The Obsession With Physical Violence

Examining society's views of domestic violence being physical from a sociological perspective.

The Obsession With Physical Violence

Domestic violence is a social issue in Australia where over a third of women experience various forms of violence from intimate partners1. The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project (1984) acknowledges domestic violence as involving more than just physical and sexual violence. Other forms defined were; economic abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse (coercion, threats, intimidation, minimising, denying, blaming), social abuse (isolation), and gender abuse (use of male privilege)2.

To address the issue of domestic violence, existing social attitudes and myths surrounding domestic violence need to be challenged, particularly the widespread attitude that it is not really domestic violence if there is no physical element involved.

The media, as a large contributor to the collective knowledge within Australian society, continues to obstruct society and individuals from identifying other forms of domestic violence. The Australian media are guilty of perpetuating social collaboration of domestic violence via the reinforcement of the myth that domestic violence needs to have a physical element.

Media focus & trend of physical violence in domestic violence

Government media campaigns are designed to bring awareness of domestic violence as a social issue to the general population and to address social misconceptions about domestic violence. However the focus is usually on physical violence, with other forms of violence being obscured which builds on the belief that domestic violence and physical violence are synonymous.

In the national television campaign for domestic violence awareness, the issues depicted dealt with physical or sexual violence only3. In another media source, Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd attempted to address one social attitude by saying that statistics did not confirm the belief that women are equally likely as men to commit domestic violence. The statistics provided were on physical assaults between partners4, reinforcing the belief that domestic violence is physical violence.

Other examples can be found in news reports which focus on assault or injury resulting from physical domestic violence in their headlines – “Man bites off ex-wife’s ear”5, “Sports presenter’s attack leaves ex in wheelchair”6, “Woman stabbed in eye with a stick”7, and “Man jailed over bashing death”8. Other reports covered the victim’s experiences, describing how the perpetuator raised “his foot to kick [the victim] in the head”, and how the only thing the woman could hear was the “loud beat of [her] heart”9.

Domestic violence free zone depicting physical violence.
Domestic violence material depicting physical violence. Credit: Ben Pollard | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

With such graphic accounts and the use of laden language such as variants of “bash”[8] 10 11, and “shocks police”12, readers are left “think[ing] of the external signs: black eyes, broken bones, bruises or bleeding”13 and associating this visual image with domestic violence.

The focus on physical violence was a common phenomenon in domestic violence and assault coverage. Even when other forms of abuse are mentioned, like in the news on new domestic violence laws14, the emphasis on physical violence remains. While a  Sunday Telegraph article focused purely on verbal abuse [13], the photograph that went with the article showed a man with a raised fist implying physical violence.

Initiatives which are focused at stopping domestic violence often have mottos or titles which carry implications of physical violence. On ABC’s 7:30 Report, the Normanton Stingers running an anti-domestic violence campaign, are credited for a 55% decrease in domestic violence in the Normanton region, by urging the community to “leave the big hits on the field”. [10] The New South Wales State Government’s joint initiative with local football clubs is called “Tackling Domestic Violence”15.

Regardless of the intent behind the topics covered in the media, there is a considerable trend of focusing physical violence with domestic violence through use of language, images and social identities associated with physical violence.

The National Survey on Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women explains this widespread similarity by detailing how the majority of Australians view physical abuses as more serious than non-physical abuses, and states that “Physical violence is still most readily identified as domestic violence”16. It would appear the media is not immune to widely held social attitudes towards domestic violence and is both reflecting society’s attitudes and perpetuating the “violent-supportive attitudes” discussed in the aforementioned National Survey.

Media influence on physical violence and domestic violence attitudes

The ability of the media to impact individuals in society was researched by Rogers and Dearing (1987), finding that media influence is stronger in cases where individuals have limited knowledge of the issues covered17.

Given the statistics on Australian beliefs regarding domestic violence [16], it appears that the Australia media is in an optimal position to influence social attitudes and in some cases may perpetuate said attitudes in their focus and approach of physical violence.


Domestic violent man with hand over abused woman's mouth.
Domestic violence silences women. Credit: Daniela Brown | Safe Horizons | CC BY-ND 2.0

The belief that it is not really domestic violence if there is no physical violence, is both a part of obscuring [16] and minimising attitudes 18 and those attitudes contribute to establishing this common myth as a social fact.

With media coverage on domestic violence issues placing domestic violence in the public sphere, and even with government sources actively working towards combating misconceptions about domestic violence, there still remains an underlying implication that domestic violence needs a physical element to be considered domestic violence.

As seen in the 55% decrease in domestic violence in Normanton [10], media sources can have positive impact, however the focus on the physical aspects can impede understanding of domestic violence where there isn’t physical violence present, by minimising the range of behaviours that form the full structure of domestic violence.

Lack of understanding and ability to identify behaviours within the domestic violence spectrum across society has resulted in a media focus on the physical aspects of violence. This in turn, reinforces the very attitudes that are being identified as a social problem in Australia.


  1. Mouzos, J. & Makkai, T. (2004). Women’s experiences of male violence: findings from the Australian component of the international violence against women survey. Australian Institute of Criminology Research and Public Policy Series, 56(56), 1-162.
  2. Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. (1984). Power and control wheel. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  3. Australian Government. (2004, June 6). Violence against women: Australia says no. Melbourne:The Seven Network.
  4. Harrison, D. (2009, November 26). PM hails attitude shift on violence. The Age, p. 9.
  5. Nancarrow, K. (2009, September 11). Man bites off ex-wife’s ear. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  6. Ritchie, K. (2009, April 16). Sports presenter’s attack left ex in wheelchair. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  7. Stewart, P. (2009, September 9). Woman stabbed in eye with stick. Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  8. Man jailed over bashing death. (2009, November 23).  Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  9. Robinson, N. (2009, November 18). Home is where the hate is. The Australian, p. 13.
  10. Hawke, B (Executive Producer). (2008, October 28). The 7.30 Report. Sydney: ABC.
  11. Wilson, A. (2008, May 19). Remote Women live with violence. The Australian, p. 6.
  12. Domestic violence case shocks police. (2009, October 16).  Retrieved April 7, 2010, from
  13. Barr, L. (2010, April 4). When words wound. The Australian, p. 8.
  14. Reporting of domestic violence expected to become NT law. (2009, October 16).  Retrieved April 7, 2010.
  15. Grant, K. (2009, May 11). Living Black. Melbourne: SBS.
  16. Victorian Health Promotion Foundation. (2009). National Survey on Community Attitudes to Violence Against Women. Melbourne: Author.
  17. Van Krieken, R., Habibis, D., Smith, P., Hutchins, B., Haralambos, M., & Holborn, M. (2006). Sociology: Themes and perspectives (3rd ed.). Frenchs Forest, NSW: Pearson Education Australia.
  18. Peters, J. (2008). Measuring myths about domestic violence: Development and initial validation of the domestic violence myth acceptance scale. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 16(1), 1-21.

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