What Australians under the age of thirty-five typically experience is neither familial nor violent, which means a huge amount of victims across our country are unaddressed and unknown.
It can start with things as small as wanting access to your car and your home. He might ask you to pick him up from work, or lend him keys to your apartment. You have probably done these things for plenty of friends and lovers before, and you will do them again in future, because they are small favours that are not out of place with someone you might be dating. Nothing has prepared you to be able to identify that they might be insidious tactics of manipulation forewarning serious abuse. But it really does begin as innocuously and subtly as that.
Of course, my abuser never actually wanted these small conveniences, but to condition me into letting my boundaries be pushed back. This can build compliance for being plunged into abhorrent depths of pain just weeks later. I had my entire savings scammed, my mind broken down to crippling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and my life isolated and destroyed until I sat in a mental health ward wondering what on earth had happened.
At no point did I have the capacity to identify that I was being abused. Initially I simply blamed myself for being stupid and naive, as my perpetrator had insisted. But brainwashing ends, and eventually I was able to put things back together to find that not only was I not alone, but my story was as common as dirt.
It is significant that throughout this whole ordeal I did not report to Police, nor did I ask friends and family for help, nor did I seek out healthcare. It is significant because I am a former policy advisor to state governments and it has been my job to contribute to conversations about designing public service systems. If someone with my background could not send up a flare, who would?
When someone is abusing you they take over your entire life by absolutely convincing you it is for your own benefit. If you have not been taught the words and warning signs you will never see it coming until you are beyond reach. That is how I wound up in hospital before I ended up in a Police station, as opposed to the latter preventing the former.
My situation deteriorated to the point of rape and assault because I had no literacy in family violence. I did not possess the language to describe what I now know was “intimate partner abuse.” It took me months to even link myself with “family violence” as the umbrella term, as it was neither familial nor violent to begin with
But I refuse to accept abuse being blamed on me as a victim for lacking expertise in criminal justice, because no one should need a post-graduate humanities degree to remain safe in their relationships.
My experience was the result of an institutional and structural inability to address how family violence manifests for young people in Australia.
As a nation, we ignore the nonviolent abuse that precedes family violence. We do almost nothing to prevent or penalise methods of harm that are not physical even though this should be our most obvious point of intervention and prevention.
Most states and territories have a system of Intervention Orders, but Police only enact them when it has been established that violence is already occurring or imminently will occur, which is far too late. And while Intervention Orders can be obtained through civil proceedings, research is beginning to reveal that this method is being abused by perpetrators at a significant rate.
Even Victorian legislation that identifies nonviolent forms of abuse as family violence attaches no criminal penalty whatsoever. Our lawmakers are willing to admit that nonviolent abuse is destructive, but they are unwilling to do codify punishment for its perpetrators.
This disproportionately affects young people due to the relationships that we typically engage in. Most of us have not had the chance to develop formal ties to our perpetrators through birth or marriage. Our abusers are most often a boyfriend, partner, lover, cuddle buddy, booty call, date, fling, or anything in between.
Admittedly, this stuff is confusing at the best of times. But what is clear is that when young Australians engage with their peers through romantic or sexual contact, they are typically not engaging in a way that classifies as “family.” When a person is solely your sexual partner you would never think of them as a familial relationship. In the dating business, we call that a red flag. In a literal sense, it is a form of sexual violence known as incest.
The idea of family is commonly antithetical to the people you are sexually or romantically attracted to until a significantly meaningful attachment has formed much farther down the line. The primary factors here are time and age. For older people, family violence may be a sensible term, given the likelihood of association with a husband or father, making birth and marriage appropriate markers. But for younger people, we typically haven’t gotten there yet. We may be dating and sleeping with people casually for years at a time.
This means that when things turn abusive in intimate relationships, young people almost never have the language to describe what is happening to them.
And all the family violence services in the world are beyond the reach of victims if they do not connect with the words on the front door.
If you cannot identify that what is happening to you is “family violence,” you cannot tell other people you need help because you are experiencing “family violence.” You do not know to call the Police or go stay with your parents or text a friend. You will not even be able to even comprehend why your own life is falling apart, which is arguably one of the cruellest aspects of leaving young Australians illiterate in this space.
And we ignore the experiences of young people at our peril. Financial, emotional, social, psychological, religious, and technological abuse all consistently lead to violence. Australia has no hope of curbing the epidemic of family violence in our country if we refuse to coherently name and penalise the forms of nonviolent abuse that precede it as reliably as clouds must form before rain.
If I can be given a ticket to pay half my weekly wage for going over the speed limit on a local road by as little as four kilometres per hour possibly even having my license cancelled if I committed the offence at enough frequency, there is no excuse for acting confused about how to penalise those caught perpetrating nonviolent abuse.
Road users are given infringements not because their reckless driving causes anyone injury, but because it carries the significantly increased probability that it might.
Where is the same gumption to label and criminalise malicious acts that occur in the home instead of out on the street?
The public-private divide is alive and well in this policy space. This is a gendered problem in the form of violence that occurs and the form of legislative reluctance by decision-makers to address it. Some men punching each other and causing a handful of deaths had the entirety of Sydney nightlife shut-down within months. Many men destroying the lives of female, femme, trans, intersex, agender, genderqueer, and nonbinary folks garners no response.
It was possible for my story to end in rape and assault because there are no laws to punish perpetrators until physical or sexual violence has already happened. This meant I did not see that anything was “wrong,” because the law said there was not. This also meant intervention came too late, because Police do not act until violence is a reality.
Nonviolent abuse is the surest possible sign of family violence. It is time to expand our criminal codes to deal with these acts.
Jess Nitschke is a former public policy advisor who experienced intimate partner abuse. She now campaigns with other victims and survivors at www.TakeItSeriously.org
*featured image courtesy of Creative Commons.