According to some parts of the NZ blogosphere (in the comments here), asking all women who are admitted to hospitals questions about domestic violence implies that all men are abusers. The simple act of asking a woman these questions says that the person who asks the question, or the person who causes them to be asked, thinks that the woman’s partner is abusive.
I think there’s a much more positive way to look at it.
At my local supermarket, everytime I go to the checkout with a bottle of wine, the checkout operator is required to summon the supervisor, who makes the decision about whether or not I look old enough to be legally allowed to buy alcohol. As it turns out, even a schoolkid on minimum wages who can barely string together a coherent sentence would only need to glance at me to see that I am well over the age of 18, and for that matter, well over the age of 25 (the ‘safety’ age that most supermarkets use – if you look younger than 25 you will be asked to produce ID). I have greying hair, which I don’t colour (a form of vanity in itself), a figure that shows some evidence that I have had three children, and my clothing is fairly conservative – no crop tops for me! But insisting that the checkout operator calls the supervisor means that there is no room for capricious judgement. I don’t feel insulted – it’s just the system, and an utterly impersonal one at that. And it’s a good one. It means that I can’t stand over the checkout operators and put pressure on them. Not so important in my case, given that I am legally allowed to buy alcohol anyway, but there are three secondary schools within walking distance of the supermarket, so there are plenty of kids around who might like to be able to buy alcohol. Plus no one is making personal judgements about me: they are just working within the rules that have been set up by that supermarket.
The same sort of approach is used with random breath testing. Everyone gets stopped, everyone gets tested, no one gets targetted based on how they look and what type of car they drive, no one gets out of testing based on how they look and what type of car they drive. No caprice, no personal judgement, just the system. A system moreover, that has been set up through democratic practices.
I think this holds true with the domestic abuse screening questions too. No one is going to be looking a male partner up and down, and making value judgements about him, based on his appearance. No one is going to subject someone to the questions because they have taken a dislike to that person. The questions will be applied impersonally, without the possibility of capricious judgement.
A driftnet approach maybe. And 90% or maybe even 95% or 99% of the time, nothing will be caught, because as it turns out, most men are decent people who do not use violence against their partners and children. But it will also catch the people who need help, and it should help to cut the appalling rate of violence against children and women in this country.
I do think that we need to have a look at the extent to which men are subject to abuse too, but despite claims to the contrary, it does seem that more domestic violence is perpetrated by men than by women, by a factor of roughly two to one. The most recent authoritative data I could find was in the 2001 Social Report by the Ministry of Social Development. Men are equally likely to be victims of violence, but they are also more likely to be assaulted by a stranger, whereas women are more likely to be assaulted by someone who is known to them, as are children. However, perhaps the screening questions could be extended to men as well. Not only are there sure to be cases where a female partner is the source of violence in a household, against children as well as against her partner, but there must also be gay couples where one person is violent.
I’m not sure how else we can identify violent situations, where women, and in the light of recent events, especially children, are in mortal peril. Targetted approaches run the risk of capriciousness, personal and perhaps vindictive assessments of particular people. Broad based screening approaches do not.