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Not all men abuse women. But is this how it starts?

I’m struggling to imagine how a bunch of schoolboys might have thought this was OK. Here we are, just a few months after the public service “hotties” list debacle and now the lads at posh private school Yarra Valley Grammar have ranked their female classmates, from “unrapable” to “wifey material”.

This is happening at a co-ed school. A school filled with kids on track to being MPs, to being our best and brightest, filled with young men who will do well in life. But I want you to think of the young women who were described by their male peers as “unrapable”. It was designed to make the girls feel small and insignificant, yes, but also to provide a bond among the boys, companionable in their disregard for women. Unrapable? Safe, yes of course, thank God, but so repellant that even sexual assault was too good for them. Two of the boys involved were expelled on Tuesday, and the school has referred the matter to Victoria Police.

Think of these girls while you are telling me boys will be boys. And the wifeys/cuties? Flattered maybe because we still believe that what men think about us matters. Think of those boys too, the next time someone writes – or says – not all men. Or says it’s men of colour. Or poor men. That they are the perpetrators. I took some time to look at the students who go to Yarra Valley Grammar.

Over 60 per cent of students are from the top economic quartile of Australian society. Another 25 per cent the next quartile down. If you don’t understand the journey from deeming someone unrapable to becoming a rapist, you don’t understand what happens to women in this nation of ours. Nice boys from nice homes make that journey. Just ask Chanel Contos of Teach Us Consent.

Let me tell you what I know about perpetration. The idea that there are bad men and that you can tell them apart from good men is entirely wrong. You can’t judge a murderer by the colour of their skin or their postcode. And yes, perpetrators of murder are a significant problem in this country this year, but they are in some miserable respects, the smallest of our problems.

The men who assault women leave behind a trail of destruction in our hospitals. Even during the peak COVID years, during the year ending June 2022, nine in 10 hospitalisations for assault injury by a partner nationally were for women – nearly 5000 all up. That’s nearly 14 women a day. And there may be as many as another 14 who will never tell anyone how they broke their arm, got their black eye, how their lips split.

There seems to be a backlash against the concept of respect and the role a lack of it plays in domestic violence. OK, then. Whatever you call it, how men treat women matters. Respect. Decency. Would it be too much to ask even just for kindness? Obviously from a small group of the Yarra Valley Grammar lads, it would. Of course, that’s not to say these boys will go down that path, but it’s interesting to look at the data on this issue.

Research fellow at the Australian National University Hayley Boxall has been studying perpetration for years. She says perpetrators are not homogenous populations.

“This suggestion that perpetrators are all from disenfranchised marginalised backgrounds is wrong,” she says. Indigenous men are over-represented in the group. About one-third of men who kill women are white middle-aged men, the kind of men who might be considered a success in their lives, high-functioning adults in other domains of their lives, maybe owning a business.

At an individual level, the facts don’t discriminate. All people across all walks of life. It is not just men from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. You’d never pick those boys from Yarra Valley Grammar out of a line-up if you were imagining what a perpetrator looked like.

“They are controlling, manipulative, emotionally abusive,” she says. And she says that one of the problems of interviewing perpetrators is that there is a chance they will lie.

George Karystianis, a research fellow and Tony Butler, a professor in medicine and health, both at the University of New South Wales, have analysed nearly half a million domestic violence police event narratives from 2005 to 2016. Domestic violence perpetrators are usually between 25 and 44 years old, and they exercise a combination of physical and psychological violence – mostly at home.

Just over one in ten domestic violence events recorded a mention of mental illness linked to a perpetrator ranging from mood disorders to substance abuse. Police data represent a powerful opportunity to fill in knowledge gaps in domestic violence surveillance from a perpetrator perspective, and Karystianis and Butler have been working with several state police agencies on establishing a national surveillance system, DVWatch. I ask Karystianis what he knows about social class. He says the team has postcode data but is yet to analyse it.

In 2019 in the Journal of Family Violence, my wonderful colleagues and I found previous family violence, mental health issues, anti-social behaviour and prior contact with the justice system were all missed opportunities for intervention. Five years later, those opportunities for intervention are still missed. That’s another 300 dead women.

In the first week of June, ANROWS, which researches women’s safety in Australia, will announce the successful applicants for $2 million worth of grants for research into perpetration. It’s done over a decade of work in the area, but my best advice to politicians is this – act on what we know already. It’s one thing to have research findings – it’s another to fund frontline services and to fund findings.

We know so much already – if only we acted on what we knew.

Jenna Price is a regular columnist and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University. She has been writing about violence against women for 45 years.

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