against their female partners.

Thirty-two percent of men who rated their family growing up experiences as neither bad nor good and who were occasionally hit, were all arrested as adults for violence against their female partners. When I therefore hear that the occasional hit didn’t hurt me, I ponder the contradiction between this and what I in front of me.

I hear you say that this is a selected sample and you would be right. The sample is of men who have been identified as having a violence problem. But there is more of the story to tell.

Violence begets violence is a well known idea and has become somewhat of a truth in modern society. We know that exposure to violence in childhood which is defined as, “Either witnessing parental violence or as a victim of direct abuse” is a precursor to adult violence. No surprises there. In fact the Domestic Violence Act 1995 clearly stated this as part of its definition of what constituted violence.

However, research indicates that the transmission rate of violence is around 30% of those exposed to it. That means that one in three children exposed to violence in whatever form, including those rarely or occasionally hit, will go on to use that form in their adult lives. In other words 30 percent of kids who are hit will go onto hit in adult relationships. Of course the reality is that a good 70% who are hit are not affected for a variety of reasons. Perhaps through a variety of resilience factors they have managed to get on with life. I suspect that this group makes up a good proportion of the group claiming “It didn’t hurt me.”

We know that from National Victimisation Surveys that around a quarter of the women with current partners and almost three quarters of the women with recent partners reported that they had experienced at least one act of physical or sexual abuse by their partner. The most common behaviour reported was being `pushed or grabbed in a way that hurt’.

The question that each of us as parents need to answer is simple. Am I prepared to take a one in three chance that my child will assault their partner as an adult. If we add up numbers from my own research and match that with the national victimisation surveys, then we are beginning to build a picture of a not so pleasant future. Why take the chance?

New Zealand has a proud tradition of taking a stand on difficult issues. As Kiwi’s we don’t like injustice in any form. We stand up to give voice to issues that undermine a fair go for ordinary people.

We can be proud that in many areas (child abuse, violence against women, elder abuse, sexual assault and abuse) we are turning around the tradition of entitlement to abuse. This painstaking work has involved huge effort for the past thirty years.

It is time we did take a hands off approach. A hands off approach to smacking children, but not a hands off to saying no to what is effectively a culture of assault against our most vulnerable citizens. This will put us in line with other initiatives we are taking around abusive practices within our society.

Published on Tuesday, July 29th, 2008, under Family violence

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