The shame of being a male victim of domestic violence | The Sunday Age

September 3, 2016

Kathy Evans

Tim* was at low ebb when he met Rose*. His younger sister had recently taken her own life and his parents had split up. Rose, at least initially, made him feel good about life again.

At 23, Tim became a father. During the pregnancy he noticed that Rose could be moody and snappy but put it down to hormones. However, once his daughter was born, the behaviour escalated. She would regularly berate him for the smallest thing; waiting for him outside the bedroom door on a weekend morning, vacuum cleaner in hand; yelling at him if he sat down to watch the television after work. 

Many women overburdened by chores and the demands of a newborn baby as well as struggling fathers might feel some small, secret sympathy towards either party. But Rose became violent. One day, in the midst of a particularly vitriolic row, she slapped him hard across the face.

“I slapped her back,” he says frankly. “I was just so shocked.” But that, he insists, is the only time he ever retaliated. Over the next few years this vignette was repeated with each episode becoming uglier. Rose would pinch, bite, slap and throw things at him. She would threaten to kill herself and their child.

“Peter” (not his real name) found being a male victim of domestic violence incredibly isolating. He finally suceeded in getting an intervention order against his abusive, alcoholic ex-partner. Photo: Pat Scala

One night  she jumped in the car and drove at him, missing him by inches (she later told the police her hand slipped on the steering wheel). One day, just before his daughter’s second birthday, he’d had enough. He packed his things and tried to remove his aquarium from the living room, but Rose locked him out. Tim called the police but it was he who was escorted off the property.

“They said to me ‘forget the fish tank, just leave it, mate’.” When he returned some weeks later, the stench from the living room was overpowering. The fish were dead. He later learned Rose had poured Domestos into the tank.

They reached an uneasy truce, yet she continued to pick fights and throw him out. One day as he was driving down Plenty Road in Bundoora close to where they were living, he heard a car beeping at him to stop. It was Rose. She handed him their child, telling him that she didn’t want to be a mother anymore. From that point on, Tim’s life changed.

These days he has sole parental responsibility of his daughter, now 10. Tim is speaking out about his experience because he is frustrated at the lack of support for male victims of domestic violence. Despite several calls to the police for help during some of Rose’s more violent attacks, he rarely felt taken seriously.

Male victims of domestic violence claim to have received little support from police. Photo: James Alcock

During the last assault she punched him with a set of keys between her knuckles. When the police arrived an hour later, a female officer reportedly said to him, “just wash the blood off your face and go and have a can”.

However, Tim had foreseen the attack and had surreptitiously recorded it. A few days later he was in court being granted a 12-month intervention order, which barred his wife from coming into contact with him.

Psychotherapist Howard Todd-Collins says no one deserves the disrespect abuse brings, whether they are male or female.

The issue of domestic violence against men is a thorny one. Academics have accused men’s rights groups of using it to derail feminism and peddle falsehoods around the frequency, impact and nature of violence whilst men’s groups complain of double standards, arguing their experience isn’t taken seriously enough. There is little dispute that men commit far more violent acts than women, or that violence by women causes less harm. And yet it is not harmless.

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.”

Suffused in shame

For a man who grew up in a stable, law-abiding family, having to be involved with police and courts has left him suffused in shame. On particularly bleak days he has felt suicidal. He bears no malice towards his wife. “I don’t think she could control herself…I could see in her eyes that she was a scared child. The thing that got to me was that all I wanted to do was help her.”

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.

“One man talking about his experience of abuse is enough to start thinking about possible other stories that aren’t being told.” Rather than seeing domestic violence as a gender issue, he prefers to see it as a humanistic one. “No one deserves the disrespect that abuse can bring, whether they are male or female.”

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.

“Men feel like they should just be able to suck it up, but in reality being attacked by their spouses often leaves them feeling a deep level of shame,” Todd-Collins says.

“They have an internal language that says ‘if I can’t fight back then I’m not a man, and if I can’t stop what’s going on, then I’m weak and silly and a fool’.They are scared of being ridiculed so they do and say nothing. But the problem is that when emotions get repressed they eventually find an outlet in anger, anxiety or other unhealthy ways.”

No one to tell

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.

The help comes too late for survivor Peter*, 50, who in the past has been driven to attempt suicide during his marriage to Sarah*, who suffered from alcoholism. Over the years Peter developed acute antennae to tune into her moods.

Vodka bottles on the porch meant he could breathe easy; she would drink herself into a stupor. But casks of sherry spelt trouble; she would be hostile and violent.

“It would happen if I was in a trapped area like a walk-in wardrobe or a hallway, somewhere where there was nowhere to run.”

Once he woke in the middle of the night to find her standing over him brandishing a knife. He started setting up “safe areas” in the house and put a lock on the spare room door, without telling her why.

“You have to be discreet because you don’t want to upset them further. You are on eggshells.” The house was like a war zone and he felt controlled and isolated. His health deteriorated but he wasn’t allowed to go to the doctors. “It would be ‘what’s Peter going to say about the bruise on his head or the cut on his face. Is he going to lie?’.”

He tried many times to get help but felt his cries fell on deaf ears. At the police station one of the officers told him, “you’re a big strapping lad, you can look after yourself”. When a 10-year intervention order was eventually served on his wife, he burst into tears. “I could go home for the first time and feel safe. I didn’t feel threatened anymore.”

His experience was exacerbated by the isolation he felt. “When you are in this situation you think you are different from everyone else. You look at the world like it’s behind glass. But if there’s one thing I’d like to say to any other man going through what I went through. You’re not alone.”

*Names have been changed

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