The silenced minority

It’s important to remember men can be victims of domestic abuse, too.

by Brian Reinken

Because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’d like to address the strain of domestic abuse people are the least aware of: abuse directed at men.

For those of you who are still reading, I’ll justify the decision. There is, in short, absolutely no sexism involved in confronting the violence directed toward men. Raising the issue doesn’t diminish the legitimate and horrifying nature of the crimes perpetrated against women. Rather, it provides depth and context for an extremely important social issue.

Awareness isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s possible to become informed about one issue without losing ground on another. Neither gender has a monopoly on cruelty. And isn’t an awareness month intended to raise, well, awareness?

A study by the Centers for Disease Control indicates more men than women were victims of intimate partner physical violence and more than 40 percent of severe physical violence victims were men in 2010.

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported that in 2011, an estimated 5,365,000 men and 4,741,000 women were victims of intimate partner physical violence.

If rape is included, the number of women climbs to 5,427,000. This, however, creates the problem of double-counting rape and physical violence, which were associated, the survey found, in more than 80 percent of cases. Even with rape included, the numbers — 5,427,000 women versus 5,365,000 men — are statistically close, suggesting that men and women are almost equally likely to be domestically abused.

This trend is all the more disturbing when other factors are taken into account. Dr. Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire found that domestic violence was more likely to be mutually or female-initiated than male-initiated. Men, too, are more likely than women to be threatened by their intimate partner with a knife or a firearm. One study shows that 63 percent of males as opposed to 15 percent of females had a deadly weapon used against them in a fight with an intimate partner.

These statistics aren’t commonly known. Women are the stereotypical victims of domestic violence, so it can be difficult for a man to share his story. Male victims who seek help often report that hotline workers say they only help women, imply the men must be the instigators, ridicule men or refer them to batterers’ programs. Police, meanwhile, are reluctant to take action against a woman who is accused of abusing her partner.

Even when men attempt to seek help, there are few places for them to go. England and Wales are home to approximately 7,500 battered women’s shelters. There are only 60 for men. In the U.S., the same phenomenon is observable, and many shelters have age limits that deny sanctuary to boys older than 13.

Despite all of this, when a man brings up the issue of male victims, there is an expectation that he would be pejoratively labeled as a men’s rights activist. Domestic violence, however, isn’t a sexually restrictive or gender-restrictive term. Although it’s most commonly associated with women, the number of male victims is substantial.

Ironically, the argument invoked by a swath of revisionist feminists — that men have all the power in society and that they use this power to control women — actually serves to socially disempower male victims of abuse. Phrased differently, anti-male sexism discourages men from speaking up about their victimization.

We expect men to be powerful and in control. We expect men to be tough, resilient or unflinching. But, despite what society seems to suggest, there is nothing weak about the men who seek help — or want to seek help — for domestic abuse.

The exact origin of the stigma against male victims is difficult to pinpoint. One could perhaps accuse the media. On television, a man who hits a woman is certainly viewed differently from a woman who hits a man. The media, however, only reflect a deeper trend in society, one that is so deeply ingrained that it continues to stand even against all the statistical evidence.

Although domestic abuse awareness campaigns typically focus on women, it’s important to include the men who have suffered, too. Male victims must confront the same problems as women. Additionally, they must survive in a society that tries to deny their existence. Helping these men may require a new way of thinking about and dealing with domestic abuse.

This month, of course, is an excellent time to start doing whatever we can to help all victims of domestic abuse — regardless of their sex.