Silent suffering: Men as victims of domestic violence
Since 1980, when Maryland's Domestic Violence statute was enacted, our courts have increasingly grappled with the effects of domestic violence on families. Studies have shown repeatedly that violence is a ubiquitous part of American life, beginning in the home.1 Most, if not all, of the attention, however, has been focused on women victims.
Research bears out that women are indeed injured more frequently and more severely at the hands of their husbands, than are husbands by their wives.2 What we need to understand, however, is that violence in the home is not always measured in bruises and broken bones.
It is identified by the improper use of power to control and dominate others.
While more men than women use violence and aggression to control spouses, research suggests that a significant number of women are the aggressors, and that their aggression, like that of their male counterparts, is designed to control and terrorize their spouses.
Although men make up a significant percentage of domestic violence victims, their needs are unrecognized at best and ignored at worst. Law enforcement personnel, lawyers and judges need to increase their awareness of this silent minority and should be willing to tailor intervention and services so that the behavior, not the gender, of the perpetrator is the focus.
Raising public awareness of men as victims of domestic violence not only fosters compassion and understanding: it can help us address the violence before it begins, raise healthier families and begin to eliminate violence as an acceptable family interaction.
Studies about abuse
The question of whether or not men are victims of domestic violence and the extent to which the problem exists have been the focus of research and dispute for several years.
Studies about spousal abuse fall into two distinct categories: Crime Victimization Studies and Family Conflict Studies.3 Each of these methods has unique strengths and flaws; each type of study yields significantly different results.
Crime Victimization Studies show lower overall rates of violence and lower rates of female-to-male violence. They primarily conclude that domestic violence is "rare, serious, escalates over time, and is perpetrated by men."4
Family Conflict Studies show higher rates of overall violence in families and thus, higher rates of female-to-male violence. Generally, they conclude that violence in families is common, stable across social structures, usually involves low injury rates and is perpetrated on a fairly equal basis by both men and women.5 Studies designed to evaluate external risk factors for domestic violence, such as employment, income and other family stressors (e.g., number of children), support research suggesting that men are more likely to be victims of domestic violence than some of the Crime Victimization Studies indicate. In one such study, 60 percent of respondents indicated that both partners used physical violence during violent arguments and that women were as likely as men to commit violent acts, but significantly more likely than men to report having been injured.6
A more careful consideration of the motivation and effects of violent aggression within the family, regardless of gender, is imperative.
Control and gender
Women can and do use violence to control others. Increasingly, men's groups and Web sites are addressing this issue, providing resources to assist male victims, including checklists significantly similar to those found for women.7 Notwithstanding these similarities, even the American Bar Association fails to address the issue in a gender-neutral way, focusing exclusively on "men who abuse women" and using only feminine personal pronouns when advising attorneys on how to help victims.8
One common model of domestic violence, formulated by Minnesota Program Development Inc., is known as the "Duluth Model."9 The model's "Power and Control Wheel" divides the use of physical violence by men against women into categories of behavior and gives examples of how abusive men use these behaviors to maintain control of their spouses.
Women are capable of the same class of behaviors. They may express different control behaviors, but the motivation of the abuser and the effect on the victim are similar for each gender.
Why women abuse. The causes of violent aggression by women against spouses are not always clear. One 1995 study suggested that, while most violence in marriages was mutual, in marriages where one spouse was the sole perpetrator of violence, the incidence of wife-only violence had increased at twice the rate of husband-only violence.10 In domestic violence cases where both partners are violent, a significant proportion of women are retaliating to the violence of their spouses. 11
In many cases, the motivation for violence by women seems to be similar to that for men.
Women whose family of origin contained a significant history of physical violence or substance abuse are often potential abusers.
Children – male or female – who observe violence in the home can, and often do, become either victims or victimizers.
Retaliation, substance abuse, alcoholism and a history of physical violence are not sufficient, however, to explain the phenomenon of women who use violence and intimidation to control a spouse. It has been hypothesized that men who abuse in order to maintain control of their spouses are not so much afraid of losing control, as they are striking out when they believe they have none.12 However, men are not the only ones who use a "systematic pattern of control and fear" to keep their spouses in line.13
While women may use physical force less effectively than men, they do use it. Women are more likely than men to be skilled at psychological terrorism and intimidation, especially those who suffer from personality disorders and/or mental/emotional illnesses.
Why men stay: The reasons male victims of domestic violence stay are diverse and complex.
Many stay not only because they want to protect their children, or because they fear they will not be taken seriously, but because they fear being themselves portrayed as abusers.
This presents a conundrum for mental health and legal professionals dealing with domestic violence. The question becomes less a matter of protecting the actual victim as of determining the identity of the actual victim.
Beyond bruises and broken bones
Anyone – man or woman – who lives with abuse and/or mental illness suffers corresponding emotional consequences, such as depression, anxiety, and lowered selfesteem.14
The problems of male victims of domestic violence are rarely recognized.
Similarly, there is little information on the physical side-effects of this stress on male victims of domestic violence.
The overall mortality statistics for adult men may provide some insight into the types of problems that male victims of domestic violence can develop. For example, in 2002, 429,682 men died from heart disease; 12,059 men suffered fatalities due to accidents (primarily poisoning), the second highest cause of death, with stroke being the fourth leading cause of death. Men committed suicide four times as often as women, primarily due to depression.15
Of course, no one would claim that stress is the only factor that contributes to these conditions; nor is every stress-related illness linked to domestic violence. But it is a fair inference that when one's home, which should be a place of shelter and security, is the source of chronic stress, the incidence of these stress-related physical side-effects will increase.
Violence in American families is not a gendered issue. It is an issue of how to address the problems of individuals, male or female, who use physical and psychological terrorism to control spouses and children. It is time to remove the gendered language of domestic violence and to treat it as a problem of control.
A gender-neutral approach would assist law enforcement, attorneys, prosecutors, judges, treatment programs and health care providers in identifying, helping and healing the injury to families more effectively. On a broader scale, a gender-neutral approach would focus us on the issue of eliminating aggression and violence as a means of problem-solving in our culture.
Violence in the home is not always measured in bruises and broken bones. It is identified by the improper use of power to control and dominate others.
Reprinted with permission of The Daily Record Co. ©2005
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