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Each year thousands of innocent men are victims of violence in their own homes. Domestic violence is an established fact for these men, whether their partner is a man or a woman. These men suffer the same type of assaults as women victims, in roughly the same or greater proportion, and yet they are far less likely to report their victimization than women. What makes these men so reluctant to report their abusers?
For many men in abusive relationships, their reasons for staying, and for not reporting the violence, are tightly enmeshed. They are also very similar to the reasons given by women in abusive relationships. They are in love with their abusers. They hope the abusers will change. They believe that they have done something wrong which warrants this treatment. They fear losing their partners, children, homes, friends, etc.
Male victims of domestic violence are, however, different in significant ways from female victims. In addition to the issues they have in common with female victims, there are particular issues unique to male victims. The lack of attention paid to these issues is the biggest hindrance to helping male victims of domestic violence.
I. Fear Issues
II. Masculinity Issues
III. Emotional Issues
IV. Image Issues
V. Legal Issues
VI. Where Would the Male Victim Go?
Fear is one of the major deterrents to reporting domestic violence among both women and men. Both genders fear that the police will not help them. Both also fear that calling the police will make things worse. They fear that their abusers will become even angrier and will return from police custody to abuse them more severely.
Men have special fear issues not generally shared by women. These include the fear that they themselves will be arrested by police. The police may believe that the woman accused of abuse was violent only in self-defense. This fear is more likely to turn into a reality if the man has used physical force to defend himself. Any mark he may have left on a woman batterer as he acted in self-defense—for example, from holding her off or shoving her away—may be perceived as evidence that he was the batterer and she was defending herself. If this scenario should actually happen to the man, he is even less likely to report future violence.
For a man in a homosexual relationship, calling the police about his victimization brings with it the risk of maltreatment and disbelief from a homophobic officer. Gay victims may also fear social repercussions from the gay community for airing such a problem when it is already so difficult for them to gain acceptance in the larger community. Admitting that problems exist within gay relationships simply fuels the discrimination leveled against the gay community. Gay male victims may also fear that their victimization will be seen as resulting from their ‘‘choice’’ of lifestyle and therefore deserved.
Gay victims suffer under the further threat that they will be exposed if they report their domestic victimization. For those who are not open about their sexual orientation, fear of being discovered in a gay relationship often outweighs their fear of the damage their partners will inflict on them.
Men with disability issues also live with the fear that if they report the abuse, their abusive caretakers will abandon them. In these cases, fear is intertwined with dependency. For the gay community, AIDS is in many ways comparable to a disability in the straight community. The man with AIDS, like the man with any other terminal illness, knows he will become progressively more ill and will become more dependent on his partner for his medical care. The further his illness progresses, the fewer options he has for survival outside of the relationship.
The battered man may also fear a loss of self-respect, coupled with the fear that others—including the batterer, friends, family, and outsiders—will view him as being less than a man. Human society, over thousands of years and across virtually all cultures, has been organized around a patriarchal system in which the man is dominant and the woman subservient. When the woman is the batterer and the man the victim, this system is turned upside down. Both the man and the woman in this situation may be uncertain of how to renegotiate their relationship.
Traditional socialization of boy children includes admonitions against crying, against hitting girls, and against overreliance on others to solve personal problems. Boys are taught that a real adult man is strong, supports his family, and displays masculine characteristics such as daring, courage, and willingness to face danger. Boys are taught toward whom, when, and why they should use physical force. A man is not supposed to fight a woman—he is to come to her defense.
How is a man to translate his upbringing, which tells him to protect women, into useful action when a woman victimizes him? Fighting back is not viewed as an acceptable option. Crying is not viewed as an acceptable response. Admitting defeat and seeking help are also not options. These responses would be exactly the opposite of what almost every society’s version of masculinity dictates.
Many men derive their male identities in relation to their spouses and families. Being viewed as a good provider is a source of self-esteem that may otherwise be lacking in the abused man’s life. A good provider typically has a stable family with no outward problems. Admitting to victim status can be seen as revealing shortcomings as a man and as a provider.
For many couples their marriage vows are sacred and cannot be broken. This belief, combined with pressure from friends and family to stay together, creates a powerful deterrent to any behavior that would threaten the marriage. Add to this the pressure for the man to be a good provider and the man may feel that to report his wife’s violent behavior would let down the people most important to him. He would not be living up to his responsibilities or their expectations. He would also be failing in his role as husband and provider.
If the man is seen as neglecting his role to provide, protect, and dominate in his household, then he is easily seen as being less than a man. Male victims may deny, even to themselves, that they have a problematic relationship; they attempt to assert that they can handle the situation or that the situation is not what it really is—abuse. Asserting that he can take his wife’s abuse is a way of asserting manhood. Calling the police demonstrates a lack of manhood.
Denial also spares the man the public ridicule he fears if he should tell anyone of his plight. He wonders how his friends will react. He fears that they will belittle him and dismiss his problems as something he has foolishly allowed to develop by not taking charge of his home life. His self-image may thus be further damaged by admitting his victimization. His relationships with other men outside of his domestic situation may be the only arena he has to support some self-concept of being a real man.
Denial is also present when a man chooses not to seek medical attention when necessary for his injuries. If the damage a woman inflicts on him is bad enough to require a doctor’s attention, how can he assert that he is a real man and is in charge of his life?
An often overlooked feature in men’s lives is their emotional attachment to their mates. Men are taught from childhood to cover up their emotions. The level of success men have achieved in this cover-up has led to the belief that they do not possess emotions or that the emotions they do have are not as strong as those of a woman. This belief is incorrect. Men do form emotional attachments, and their behavior is often based on their attempts to preserve them.
A man’s emotional attachment to his mate has an effect on him that is similar to the effect a woman’s attachment has on her. He does not want to do anything to damage that attachment. Reporting his victimization may result in an end to that attachment. His mate may leave him or may be placed in jail. He is thus willing to tolerate behaviors from his mate that he would not accept from a stranger. His tolerance level for the violence may in fact be directly proportional to his attachment level and the level of threat to that attachment that reporting the abuse may pose.
Closely related to emotional attachment is sexual attachment. Ready access to sex would end if reporting the abuse caused an end to the relationship. Sex is often as much a need as an attachment. Maintaining a method of meeting one’s needs is a strong motivation to tolerate a level of unpleasantness in a relationship. Again, tolerance is proportional to attachment and need levels.
For an abused man, the accumulation of fear and anxiety over his self-image and his ability to cope with his situation creates a feeling of helplessness. The symptoms are similar to those of women suffering from what has come to be identified as learned helplessness. This occurs when a person is repeatedly victimized and comes to believe that there is no escape from the situation and no one to whom to turn for help. He or she becomes depressed, suffers from lowered self-esteem, and feels powerless to change both the current situation and its prognosis for the future. Many persons of both genders also take on feelings of responsibility for the violence, believing that they have somehow caused it and are deserving of it.
Dependency issues, whether from illness, disability, economics, or other sources, will contribute to the guilt victims feel. In the eyes of the victim, the abuser is seen as justified in using violence. The victim feels that he is a burden on the abuser and that if he were better able to take care of himself this would not happen. This ‘‘if only’’ trap keeps the dependent man within his abusive relationship and even causes him to defend his abuser’s behavior if anyone attempts to intervene.
Hope can also become a trap for the abused man. His hope that the woman will change or that the abuse will eventually subside keeps him in the relationship. Reporting the violence represents a loss of hope for the future. He remembers a time when the relationship was not so volatile and uses this memory as evidence that his hope is not in vain.
The news media contributes greatly to people’s views of the world. How the media chooses to portray certain classes of people creates for the general public images of who is socially respectable and who is not. The wording and visual images used in media are powerful persuaders. Female victims of domestic violence are portrayed as innocent women who suffer frequent and unprovoked attacks at the hands of men who are barely more than monsters. Male victims are portrayed as provoking the ‘‘punishment’’ they have received through their own stupidity. Their batterers are long-suffering wives who have been given saintly status for putting up with such men.
Mass media such as movies and television project this stereotype of abusive relationships. Survival stories of women who have overcome their abuse are popular fodder for made-for-TV movies on Sunday nights or on the Lifetime or Oxygen networks. Very few stories depicting women as batterers of men are depicted in this type of programming; the rare male victim is characterized as not as saintly or heroic as the women survivors.
This demonstrates for a male victim a choice of remaining silent or being publicly denounced as a dolt. If the man internalizes this image as reality, his self-conception can be greatly altered. He may even begin to believe that he is not very smart and that his wife is right to correct him. Even if he does not take on this image of himself, he may still remain silent in order to preserve his self-image as a man. He would see himself as different from the men who complain because he takes the abuse without complaining.
Federal legislation is also contributing to an image problem, where women are the only victims. The Violence Against Women Act implies by its very name that women, not men, are victims. At the very least it implies that male victims are unworthy of legislative attention.
When things in the home are so difficult, professional reputation seems to be the last vestige of the kind of life the man has worked for. Professional reputation is often linked in a man’s mind with respect, self-esteem, and his ability to be a good provider for his family. He may suffer from legitimate concerns over the damage to his reputation that would come from making his victimization public. This problem may be particularly acute for a man employed in a caring profession such as counseling or ministerial work. Status on jobs seen as requiring a masculine image—police officer, athlete, mechanic, etc.—may also be vulnerable to damage from revealing one’s victimization. The image of such a tradesman as a victim of domestic violence does not seem to compute.
Traditionally laws concerning violence in the family in America have been gendered in such a way as to imply or specifically state that the man is the abuser and the woman is the victim. These laws have been used to interpret what happens in violent homes and what the criminal justice system, including the police, should do about domestic violence cases. A woman’s fear is that her husband may be able to convince legal authorities to side with him. This is based on her fear of her husband. A man’s fear is that the legal authorities are automatically going to side with the woman. This fear is based on legal tradition. The wife’s emotional response (i.e., her tears) also typically outweighs anything the man can contribute to his case.
Family law related to divorce, division of assets, and child custody has also traditionally focused on women. Custody of children is normally granted to the woman, unless she is totally unfit to care for them. The father may have visitation rights or even partial custody. This does not always leave the father feeling that he has adequate access to or input with his children. He may feel that he has failed in his role as a father, and may question the appropriateness of leaving custody of his children to a woman he knows to be abusive. He may wonder what will happen to them if he leaves. If he takes them with him, he may face charges of kidnapping or interference with parental custody.
Division of assets in a divorce, even in a community-property state, typically means the wife gets the family home, or the home is sold and the proceeds split. Since traditionally men have had more stable and higher-paying jobs than women, courts have seen the male as being more readily able to start over with less. They have also seen him as able to continue to pay alimony and child support, thus forcing him to continue to have some kind of connection with his abuser. The reality is that the man will need to find a new home, which means that he will have to furnish and supply it. The economic costs are staggering and do not include the emotional costs involved in such a permanent end to the relationship. This is particularly true if the man is marginally employed or unemployed.
In addition to these civil issues, male victims have reason to be concerned about the response they may receive from the criminal legal system. Police are generally the first representatives of the system that victims face. The traditional response of police, even to female victims, has been to do nothing and hope that the parties work out their problems without killing each other.
Mandatory arrest policies have existed only since the 1980s and have generally been aimed at male abusers. Even in jurisdictions with mandatory arrest laws, the police do not always make an arrest in cases of domestic violence. In some cases, mandatory arrest policies have given way to preferred arrest policies. This means that the police have more legitimate discretion regarding whether to make an arrest. Police are just now being trained to determine which partner is the primary aggressor in a domestic incident and to arrest that person, regardless of gender. In many cases this means that both parties may go to jail as the police wait for the courts to sort out the complex situation they find. Use of criminal justice resources may not seem an acceptable option for a male victim for several reasons. Aside from the aforementioned fear that he will be arrested instead of or along with his abuser, he may not want his abuser arrested. Putting his children’s mother in jail may seem to be the ultimate betrayal of his manly responsibilities toward his family.
Another problem arises for the male domestic violence victim who has a criminal record. A man with a criminal record is more likely to be seen by police as the abuser, even if his record is not for violent offenses. If the police do arrest the abuser, prosecutors often choose not to pursue the case based on the difficulty of gaining a conviction. Juries often have a hard time believing that a man with a criminal record can be the victim, especially of a woman. The difficulty is compounded when the male victim has previously been arrested for domestic violence himself.
For some men the problem is related to their immigration status. Even if they are in the United States legally, if they are not citizens, they can be deported for criminal behavior. Language barriers and cultural beliefs such as prohibitions against airing family problems can also keep an immigrant male from seeking aid. Men who have immigrated from countries where the police and other government agencies are repressive often take great lengths to avoid interaction with such authorities in the United States. Their fear of the police in their home country was so great that they cannot believe that American police are to be trusted. For this reason, living with the abuse may seem safer than seeking aid.
In response to legal issues such as equal protection, gender neutral laws concerning domestic violence are now becoming the norm across the United States. The change in legal language is significant. Men are not labeled as abusers and women are not labeled as victims. With the recognition that families are not all composed of a husband, a wife, and their natural children, the definitions of family, domestic, and other terms denoting who is protected have also been expanded to provide coverage to a greater number of persons. However, these changes have been accomplished almost in secrecy. Agencies simply change their publications to reflect the new wording without so much as a thought to what it means to the public they serve or how their services might need to be changed. This leaves many male victims unaware that the laws have changed to provide them with protection. Ironically, these laws are ahead of the social trend rather than behind it.
Where Would the Male Victim Go?
Society has made a decent effort to see that battered women are provided with alternatives such as shelters and the many services available through them. There are limitations, however. There are not enough shelters, not enough beds, some shelters do not allow a woman to bring male children, pets, etc. Fund raisers, legal referendums, federal grants, and other tactics are constantly being used to overcome this lack of services for women, but what services are available to men?
Shelters are for women. Toll-free hotlines are for women. Emergency housing is for women. Legal advocacy is for women. The majority of free counseling services, job training, and other social-welfare services are for women. Even the pamphlets distributed by government offices concerning domestic violence are for women victims. If men turn to these services, they are turned away. Service providers cannot, will not, or do not know how to help male victims.
Physicians are being trained to screen the women who come to them with injuries to identify possible victims of abuse. If a victim is identified, she can be provided with an advocate, information on how to get help, and assistance with filing a police report and leaving the violent relationship. Physicians are not being trained to look for the signs of domestic violence victimization in the injured men they treat. The need for such training of physicians to screen injured males is not seen as an urgent issue. This opportunity to encourage men to report their victimization is thus lost.
In fact, many feminist advocates for women deny that men can be victims. They believe prima facie that the woman accused of abuse must have been fighting back against the violence of the man. If he was not being violent at the time, then he must have been violent in the past. They are also aware that if they acknowledge that men can be victims, it would take away from the limited funding, resources, and support available for women victims.
This leaves male victims with nowhere to turn for help except the police. However, once the male victim realizes that there is no help for him from the services generally provided to abused women, why would he assume that the police would be any different? The lack of services may be making these men feel even more hopeless and even less likely to report their victimizations. Experience has taught them that no one cares. As in the learned helplessness theory, they feel alone and see no escape.
Fear, lack of support, and limited options for seeking help have hindered the willingness of male victims of domestic violence to report their abuse. This lack of reporting in turn perpetuates the myth that men are not victims, they are only abusers. Advocates for abused men find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. It is difficult to draw attention to and create services for a population of victims who appear not to exist in official measures. And yet it is this very lack of attention and services that keeps male victims from coming forward.
Feminist denials that women can be perpetrators of domestic violence create blockages to creating services that are needed by both male victims and female offenders. Even if a woman recognizes that she has a problem, she cannot find help, as the batterer intervention programs are aimed at males. Denying the existence of both the victim and the offender creates a mystique that hides this problem from public attention. It also gives the man one less option to try to salvage his relationship. He cannot convince his female partner to seek help when there is none available.
Social apathy and feminist hostility has deterred not only the victimized men from coming forward, but also would-be advocates, researchers, and policymakers. The silencing of these sources continues to deprive battered men of the resources, information, and role models they need. Many opportunities to encourage these men to come forward are lost.
Due to the overwhelming neglect toward the plight of male victims, there are no rallies, no sponsored events, and no spokesmen. There are no men who are held up as role models who have survived abusive relationships. In short, abused men have no examples to follow. They have no heroes to help them overcome their fears and step forward. The media images of male victims show exactly the kind of man most victims do not want to be.
Just providing services will not be enough to make men step forward and report victimization. Even just applying the services already available to females will not be enough. There will still be issues relating to what happens to his children and pets when he leaves. There will also still be issues of overcoming his fears, maintaining his masculine self-image, and providing legal remedies that will be truly responsive to his needs. Most importantly, social support, acceptance, and encouragement will need to be present in order to win the trust of men who have been victimized in their homes and neglected in society.
- Cook, Philip W. Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.
- Dobash, Russell P., and R. Emerson Dobash. ‘‘Women’s Violence to Men in Intimate Relationships.’’ British Journal of Criminology 44 (2004): 324–349.
- Gosselin, Denis Kindsch. Heavy Hands: An Introduction to the Crimes of Family Violence, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall, 2005.
- James, Thomas B. Domestic Violence: The 12 Things You Aren’t Supposed to Know. Chula Vista, CA: Aventine Press, 2003.
- Mills, Linda G. Insult to Injury: Rethinking Our Responses to Intimate Abuse. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
- Steinmetz, Suzanne. ‘‘The Battered Husband Syndrome.’’ Victimology 2, no. 3/4 (1978): 499–509.
- Stith, Sandra M., and Murray A. Straus, eds. Understanding Partner Violence: Prevalence, Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. Minneapolis: National Council on Family Relations, 1995.
- Walker, Lenore. The Battered Woman Syndrome, 2nd ed. New York: Springer Publishing, 2000.
- Wallace, Harvey. Family Violence: Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.
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