Opinion / When affluent women get a belting

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AFTER finishing my undergraduate degree, I lived for a few months in a small terraced house in what was then a rundown part of Sydney.

Author and academic Alison Booth.

Next door lived a couple with young children. It wasn’t long before we noticed a pattern of violence once a week – shouting and crying, and sometimes, when things got really bad, a police car arriving at the house. This was usually on Friday nights, when the man of the house came home late and drunk.

I had grown up in a fairly sheltered family environment in a leafy suburb in that same city. I found this experience of violence very confronting, although nowhere near as confronting as it must have been for the woman and the children next door.

What could I do to help? Was there any way to stop it? I’d see her on the street, smile at her, pretend we knew nothing. I was only young then. I wouldn’t do that now.

I had already learnt when I was young that not all marriages were happy, and that many survived only because there was no easy way of getting out. So what was happening at night in that suburb in which I’d grown up, what went on when the blinds were closed and the curtains were drawn? Would we ever have known if someone was getting knocked around in one of those detached houses? Probably not.

Thinking about these questions led me to decide one day that I would write a novel about middle-class domestic violence. But before I began I wanted to investigate how widespread this was, and if literature had anything to say on the topic.

As a social scientist as well as a novelist, I’m interested in statistics and it seems there is plenty of information available about the extent of domestic violence.

In Australia, one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by someone known to them. Over 12 months, on average a woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. These are staggering statistics.

Yet I found it difficult to find any information about how the pattern of domestic violence was distributed across the affluent and the less affluent, the middle and the working classes. This is despite the fact that we are living in a time when more and more women from all backgrounds are standing up against sexual violence and it is being widely reported in the media, with the #MeToo movement that started in 2017 and every week new allegations in the media about violent, middle-class men.

The general consensus is that abuse in middle-class households is under-reported for a variety of reasons, partly relating to social mores and partly relating to how statistics are collected.

The guilt or shame that many abuse survivors feel is especially prevalent among the more affluent, who have been conditioned to believe it’s a lower-income problem associated with the stress of poverty. But poverty isn’t the only correlate of domestic abuse.

Perhaps the belief that domestic violence is a lower-income problem has arisen because poorer women are more likely than their richer counterparts to access refuges and social services that target abuse survivors.

In contrast, affluent survivors are not only more able to afford to take privately financed routes out of an abusive relationship, but are also more able to afford a good lawyer. Hence information about wealthier abused women is not collected – or is under-reported – by service-providers, and fewer police call-outs or restraining orders for domestic violence incidents are recorded.

What does literature have to say about the phenomenon? Working-class domestic violence is a common theme in modern literature, as anyone who reads fiction will know, but there is very little that covers middle-class domestic violence. Maybe abuse in affluent partnerships is the elephant in the room, the elephant few can see. Of course, there are some exceptions, some novels that address this head on, including a popular recent example, Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies”. But if, as Margaret Atwood once said, novels exist not just for private expression but also for social examination, there clearly is more to be said on the subject.

I undertook a fair amount of investigation into this topic while researching for my latest book, “A Perfect Marriage”.

What have I learnt from this?

  • Don’t make excuses for the behaviour of your abusive partner.
  • Don’t feel any sense of failure that the relationship isn’t working; this is something it is virtually impossible to predict at the outset.
  • Don’t be reticent about seeking help; recognise that it can be dangerous for you not to, for domestic violence typically escalates over time.
  • Don’t let your spirit and confidence be ground down.
  • Do think about ways of obtaining financial independence, and seek personal counselling rather than marriage counselling.
  • Work at maintaining a network of loyal and supportive women friends, and know that you are not alone.

“A Perfect Marriage” is Canberra author Alison Booth’s fourth novel. She is a professor of economics at the ANU and in 2017 was awarded the Distinguished Fellow Award of the Economic Society of Australia. Her website is alisonbooth.net


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