Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Finance and Public Administration References Committee
Domestic violence in Australia

CELI, Dr Elizabeth, Founder/ Manager, Elements Integrated Health Consulting


Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Dr Celi : Thank you for the opportunity to appear today. I appreciate being able to contribute to this Senate inquiry into domestic violence in Australia. I appear in my capacity as a professional psychologist in private practice over the last 11 years. Over this time, having managed two private practices in both the city of Melbourne and regional Melbourne, I have presented at several conferences and on several panels with leading researchers on male victims of domestic violence since that time, I have spearheaded a collaborative international study which included researchers from the UK, the USA and Canada to investigate some of their experiences and how this contributes to the larger picture of family violence for both male and female victims and male and female perpetrators domestic violence. If I may give a brief background professionally—

CHAIR: Dr Celi, I am going to have to interrupt you because there is a little too much distortion in what we are hearing at our end and that is going to interfere with Hansard and recording. Bear with us; we may have to defer. We will just see if we can establish a better connection. Please proceed.

Dr Celi : In providing a bit of background as to where I am coming from in my capacity today, I have published two books men's health both from my private practice—

CHAIR: I am sorry, Dr Celi; this is not working for us at our end. The only thing we can try, to avoid reconvening on a different day, is if you perhaps talk quietly into the headset.

Dr Celi : I am reducing my volume. Is that any better?

CHAIR: Let's give it a try. It is a technical issue. We are recording and we need to be able to understand, even though we can discern most of what you are saying. Please proceed and bear with us.

Dr Celi : I will not continue too much with the opening statement so as not to lose any question and answer time with the committee. I will just mention my submission to the Senate. My central tenet for that submission is to address some of the underlying domestic dynamics of unproductive behaviours and the psychological variables that can contribute to dysfunctional relationship dynamics and which are therefore the basis of more severe family violence occurrences. That could, therefore, help financial contributions to this area which could bring better social health returns. Is there still a connection?

CHAIR: Yes. Perhaps I could start with a couple of questions for you. You say in your submission that you do not believe that gender is relevant any longer; that it was relevant in the 20th century. Can you explain that statement and how that point you make in your submission relates to the issue of inquiring into domestic violence?

Dr Celi : As mentioned in the submission, certainly in past years, where women were at a disadvantage it was very important to highlight the issue from a gender perspective, and it has helped to bring us where we are today, no doubt. It is certainly very important. When it comes to the issue of abuse and violence, there is a lot more in terms of psychological variables with the dynamics that occur, in the realm of mental health issues and social health issues that contribute to unproductive behaviours as a basis of then more severe dysfunctional behaviours and abusive cycles that occur. As I mention in the submission, in order for any perpetrator to be able to have the kind of intimidation or fear impacts that they have on a person, it requires another person that enables that. I need to be very clear that this is not a blame issue; it is the interactive dynamics of psychological variables.

If we can start to address that issue now—so that the public are far more educated about family violence, far more aware of it and obviously not accepting of this in any kind of relationship—we can then start to efficiently address the issue and reduce the prevalence, because we are looking at what the key contributing factors are. Unfortunately, at this stage, gender as a determinant variable actually confounds the issue and is reducing the rate of progress because it polarises what we believe to be the key issues, being male and female. Given there are two genders we can look at, male or female, it gives us one of two choices, and it polarises the issue and creates an 'us versus them' dynamic, which then provides, unfortunately, a blanket over the underlying dynamics—that men and women, victim or perpetrator, actually need assistance to break the cycle and break the unproductive habits.

I have assisted many male victims, and men perpetrating abuse and violence, as well as females who have experienced abusive behaviours and also, unfortunately, who have been perpetrators of abusive and violent behaviours—non-judgementally assisting them with psychological skills, emotional literacy skills and verbal literacy skills in how they can better manage disagreements and any levels of conflict in their relationship. I need to acknowledge there are the more extreme ends of domestic violence—intimate partner terrorism, specifically—where a more strategic approach and social supports and systemic supports are very important. Does that answer some of your question?

CHAIR: I think so. I am interested in your definition of what the 'psychological variables' are in the mix.

Dr Celi : 'Psychological variables' are human psychological factors that anyone, male or female, can conduct. They include things like isolating behaviours, shaming of someone, manipulation—mental manipulation or emotional manipulation—naming and shaming, intimidating, demeaning, insulting, threatening to socially shame them, threatening reduced resources, put-downs, insults, belittling someone over a period of time, depending on frequency of these, over a day or over a week, and then the consistency over time. The pattern, as we know through a lot of the education about family violence, creates a battered psychology in the person on the receiving end, and so these psychological behaviours are important factors to be addressed. If we can do that in a non-gender-focused way—because they are actually human psychological behaviours; they are not gender behaviours—then we can start to really get to some of the key foundational issues that people in these situations are experiencing and need upskilling in in terms of their better psychological management of these situations and behaviours.

CHAIR: How would you describe a psychologically neutral family environment? Would that be one, in your view, where the male and the female, the woman and the man, are on equal terms?

Dr Celi : Sorry; I think we lost the connection. I did not hear any of the question.

CHAIR: My question was: would you describe a home environment or a domestic environment—I guess, in psychological terms—neutral if the partners are on equal terms? Is that your idea of the best case scenario?

Dr Celi : I am sorry, but I do not quite understand the question, Senator Lundy.

CHAIR: You have described a series of psychological variables that could be given effect by either partner in the relationship. My question to you is whether in your view, or from your research, the best case scenario is for those partners to be on genuinely equal terms in the relationship.

Dr Celi : Not necessarily. We are all going to have imbalances in what we might define as 'being on genuinely equal terms' with each other. One of the factors may be how a woman conducts herself and how a man conducts himself and their perceptions of what that might mean in the relationship. It does not necessarily mean patriarchal, though. There are many attitudes and traits that both men and women have as to their position in a relationship—their self-esteem, their self-image, their understanding of assertive communication and, their understanding of how to manage a disagreement—and to have normal conflict resolution within a relationship. We would all like the idea of everyone being on genuinely equal terms however that is defined. However, to keep polarising it according to men's power over women unfortunately induces too much defensiveness and antagonism from the word go, which is where the stifling of the rate of progress occurs. If someone is too busy trying to simply be heard or simply be a part of an interactive relationship that escalates matters. If the psychological skills and the verbal skills are not there and there is a huge disagreement in the first place it simply perpetuates a lack of skill that was there originally. Does that answer some of your question?

CHAIR: It goes to some way towards it. Senator Bernardi would like to ask you a question.

Senator BERNARDI: Dr Celi, you used the term 'patriarchal'. It is a term that we have heard quite often in this inquiry thus far. Are you really suggesting that, given the number of women who are subject to family violence versus the number of men, there is not a role that gender plays in family violence and the circumstances surrounding it?

Dr Celi : The role that gender plays in this situation is with regard to the unique experiences that men and women face—either being on the receiving end of unproductive behaviours or in instigating and being in a reciprocal cycle of unproductive behaviours. That is different to the common information we hear of 'patriarchal'. A lot of men are unfortunately labelled with this and are starting on the back foot, and if they speak up and defend themselves simply because as a human being they would like to have an equal place, it unfortunately gets labelled again as patriarchal.

Certainly gender plays a role in the unique experiences men and women have in receiving unproductive behaviours, and that would be the same for a female on the receiving end of unproductive behaviours from another female—and some of the psychological behaviours I outlined earlier for Senator Lundy. A female responding to that from another female is just as difficult for her to manage as it would be for a male receiving it from a female or a male. That is where gender plays an important role. However, I do not believe it is effective nor efficient any longer for it to be considered a determinant variable. It is stifling and it polarises an issue that is otherwise a mental health and social health issue to be addressed. And it unfortunately would not see the best use of funds, because it is only looking at half the picture.

Senator BERNARDI: In responding to the circumstances of family or domestic violence, there seems to be a substantial amount of funding directed towards women, because that is where the substantial number of victims seems to lie. Surely that is an appropriate distinction to make.

Dr Celi : Understandable. This comes to another comment made in my submission with regard to research—research design and then research reporting. When you have a look at research design and the history of where we are coming from with this issue, when women were certainly at more of a disadvantage than they are in the modern day, it was important to really highlight the matters that affected them and kept them at a disadvantage, to make the changes that eventually we have been seeing over these years. Where the issue has become quite skewed is that the research design will naturally enable women to report their experience, to an extent, because we need to take into account battered psychology and the fear that any victim of abuse and violence experiences, and their willingness to report.

The design certainly enables women to more easily report this, so that we can assist them. What the research design lacks is addressing the barriers that male victims also face, in order to facilitate their reporting. Men are working against not only individual factors of shame and fear and emotional exhaustion—the same kind of responses women experience in being on the receiving end of abuse and violence—but they are also experiencing several social barriers, where a gender bias has occurred in service providers. There could be a gender bias in the approach where they are not equipped to deal with male victims. So research design is not necessarily maximising its ability to capture the prevalence figures of male victims, in the same degree. Similarly, it is not asking women about their abusive or violent behaviours.

To give you an example, look at the USA national prevalence numbers—I know we have been talking about the USA here. Their design over a 10-year period, initially with over 2,000 couples, and 10 years later with 6,000 couples, actually asks near 3,000 women who self-reported that the assault by their male partner on them was at an equal rate to the assault by them towards their male partner. So women can also be the initiator and can state it. But a lot of research design has not overtly asked women about their abusive and violent behaviours.

When you look back at the underlying tenets of the dynamics of abuse and violence it is important to look at factors such as who initiates and then what the reciprocation cycle is. Again, this is not a blaming approach. It is about understanding that, whoever initiates and then reciprocates, an interactive cycle develops that escalates unproductive behaviour in the dysfunctional dynamics, and, unfortunately, more serious abuse and violence occurrences.

With the 500 couples in the family violence prevalence studies, it was self-reported by women, who were directly asked who initiated, that the man initiated in 25.9 per cent of the cases and the woman initiated in 25.5 per cent of the cases, and that man and woman initiated in 48.6 per cent of the cases. So we have near 50 per cent of what we call mutual abuse or mutual violence. These are some of the unproductive dynamics I am referring to. So when we ask the questions that capture the full picture, then we can see what the true prevalence rates are in terms of research design. Then, on top of that, in terms of research reporting we need to be mindful of how certain data points may be pulled out of context that leave a certain impression, when in actual fact we are not giving a whole-of-picture approach.

Senator BERNARDI: You referred to social inhibitions that are affecting some men. I will refer to those as cultural, because there is a cultural sense that men are meant to put up with some things—or there is a societal expectation. Are you suggesting that this is preventing men from reporting that they are victims of family or domestic violence?

Dr Celi : Yes, absolutely. This is one of the variables where gender influences the unique experience of the male or the female. In this case, the male has decades of information to the public, in effect, working against him—if I can put it that way. We have been educated that domestic violence is synonymous with male perpetration and female victimisation. And so, a lot of the public is educated in this way. Of course, it is important that they are made aware of that issue and I am certainly not denying its existence. No-one deserves to experience abuse or violence.

But it is not taking into account cultural factors of normal and natural masculine thinking, which is what prompted my first book on men's mental health—of their simple inhibitions or lack of social encouragement over the decades to really be open about their own experiences. It was not expected of men in the past. And so men are changing slowly in that respect. But there is a lot of shame in this issue and a lot of embarrassment already that they are in this position, and they have not received public education that certain psychologically abusive behaviours by their female partner—or even by other men in their lives—are actually abnormal and unproductive, and can have an effect on their mental and emotional health. Not having that information, they do not have a gauge of what is normal and when it becomes abnormal and unproductive. So it will take a while for men to actually feel competent to report their experience.

The other factor we need to consider is the social health aspects for men, where people disbelieve or invalidate their experience. That is a form of re-victimisation. For someone who is already receiving mental and emotional abuse, social abuse or financial abuse, it is a very insidious and difficult-to-gauge thing. To then be disbelieved, or invalidated or told to 'suck it up' et cetera further inhibits their ability to report it. So it is easier actually to deal with it by yourself. This only worsens the situation of family violence that we are all here to reduce! Unless we have a whole-of-picture approach and really deal with the social psychology to help anyone feel safe to report what they are experiencing and to approach and engage with services then, unfortunately, this issue becomes latent and we are not addressing the central tenet.

As a psychologist working one-on-one, I have assisted many males and females, as mentioned, on both sides of the coin to improve their psychological skills and to develop more productive behaviours and, as a result, to enhance their own relationships and break the cycle. I would think that is what we all want: breaking the cycle of abuse and violence, to bring more productive behaviours.

Senator BERNARDI: Thank you very much for your responses.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Those are all the questions we have for you, Dr Celi. I would like to thank you for your time this afternoon and for persevering with us through our technical challenges. If you have any other thoughts or if you would like to make a supplementary submission or write to the committee, please feel free.

Dr Celi : Thank you very much.

CHAIR: I would now like to thank all the witnesses who have given evidence to the committee today. I now declare this meeting of the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 14:58