There is probably no greater stigma affecting the world of psychology than the one that surrounds male victims of domestic violence. From being accused by support hotlines of being the perpetrator to being harassed by the police when they call for help to a general response of “Why would a guy let a woman hit him?” male victims face immense hurdles.
What is most shocking, according to Denise A. Hines, Ph.D., associate research professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., is not so much the stigma faced or the lack of help available but the high prevalence of the problem.
In looking through data on violence put out by the Centers for Disease Control, she found that, depending on how you define domestic abuse (was it considered “criminal behavior” or not), between 20 and 50 percent of abuse
victims in this country are male.
“Even with the CDC, when they release their survey data, they only focus on the female victims in press releases,” Hines said. “You have to dig through the survey data to find the numbers on men.”
Hines and other researchers at Clark and Bridgewater State Universities have been collecting data on male victims of domestic violence through two National Institute of Health-funded studies since 2007.
A violent domestic partner puts a non-violent man in a difficult position. In the data collected, the male victims explained that they felt trapped by the behavior because they were taught never to hit a woman. Plus, they feared actually hurting her if they did and they knew that, if they struck back, they would be the one blamed for the situation.
The male victims who participated in the study were, like female victims, subjected to a variety of other abuses including emotional and sexual abuse. While sexual abuse was slightly lower, the one area men are more at risk is with reputation damage.
“In focus groups, we found that this is the one thing that crushes them,” said Hines. “She files false accusations that can ruin his reputation with his job or in his community.”
Hines found also that men are more likely to have a difficult time finding help and getting people to take them seriously. Agencies or hotlines turned them away or told them to call a hotline for male abusers instead. With the police, the men would just as often be arrested after calling in a domestic dispute.
Hines is putting together an international follow up study looking at the children of female abusers and how the dysfunctional relationship affects them. They are more likely to be around the abuse for longer because it is more difficult for the man to leave the relationship. It can be worse, she added, in custody battle cases.
“If he can get help and get out, he still often loses custody,” said Hines, “and the children are left with an abusive woman.”
She has experienced resistance to her message, said Hines, especially in light of the limited funding for abuse victim support. There is also a sense that abusive women are just defending themselves since male abusers are more the norm.
“The guiding philosophy of most domestic abuse agencies has been that men use violence to maintain power and control in a patriarchal society,” she said. “But research doesn’t support that. Instead, we find that abuse is caused by dysfunctional relationships.”
The research team hopes to take the message of the issue of male abuse victims to a wider audience through public awareness campaigns, media and legislative advocacy.
“However we can get it out there, we are trying,” she said.
By Catherine Robertson Souter