Men are not emotional Islands: Supporting males who have experienced domestic violence

I am a woman, and I am about to write about men, without having the lived experience of being a man, or identifying as male. I am a cisgendered ally, and have no lived experience of being a gay or trans man. I come from a place of white privilege. But I stand in solidarity to men who have experienced domestic violence. I cannot be their voice, but I can as a social worker try to foster a world where they do have a voice.

There has been a lot of media attention surrounding CAFE’s new billboard and the discussion around male victims has never been more prominent. Which is great, we are talking about it, we are arguing about it, and we are hopefully allowing this to bring some attention to the shortfalls in service for male victims of violence, specifically domestic violence. But yes I am going to say what a lot of people are afraid to say…male victims of domestic violence exist.

I know they exist because I have helped a few, and heard their stories. I know because even though we don’t want to admit that men can be just as vulnerable as women, we don’t want to talk about them because we think if we do, we are minimizing the violence against women. Our good intentions to the female gender unfortunately means that we end up minimizing the experience of the male domestic violence survivor. We can support male victims, and female victims, by providing services for both. We can acknowledge both experiences.

I don’t mind bringing a bit of controversy to the table, and I don’t mind if you disagree with me, but at least read and take the time to think about it for a while. CAFE may have questionable statistics, and their methods may be extreme but what is it that we find so laughable about a shelter dedicated to male victims? I understand activists and feminists rallying against CAFE’s cause, as the words “male activism” usually really means “Male domination”. I get that. But I think we have to be very careful with who we alienate and what words we use. Because there are men out there who are victims of domestic violence, and it is in no way a joke to discuss the possibility of a male shelter.  We can denounce CAFE if we feel their motives unethical or questionable, but we cannot denounce any victim of violence, we must separate these two issues.


The statistics

Men don’t report violence very often, and so the statistics are skewed. We don’t know how much they are skewed, but we know that the statistics presented to us are incorrect. We know self report statistics, which is what CAFE looked at for their billboard state that around 50 percent of the cases self reported had male victims, and we have police reported statistics which say that around 90 percent of victims are female. Both of these statistics are an incorrect representation of what is really happening. If you ask me, it doesn’t matter what the real statistics are. Statistics can never fully represent the human experience, abuse is not quantifiable, abuse is not a number.

These statistics don’t even accurately reflect all the abusive behaviours that are not chargeable, emotional abuse. Put downs, control, manipulation.


Men are emotional islands

Our concept of manliness has been passed down for generations. Men are strong, men don’t show emotion, men are emotional islands. Islands that are self-sustainable and need no comfort, emotional sustenance. This belief system is passed down through social learning and societal expectation.

When someone challenges this system, when someone dares to say they have experienced violence, it shakes us. Our first reaction will be outright denial, followed by the attempt to put that individual back in the box we have created for them. We tell them to act like men, to handle it like men, to be men.

Identifying yourself as a man is the ONLY requirement to being a man. You don’t have to always be strong, you don’t have to be what we consider masculine. This includes Trans men, if you identify as a man, society should not place any expectation or requirement on your manhood.

We have to stop telling men that they can’t be hurt. Stop teaching our little boys not to cry. Tell them that being a man is only about gender, being a human being means that you can experience a range of emotions and have many different experiences. Men can be victims, men can be raped, men can be beat up by their intimate partners.

Yes men have the privilege of being male, in the same way that I have the privilege of being white. This gives them an automatic societal acceptance that women do not experience. But having privilege does not mean they are exempt from experiencing violence.


Assumptions that create barriers to change

1. Even though they say they were the victim, they probably were the abusive one. This may be the most daring thing I have to say. Not all men who have experienced violence were abusive themselves. Those men who report domestic violence get ignored, ridiculed, and even face social isolation due to this assumption. They will already be under a huge amount of scrutiny when walking into any counselling agency stating that they have experienced domestic violence.

2. That men can take getting hit because they are stronger and don’t feel the same emotional effects. I have heard this from women, I have heard this from men. They say it is not abuse to slap a man. Slapping any human being is abusive, no matter what gender you are.

3.  Abuse can only happen between a man and a woman. Abusive behaviour does not discriminate. Two men, two women, trans individuals, everyone can experience domestic violence. Gay and Trans men face even more barriers to reporting domestic violence because of society’s belief

4. Even if they were physically or emotionally hurt, they don’t need the same amount of support that women do.  Men experience the same emotional effects, and need just as much support as women do. I can’t tell you the amount of men who walk into my office and they just cry because they have no idea where to turn for support.


Why they don’t report abuse

Let’s face it, the criminal justice system puts women through the ringer, they are emotionally re-traumatized, and face many levels of hardship as they go through the system. Men face a battle as well, they face taunting by police officers, disbelief, are told to “act like a man”. Many years ago a friend went to the police due to an ex-girlfriend stalking him, and they wouldn’t even write a report. They told him that he should go apologize to her as he clearly had upset her and caused her to act this way.

Only now is the criminal justice system acknowledging that a gay man can experience abuse from their partner. However though the laws have changed to make these offences chargeable in North America, police prejudice keeps them from reporting these incidents.

Men aren’t refraining from calling police because they don’t need help, they are refraining because they don’t think the police will believe them, they fear that they will get arrested instead, and they are ashamed. They don’t want their friends and family to perceive them as weak. When a man walks into my office the first thing he usually says is that he has no one that he feels comfortable talking to about the abuse they have experienced. There is so much shame, and a feeling of failing our societal expectations of their maleness.

 Can we do anything about it?

On a personal level we can start change at home, by changing perceptions surrounding gender and by providing safe spaces for everyone who has experienced violence.

When someone comes to you who has experienced violence, do not focus on their gender, provide a listening and supportive atmosphere, encourage them to report the abusive incident (but don’t force them to).

Next time you are at a party, and your friends make an offhand remark about slapping a man, say something. I guarantee you will get into an argument with probably everyone, but maybe…just maybe, you will teach them something.

If you have experienced violence, and you also happen to be male, don’t give up hope, there are people who care. If you need help, most hotlines will talk to men, and some counselling agencies will provide help as well. You are not alone and it is not your fault. You may have a long battle ahead of you, and it probably won’t be easy, but pioneering change is never an easy thing.

The one thing that will not help is to deny that men can experience domestic violence. The one thing that will not help is to tell men that they have to “suck it up” and “handle it”. So don’t do those things. And don’t be sarcastic or act like it is a joke to provide men with a domestic violence shelter or services.

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