Breaking the Silence

by Peter Vogel

The Minnesota Higher Education Centre Against Violence and Abuse (MINCAVA) operates a Web site on the Internet which aims to provide a comprehensive resource on domestic violence. The index of this Web page points to a vast amount of information about domestic violence against women. There is also an entry called "Men and domestic violence", which links to resources for men who are the targets of female violence in the home. Next to this index entry is a warning which reads: "Many may find the content offensive". There is no similar warning attached to the many pages discussing women as victims.

It seems that even in serious academic circles female-on-male violence remains a taboo subject.

Female-on-male violence occurs mainly in the home. No-one knows how prevalent it is. Some researchers have found that women attack men as frequently as vice versa; others claim that only 5% of domestic violence is female-on-male. Domestic violence against males has not been studied to the same extent as that against women, and one could argue forever about the methodology of those studies that have been done. Australian taxpayers are currently spending over $1m on a nation-wide survey of domestic violence which specifically excludes male targets from the terms of reference.

There has been much debate about "battered husbands" in the press lately, with feminists arguing towards the 5% end and masculists arguing the case for 50%. My view is that this argument is counterproductive for men, since as long as the focus is on proving who are the most worthy "victims", little is being done to help those men who are in trouble. It reminds me of the tobacco industry which argues that until we know how smoking causes cancer, we shouldn't do anything to reduce smoking. Whether males are on the receiving end of domestic violence in 5% or 50% of cases, we are still talking tens of thousands of Australian men in need of help.

How is it different for male targets?

A common argument minimising the seriousness of men being abused by women is that, due to the usual strength differential, a woman beating a man is not as serious as vice versa.

There is certainly some truth in this, but only when discussing physical beating in isolation. Domestic violence has a much broader scope than just physical hitting. From accounts I have heard of battered women and of battered men, it seems that the batterer will use whatever technique is effective in achieving the desired goal, which is usually to control or punish the other person. Strong women do use physical attack against weak men, although that is not the usual situation. Where the woman is physically weaker, she might use a weapon (flying crockery, knives boiling water, cars, guns) to compensate for strength differentials.

Or she may use different forms of abuse.

Not surprisingly, most studies confirm that the most common form of abuse by women against men is also the one most used by men against women; psychological abuse. This includes deprivation of basic needs such as contact with friends or relatives, threatening to hurt his children, public put-downs, humiliation and erosion of self-esteem. Women are at least as capable as men of verbal and behavioural abuse.

Only a small percentage of domestic violence involves physical attack, and as psychological abuse alone is not a crime, it is likely that most domestic abuse of men is not criminal. This makes police records fairly useless in measuring incidence.

Another difference between domestic violence against men and domestic violence against women is that men have more difficulty seeking help. Many men feel too ashamed to admit that they are being abused by a woman. In a world where men are reputedly in control of everything, and especially women, admitting to being controlled by a woman makes many men feel that there is something wrong with them; maybe they are not even a "real man". Men have related to me their experience of reaching out for help after years of struggle, only to be laughed at or turned away by police or crisis services. So the fear is often justified.

The other outstanding difference which emerged from men's stories time and time again is that women have a formidable weapon at their disposal should they chose to use it dishonestly -- the police and the courts. Because of prevailing community attitudes, police would never discount or disbelieve a woman calling for help, whereas men are likely to be treated - at best - with suspicion. Similarly, women can use restraining orders as weapons to control their partners. I have no idea how prevalent abuse of these processes is, and I am not suggesting that such protection should not be available; just that the protection provided is not gender-blind.

What are the similarities?

From the many stories of domestic violence I have received from men, I can see that they share much in common with females being abused. The big question for anyone who hasn't been in an abusive relationship is always "why doesn't the abused person leave?".

Here are some reasons domestic violence literature typically gives for women not leaving:

  • They are held prisoner in their own homes. Assailants use psychological terrorism and brainwashing techniques to keep them in the violent relationships.
  • They believe that therapy will help their batterers stop being violent.
  • They hope he will change and become non-violent.
  • They stay for their children.
  • There is no place for them to go.
  • They believe what most people in our society think about battered women (that they deserve to be battered, that they must have chosen a violent spouse, etc.)
  • Their assailants deliberately and systematically isolate them from support.
  • They believe in love and they still love their partners.
  • They believe what their assailant is telling them (such as, "you're crazy and stupid. No one will believe you". "The police will never arrest me.")

These reasons are equally applicable to men; the fact that a woman is likely to be less physically strong than the man does not make it any easier for him to leave. Some threats, such as the loss of contact with his children and the lack of somewhere to go, are particularly real for men. This comes through loud and clear in the stories of domestic abuse in this issue of Certified Male.

Another factor which must be considered is the emotional damage done to children. It is well understood that witnessing family violence often has profound effects on children, including increased likelihood that the children will grow up to become abusers. This must apply whether the aggressor is male or female.

What can we do?

Perhaps the greatest single difficulty for men who are being abused is isolation. They feel that they are freaks (since abuse of males is a taboo subject) and cannot talk to their friends about it. Domestic violence services are generally not open to helping men.

At a personal level, we need to make ourselves available to our male friends and get used to talking to each other about what's going on in our lives.

At the political level, we need to keep raising the issue of male targets of domestic violence, not in a competition to out-bid women for their victimhood, but to ensure that services are made available to men as well as women. There is no way of knowing how great the demand is for counselling, legal and other services for men. We need to make men feel safe to come forward for help, and to ensure that when they do, they are treated appropriately. I doubt that existing women's services are the best way of catering for men's needs. Men need to get involved in helping each other. The telephone counselling services described elsewhere in this issue could be a good place to start.

Breaking the silence must be our first priority. We will know that progress is being made when the MINCAVA index removes its "offensiveness" warnings.

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