The shame of being a male victim of domestic violence
Up until a few years ago, Sam*, 42, was a well-paid executive in good health. Now he is jobless and fragile, having gone through the emotional wringer. He had never experienced any form of violence until he met his second wife, Jane,* via social media.
After months of phone calls he flew to meet her in Detroit, where she lived. There romance was, he admits with an embarrassed laugh, like something out of a Danielle Steel novel. Fast forward many months of bureaucracy and red tape and they are living in Geelong.
The problems started when Jane would phone her mother, who Sam describes in no uncertain terms as an “alcoholic, narcissist and emotional blackmailer”. Parents often set the stage for how emotions within the family are dealt with and Jane, he discovered, carried a legacy of dysfunction. “I could hear her mum yelling at her and her stress levels would go through the roof. She started taking it out on me.”
After one transatlantic screaming match, she put a tea towel around his neck and tried to strangle him, leaving a burn mark. She began to wreck his possessions, smashing a framed Geelong Football Club jumper and many of his sporting trophies. One night she punched him in the face and broke his glasses.
Sam drove away and when he returned, his face still covered in blood, the police were in the drive. “They told me I’d have to leave for 72 hours. I wasn’t given a reason. They just said it was protocol.”
Sam went to his mum’s, but wonders where men go if they don’t have a supportive family. Thankfully, he too had managed to secretly record some of the worst attacks. He went to court and was granted an intervention order to protect him from his wife.
She returned to the US last year but Sam is a changed man. Like a glass vase that has been smashed and the pieces reconfigured, he retains the essence of who he is, but the shape of his life is completely different.
He has had to give up his job along with the six-figure salary and mounting debts have forced him into bankruptcy. “Things were starting to wear down on me. My brain wasn’t working. I couldn’t get things straight in my head and I started to find work difficult. I am an extremely logical person but I couldn’t understand how someone who says they love you could yell, belittle or hurt me.”
Gregory Riddett, a social worker and counsellor specialising in family violence, believes there are double standards at play when it comes to domestic assault. We have, he argues, invested too heavily a gendered model of family violence. Simplistic feminist assumptions about male power and female oppression just perpetuate old stereotypes. At his practice in Werribee he counsels both same sex and straight couples in abusive relationships. He points to several studies that show lesbians experience domestic violence at a similar rate to that of heterosexual women. This, he says, is where the whole paradigm falls apart.
Statistics muddy the waters further. According to Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) one in four women have experienced at least one incident of violence by an intimate partner.
Meanwhile One in Three, a campaign group dedicated to raising awareness of male victims of family violence, is so named because it says that up to a third of all victims are male. However, the campaign’s title is open to misinterpretation. Whilst both organisations cite the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey as evidence, unpacking the one in three claim a little further reveals that attacks on male partners by women are by no means common.
The 2012 PSS survey shows that 8.2 per cent of all men have experienced violence by a female intimate partner – roughly one in twelve – with almost a quarter of all victims of intimate partner violence being male. The one in three reference alludes to victims of family violence (where the abuse is carried out not just by partners but other family members) and is sourced from multiple data.
Part of the problem is how to define an act of violence and sufficiently address its impact, meaning or context. Howard Todd-Collins, psychotherapist and director of Melbourne-based Men and Relationships Counselling, cautions against getting embroiled in a political clamour that can leave victims feeling unheard.
Current culture dichotomises men as either buffoons or superheroes. A woman using physical violence on a man will be played for laughs with the joke being that any man weak enough to be harmed by a woman isn’t really a man at all.
Many men, like Sam, have been ingrained with the notion that you never hit a woman and would rather sit on their hands than fight back. And there is no one to tell. According to Greg Andresen, researcher and founder of One in Three, men can expect a “mixed bag” reception if they do try to get help.
Police have been known to tell victims to “grow some balls” whilst crisis lines for domestic assault callers have little training in how to counsel men. Andresen, though, is hopeful for change.
In Victoria, the Royal Commission into Family Violence has recommended support services should develop joint arrangements to ensure that male victims of family violence are supported in obtaining the help they need within the next two years, and in New South Wales the Baird government recently announced a plan to spend $13 million over the next four years on support programmes for men.