Making Violent Fathers Invisible

For a number of years it has been documented trough research and practice that men’s violence against women is an issue of direct concern for children living in the family. Most children have seen or heard violence – and have thereby been subjected to emotional abuse – and many have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence themselves as well. Furthermore, it is clear that that some men continue to use violence (including threats of violence) against both women and children post separation or divorce.

More recently the contrary way that policy and practice tends to operate, concerning men’s violence against women on the one hand and child custody and contact on the other, has become of increasing concern to feminist scholars and activists in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. In my doctoral thesis in sociology – In the shadow of Daddy: family law and the handling of fathers’ violence (Eriksson 2003) – I document a number of problems in contemporary Sweden in protecting children and mothers/co-parents from post-separation violence from fathers. Some of these problems concern the practices of the courts and their interpretations of fathers who are violent to women. Other problems concern the practices of the professionals providing the courts with information about the child’s situation. Using Sweden and my own empirical material as the case in point, I argue that well established notions of heterosexuality, of motherhood and fatherhood, as well as of childhood create specific obstacles in the work to combat men’s violence.

Can the category of ”normal father” include violence?

In the thesis I draw upon three sets of qualitative empirical material, and one of the sets consists of interviews with a group of social workers specialised in family law. In legal conflicts concerning contact, custody or residence they investigate and write reports about the child’s situation to the court. Normally, joint conversations and/or mediation are regarded as best practice, and joint custody and contact are regarded as the best solution post-separation. A closer analysis of the interviews with these eight women and two men from eight workplaces in Sweden shows that on the one hand, cases where the father has been violent to the mother are perceived as cases needing to be dealt with in a special way. On the other hand, it is clear that some cases with violence are regarded as “normal” cases. There seems to be space for negotiating the meaning of violence in the particular case among these professionals. In some of the interviews, this space for negotiation is quite extensive.

Consequently, some fathers seems to be able to use a certain amount of violence against women/their partner and co-parent without qualifying as violent in the eyes of the professionals. This is the case if, for example, there is no criminal law verdict regarding violence, if his violence has not been physically very serious or frequent, if it started in conjunction with the separation, if his victim – the mother – has not been physically injured or does not seem to be very scared, and if the fathers stands out as ”normal” in other respects. Here, it should be added that in these interviews normal implicitly means white: ”Swedish”. If a father can be defined as a normal father joint custody and unsupervised contact is the self-evident alternative – in spite of a history of violence – and the question of risks for the childslips out of focus. The professionals’ understanding of violence in heterosexual intimate relations, more specifically, their tolerance for fathers’ dominance and violence in intimate relations and norms prescribing male dominance and female subordination, undermine other attempts to protect both women and children.

Splitting fathers’ violence to women from violence to children

There is more than one reason for the question of risks for children slipping out of focus. The connection between men’s violence to adult women and the victimisation of children documented through research is not very well known by the interviewed professionals. Instead, they present fathers’ violence against mothers and against children as more or less unconnected phenomena. This spit especially concerns sexual abuse of children. While physical child abuse is constructed as sometimes occurring, although not very often, mothers’ narratives about child sexual abused are interpreted against a mistrusting backdrop. The professionals argue that mothers suspect sexual abuse because of their own childhood victimisation, and that mothers can use “allegations” of abuse to win the case. Furthermore, they talk about a “wave” of incest allegations in Sweden in the late 1980s and early 90s, and this “wave” is presented as exaggerated and not based upon real cases of abuse. This raises the question what chance there is for a sexually abused child to get protection if there is a legal conflict regarding contact, custody or residence.

Here I want to add that the kind of child victimisation the professionals are quite concerned about is children’s witnessing of violence. However, it should also be noted that the emotional abuse of children is closely associated with the mother’s presence: it is implicitly assumed that when the father and mother do not see each other any more, the child is not emotionally abused. The question of what the violence to the partner might mean for the father’s views regarding, and behaviours to, children becomes a non-question. Father’s who are violent to women are in other words presumed to be not just physically and sexually, but also emotionally peaceful to children.

Not talking to children about their experiences

The patterns described above are also made possible by the fact that the ”standard” method for conducting investigations in these cases is not suitable for documenting children’s experiences of violence. The professionals state that they see almost all children concerned. However, the main aim with the conversations they have with children is to fulfil the requirements of the law that is that the report documents the child’s ”wish”. Some of the professionals say that they do not talk to children about violence since they do not have appropriate methods, and others argue that investigation is not treatment or counselling and that it would be irresponsible and unprofessional to start something with (dependent and possibly victimised) children that they cannot follow up. It is clear that although it is possible for the respondents to ask for help from additional expertise, for example, within the child- and youth psychiatry, or to involve the child protection agencies this is not done systematically in cases with violence from fathers.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the assessment of whether, for example, contact is safe enough for the child is not grounded in the particular child’s experiences of, and views on, violence. This is at least partly due to constructions of adequate adult and professional approaches to children in these legal processes. Thus, the assessment must be based upon something else. The questions are: on what? Here, notions of children’s needs, as well as gendered constructions of parenthood become of central importance.

Constructions of the Child and interpretations of children

The professionals presume that (biological) heterosexual parenthood is the natural and normal form of parenthood and that children need a two-sex/gendered environment when growing up. Therefore, and in line with the Swedish family law, children are presumed to need a close contact with both parents post-separation. This is presumed to be true also for children who have experienced violence.

Notions of the needs of a general “Child” are of great importance for the interpretation of concrete children. This becomes very clear, for example, when the respondents talk about children’s wishes as regards contact. When the interview conversations concern children who say that they want to see their fathers these children’s accounts are presented as genuine expressions of the child’s wishes. However, when the interviews concern children who say that they do not want to see their father – and the children’s accounts are in conflict what the general Child is presumed to need – these children are presented as dependent upon, and influenced by, their mothers. The thought that a child’s wish not to see the father might be part of the child’s strategy for protection against violence is not very close at hand.

Some of the professionals argue that especially children who have experienced violence need safe and good contact with the father, to help them to see that he is not just ”bad”. Children are presumed to be able to work through their previous experiences through contact. In this way, contact is presented as therapeutic for the victimised Child. However, whether a particular child is actually experiencing contact as safe or not is hard to know when this child’s perspective on violence is not explored and documented in the investigation. Furthermore, it is not clear who is responsible for evaluating how contact is actually working for the particular child.

”A bad parent but a good dad”

In the interviews, all of the professionals were asked how they perceive ”abused women as mothers” and ”violent men as fathers”. While it was relatively easy to get an answer to the first question, it was more difficult to get answers about fathers. The respondents had a lot to say about the parenthood of abused mothers and they were all relating to the notion of ”the inadequate abused mum” in some way. However, when the interviews concerned the parenthood of violent fathers it was sometimes not possible to get an answer at all. In other interviews the respondents started to talk about what the mothers in question, or the children, were thinking about the fathers. Thus, established ideas as regards fathers comparable with the notion of the inadequate mother can not be found in this interview material. The “inadequate violent dad” does not exist.

A closer analysis of the respondents’ speech about mothers and fathers makes this silence understandable. The professionals tend to use a gender complementary construction of parenthood as their point of departure. Motherhood means main responsibility and fatherhood means being complementary to the mother-as-main-carer: a father is the other parent doing things with the kids, making sure that children have parents with two sexes/genders. However, the ideology of gender equality is also visible in the interview accounts and the professionals are using an in-principle gender neutral construction of parenthood as well. Here, mothers and fathers are presumed to be more or less the same as parents. I argue that this construction of parenthood is implicitly gendered since it is motherhood that is the standard for good parenthood. Furthermore, that this is the consequence of the intersection between age and gender and the fact that the definition of good motherhood is tied to ideas of what a child is and needs: when good motherhood is to be responsible for the good childhood, motherhood becomes the standard for good parenthood (cf. Alanen 1992).

Taken together these two constructions of parenthood mean that while there is only one standard for mothers – regardless of whether it is called motherhood or parenthood – there is a double standard for the parenthood of fathers. Even if a particular father might be defined as a bad parent since he is not taking responsibility for his child’s need of safety and protection from experiences of violence, he can be defined as a good dad, doing funny things with the kids and making sure that they have a two sex/gendered environment when growing up. The double standard for the parenthood of fathers creates a vast space for action for violent fathers when they encounter these professionals. While “bad parent but good mam” is unintelligible, the notion of ”bad parent but good dad” seems to culturally intelligible.

Fathers’ violence on the policy and research agendas?

The patterns described above are clearly not unique to this group of professionals. For example, research on fatherhood and the practices of fathers have typically focused on ”normal” fathers or ”new” fathers but not on violence, and there has been a lack of focus on men as fathers in the literature on men’s violence against women (see Eriksson 2002; Hautanen 2005; Peled 2000). Furthermore, in spite of the fact that men’s violence against women has increasingly become present on the policy agenda in, for example, Sweden in recent years, the issue of violence from fathers is still marginal to the public debate on gendered violence.

In my thesis I review governmental printed material in Sweden in the 1990s that concerns either violence in close relationships; parenthood separation and divorce; or children at risk. The conclusion that can be drawn from this review is that in contemporary Sweden we have “violent men” or “fathers” (presumed to be peaceful). The only example that can be found in this material where violence is associated with the father-position or notions of fatherhood is the issue of the victimisation of girls/young women in ”patriarchal family structures”, that is, the discussion that explicitly concerns ethnic minorities, and so called immigrants. “Swedish” violent fathers do not seem to exist.

According to the sociologist Sylvia Walby (2002) inadequate interventions can be regarded as part of the cause of violence. The lack of political and professional recognition and intervention can in other words be defined as part of the cause of fathers’ violence against children and mothers/co-parents in contemporary Sweden. Furthermore, the lack of research on this topic is also part of the problem. Here lies a substantial challenge for researchers – in Sweden and elsewhere.

By: Maria Eriksson


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Peled, E. (2000). Parenting by Men Who Abuse Women: Issues and Dilemmas. British Journal of Social Work,Vol. 30, no. 1, 25-36.

Walby, S. (2002). Reducing gendered violence: Defining, measuring and interpreting inter-personal violence and responses to it. In Eriksson, M., Nenola, A., Nilsen, M. M. (eds.): Gender and violence in the Nordic countries. Copenhagen: The Nordic Council of Ministers,TemaNord 2002:545, 15-29.

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2004 © NIKK

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