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Battered Husbands
May 29, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

Men as well as women are victims of domestic abuse but discussing that fact is a taboo in our society.

A while back, I interviewed a battered husband named Stanley G. During one confrontation with his wife, Stanley locked himself into the family car for safety. Breaking into the car, she shoved him down face-first into the passenger seat, planting her knees in his back. She used a heavy cellular phone to club him repeatedly across the side of the head. Stanley told me about attempting to file a complaint with the police in Long Beach, California:

"Blood streamed down my face. Internal injuries dislocated my ribs. Lacerations and multiple abrasions marked my back and groin. My attacker had no injuries. I told the officer that I wanted the crime report to note my injuries and the names of witnesses. He responded, 'We ain't takin' a report from you, buddy.'" The officer refused to take Stanley seriously because he was a man who had been beaten by his wife.

There is such stigma attached to being victimized by a woman that many men refuse to file a complaint or even speak of it. The statistics on battered men are further obscured by researchers who focus exclusively on abused women and by feminists who ascribe almost all domestic violence to men. They ignore the May 2000 data from the U.S. Department of Justice that reveals men to be victims in 15-16% of all reported domestic violence. (Even that statistic includes only those men with enough courage and persistence to make an official report.)

The fact that men are victims of domestic violence has been known for a long time. Murray A. Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory, points to dozens of studies that indicate both sexes are equally responsible for domestic violence. A classic study published in 1980 by sociologists Straus, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz show that women direct as much violence at men as vice versa, although men usually receive less injury. The National Family Violence Surveys of 1975 and 1985 concluded that men are as likely to become victims of domestic violence as women. But society's response to male victims is dramatically different than it is to female ones.

In 1974, the first battered women's shelter in the U.S. opened its doors in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, having been funded by billions and billions of dollars, thousands of shelters, hotlines and government programs exist to help women who are victimized by violence. Nothing remotely comparable exists for men.

At the time Stanley was abused, the closest battered men's shelter was in San Francisco and it was geared toward gays. He approached several battered women's shelters but they did not even return his phone calls. "How should I handle the police," he asked one woman who answered the phone. "We don't know what to say to a man," she replied. Ironically, to receive government funding, shelters are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or sex.

Abused men are in the same position as that of women decades ago who were raped. They are reluctant to go the police or to admit the abuse occurred. They think, "No one will believe me." Or, "I will be blamed and ridiculed for my own victimization." Or, "I will be further traumatized by an unsympathetic system."

With the advent of the Men's Movement, this is slowly changing. For example, last month, a conference on "Male Victims of Domestic Abuse" took place in Portland, Maine -- said to be the first conference of its kind in New England. The event was co-sponsored by the Battered Men's Helpline, a volunteer group that receives no federal funding. The nonprofit organization offers abused men a 24-hour help line, support groups, referrals to sympathetic mental health professionals, and advice on how to handle the legal system.

One of the conference speakers was Richard Davis, a retired police officer who teaches Criminal Justice and Domestic Violence at Quincy College in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Davis is currently writing a manual for police officers, which is gender-neutral on domestic violence. For example, it does not fall into the usual trap of referring to victims as "she" and attackers as "he."

The ultimate goal of the Battered Men's Helpline is to build a shelter for abused men. But its founder Jan Brown explains, "there’s nowhere to go to find money. According to my research, no grants are available for male victims — everything’s women and children." In their book "Intimate Violence," Straus and Gelles comment on government funding of violence prevention: "there has been fierce competition for the limited resources that are available." For self-interested reasons, many women's shelters continue to deny that men comprise a significant portion of those victimized by domestic abuse. Their funding depends on the denial. In this, they have been supported by feminist literature that depicts spousal abuse as an ideological hate crime that men commit against women. Thus, even if a woman does hit a man, people assume he had it coming.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe had a custom called charivari in which an abused husband was dressed as a woman and forced to ride through the village, sitting backwards on a donkey. Twenty-first century America displays a similar attitude. We snicker and laugh at abused men -- all the while telling them never to hit a woman, even in self-defense. At the same time, we bring up girls to believe it is acceptable to strike a man: "If he gets fresh, just slap his face."

Battered men pay taxes to support hotlines and shelters from which they are excluded because of their sex. They are dismissed by police because of their sex. Crime and punishment in domestic violence seem to hinge on genitalia and -- legally speaking -- men have the wrong equipment. The only right abused men seem to have retained in full is the right to remain silent.

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