Violence Against Men: What The Tostee Case Teaches Us About Gendered Violence


Violence against men is rarely discussed. Those who dare raise the topic are silenced by a dominant culture that predetermines men to be either the perpetrators of violence or unworthy victims. The former likely informs the latter with our prejudices outweighing our compassion, and the obvious error of logic.

Statistics the world over demonstrate that men constitute around two thirds of the victims of violence, but few care about statistics. Instead we focus on female victims; those who are worthy of our sympathies.

If we overlook the majority of the evidence, we can uncover ‘proof’ of female victimisation.

There is a sub-category within the broad topic of violence where female victims are over-represented and that is domestic violence, but even this is not all it seems. When a parent kills their child, the victim is most often a son. When a child kills their parent, the victim is most often their father. When siblings kill each other, the victim is most often a brother. And this trend continues in the ‘other’ category comprising extended familial relations. Increased victimisation of women stems from one further sub-category within domestic violence; intimate partner violence. As such IPV is the domain in which our efforts to publicly address the social roots of violence occurs.

Any attempt to enter male victims into the discussion becomes an unwelcome distraction, but we ignore male victims at our combined peril. Our gendered focus on violence is wrong, dangerously so, and we need not venture beyond the realm of IPV to demonstrate why this is the case. This setting is advantageous for those who hope for change as the victims of our lack of concern for male victims ultimately includes many women, which makes the case all the more emotionally persuasive given society’s priorities.

Tostee & Wright

Warriena Wright and Gable Tostee the night of Wright's death.

Warriena Wright and Gable Tostee the night of Wright’s death.

Last week, Gable Tostee was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges relating to the death of Warriena Wright.

Tostee met Wright, a tourist from New Zealand, via the Tinder dating app and she accompanied him to his 14th storey apartment at Surfers Paradise. Hours later Wright was dead on the pavement below his balcony.

The verdict hinged on an extraordinary piece of evidence, an audio recording on Tostee’s phone. Without this evidence there would have been little doubt over the outcome of the trial.

This point was not lost on Tostee’s barrister, Saul Holt QC:

‘Can you imagine for a moment this case if that recording had not existed? Would anybody, anybody, have believed without bursting out in unmitigated laughter an account in which Ms Wright throws rocks at Mr Tostee? Hitting him with a metal clamp? The things she said and did over the course of the evening? Any explanation of that kind would have been laughed out of court. This case would just have involved what the neighbours heard, that messed up scene inside the house and the fact that she’s dead, on the floor, 14 storeys below.’

This should give us all pause when we consider similar events that occur behind closed doors with little or no evidence on which to base our conclusion.

So What happened?

The strangers met for a sexual encounter. Wright became physically abusive. There was a struggle. Screams were heard. Then Tostee locked his aggressor outside. Moments later Wright fell to her death whilst trying to flee. The existence of the recording completely changed the trial from what appeared an open and shut murder case to a much more speculative dilemma that hinged upon whether someone could be found guilty of either murder or manslaughter for imprisoning an intoxicated and erratic person on a balcony.

The cause of Wright’s tragic death could be traced to alcohol. She had been drinking heavily, which no doubt influenced her behaviour during the night, including the physical abuse of her date and ultimately her rash decision to climb over the balcony railing after Tostee ejected her from his apartment. The alcohol would also have impaired her coordination and contributed to her fall. It is safe to conclude that without the alcohol, or even some moderation, she would still be alive today.

Alcohol is a very common thread in domestic violence. It is present in the majority of cases. Factor in other drugs, mental impairment, or a highly charged emotional state and almost no domestic violence is the result of a composed and rational actor. It is for this reason that I find our incessant need to overlook clearly evident causes in search of a deeper ‘cultural’ explanation to be problematic.

However, it is possible that some cultural attitudes and behaviours are so deeply ingrained that they persist regardless of one’s mental state, or that subconscious prejudices may emerge with reduced cognition. Accepting this proposition returns us to the introductory problem of violence against men.

Wright’s violence towards Tostee was therefore, as the theory goes, a symptom of social conditioning. Media messaging, and programs as far reaching as childhood education, reduce domestic violence to a lack of respect for women, from men. The gendered focus of that sentiment encourages the very problem we seek to solve.

Respect is a two way street.

Boys are conditioned from birth that it is wrong to hit a girl but that simple act of common decency is not reciprocated and we see the results of these double standards from an early age. Girls often hide behind their gender as though it can and should grant special privilege and immunity from responsibility for their own actions. Young female aggressors will even recite the ‘you can’t hit a girl’ rule to further taunt their victims, safe in the belief that they will not face repercussions for their actions.

It is not surprising that female only violence and female led reciprocal violence constitutes the majority of domestic violence. But, again, statistics carry little weight, especially when they violate our emotional intuitions and the popular narrative, so we ignore a major contributing factor to domestic violence and lay blame solely at the feet of men. The approach is valid from a certain perspective. Given their typical size and strength advantage, a man’s need for restraint is increased as the consequences of his actions are likely more severe. But a ‘turn the other cheek’ attitude can only take us so far. Everyone has their breaking point, especially when their judgement is impaired as is so often the case.

When social conditioning fails and retaliation occurs, the male instantly becomes a vile, reprehensible, sub-human monster and the victim-aggressor is absolved of any and all responsibility. Our need to view men as perpetrators and women as victims prevents us from acknowledging that the perceived victim created, or at least contributed to, her own injury or fatal demise. This common scenario is the truth we cannot speak. We can’t even raise the possibility and remain socially in tact. We even have a catch cry to dismiss it, and discredit those who dare to speak about it: victim blaming! The phrase instantly wins any argument, but for victim blaming to occur they must first be the victim, and this status is usually only assumed.

Due to the private setting we rarely have sufficient evidence to conclusively describe events and our prejudices fill the gaps. Any events similar to the Tostee case are assumed to be exactly what most of us initially assumed it to be, myself included. We all have a socially informed bias favouring women but while it is statistically correct that a man is more likely to kill a woman than vice versa, that trend tells us nothing of any individual case.

Prejudice

The gender story develops as it does with black crime, with the distinction that minority groups have respected activists who are given a platform to publicly highlight prejudices, defend their group’s image, and correct factual or argumentative errors.

Statistics inform our assumptions. Assumptions lead to stigma. Targeted enforcement leads to more reports, arrests, convictions and incarcerations, and the whole cycle reinforces our initial beliefs. This cycle of vilification neglects the potential reasons for disproportionate statistics and subsequently we overlook the ways to effectively reduce crime.

This simplistic approach also brings into question the validity of the very statistics themselves. If prejudice skews outcomes, how can we truly trust the figures? Bearing in mind that without an extraordinary piece of evidence that is almost never available, our prejudices would certainly have made Tostee yet another confirmatory statistic.

Imagine that most of the mainstream media adopted the conservative approach to racial issues – that they blamed, shamed and reinforced every negative stereotype without ever seeking to explain root causes – and you will have some idea of how modern society treats men, and just how ubiquitous those attitudes have become. You probably haven’t even considered our anti-male leanings. Here we are less than a sentence later and you have probably already dismissed the notion as laughable. Consider it. Truly consider it.

What Needs To Change

Reevaluating our framing of violence is all that is necessary to reduce these types of tragedies (unfortunately, total prevention will never be possible). When we speak of respect and restraint the message should be directed at all people regardless of gender. It should also be noted that the ‘male on female’ dynamic needlessly overlooks many other instances of interpersonal violence – not only female on male violence, but also male on male violence, and female on female violence. That is to say that our focus neglects the entire LGBT community, a minority group we claim to care about, and that also suffers from the same relationship problems and at much the same rates as straight couples. But, further, it also neglects interpersonal violence that occurs between non-intimates which constitutes most of the violence in society. The best part is that expanding the scope, and therefore protection, comes with no cost as the original message is preserved. It is not a matter of competing approaches decreasing one problem while potentially increasing another to produce an overall negative outcome. There is no legitimate reason not to be more inclusive.

Mutual respect is key to preventing interpersonal violence. When one party is given social permission to behave as they please with no thought for their victim and no expectation of accountability, the responsibility to deescalate violence falls solely on the other and from there it only takes one failure for events to quickly spiral out of control. The gendered approach to violence effectively removes a level of redundancy from the system and the refusal to address the power and influence of female behaviour increases the likelihood of deadly consequences.

As with the alcohol, were it not for Wright’s violence towards her date, it is almost certain she would still be alive today. Her death can ultimately be traced to our cultural attitudes that treat respect as a unidirectional problem and women as helpless objects with no agency and therefore no responsibility. Ironically, these corrosive ideas emanate from those who profess to promote equality and female empowerment. If only they adhered to their own ideals then outcomes would be better for all.

 


Further reading…

 

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