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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Making Insurmountable Problems Manageable

This is less of a manual than it is a memoir.

I was in British Columbia for a social work conference, that was mostly research based. I was with academics spouting off facts about homelessness across Canada, and the interventions that were needed to help victims of violence. I felt out of place. I am not what I would label an academic, I was built for field work, I have a way with words and a big heart. Put me in a research setting and I will just bring it back to the people, I have difficulties relating to Macro studies. I thought to myself, don’t give me statistics about homelessness, let’s go talk to some people who have experienced living on the streets. There were people around the corner from my hotel sleeping and living in the bushes.

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You could see blankets and clothes neatly piled inside the shrubbery. They took great care to make it look like home because it was all they had. Instead I was hearing percentages and words upon words about them without them even having a voice. I have nothing against research. The people who fund social work programs want to hear about that stuff, because they find more value in it than the words of a person with lived experience. They want us to prove that giving a homeless man a coat will keep him warm. They want us to prove that giving someone a shower can help them get a job. So thank you, social work researchers, for somehow helping us quantify this information. I don’t know that I will ever fully understand it.

The whole time as we ate the fancy cheese, and discussed the important issues, I was thinking…when am I going to hear something that matters. I came here to this beautiful province with its deep cultural roots in aboriginal culture, and influences of immigrant families and the deep dark swirling ocean that I kept staring into hoping for some kind of answer. I begged the universe as I fed some harbour seals.

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I walked the waterfront countless times.

It was my first vacation, my first time on a plane, and I did it alone. I came from a hardworking family that vacationed by camping in nature, not visiting different parts of the world or country. I was so excited but so scared. I pushed myself to the limits. But I felt like it just wasn’t enough to just go.

After about the third day of presentations, I waited for the bus back to my hotel. When it pulled up, I asked the bus driver to let me know when my stop was coming out. “I am from Ontario.” I said as if in apology. “I don’t know the bus routes.”  As I walked through the bus a woman says “You are from Ontario? What are you doing in B.C.?” I sat down near her and told her about the conference.

The woman was Irish, bright eyes with short curly hair pulled back into a loose ponytail, with stands of it flying out, untamable. , she was small, but animated as she spoke. She wore light blue. She smiled so widely that I instantly felt safe and conversational. “Oh that is interesting, what do you do?”

“I work in Domestic Violence. I am a student still but I will be graduating soon.”

“Wow, that is great that you can do something you love, while helping people, and make a career out of it” She seemed deep in thought for a few minutes, as if there was something she needed to tell me. We spoke for a few minutes about the weather, but I knew if I waited she would talk.

She began to tell me about her life. She grew up in Ireland where she said inequality was steeped in the culture at the time. Before she left that the welfare cheques would only be addressed to the men, and that pubs had a right to cash those cheques, as a result families would go hungry. The men would spend their nights drinking. Where she worked in a factory it was mostly men as well. They would make fun of her and laugh when she used tools like hammers. She said she did it because she had a passion for it, like I had a passion for my work.

“I love helping people” I told her. “It follows me around everywhere, in everything I do. You can’t turn it off. And it is hard sometimes but I like to think that social workers have an infinite hope that keeps us going.”

“That’s what I would have trouble with. When people get into that negative space and can’t get out of it. I know because I have been that person., and you probably have too.” She said.

I tell her “the key is persistence, for people in such a negative space and all you can do is slowly chip away at it until you see the smallest of changes.”

She says “I know something about persistence”. She had decided to go back to University. She faced so many obstacles with this choice, the first of which was that she had been in high school in the 1960’s in Ireland, and they kept no records, written or otherwise. She had to fight and prove herself to be admitted, and she won that battle. Her next barrier was that she had sustained serious injuries, could hardly walk anymore, and had to re-teach herself to read, write, and speak. She told me how hard and depressing it was. Some days she wanted to badly to give up.

“There was no professor who was so discouraging.” She said he was mean and never believed she would succeed.

He asked her how she thought she could complete university when she couldn’t even write properly. She responded “The same way you would eat a whale, one bite at a time”

“There came a day when I lay in bed, and I just couldn’t move. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

She had tears in her eyes as she spoke.”I told myself, if you don’t move, you are going to die. I had a choice to make, move or die.”

“Just move your big toe, I told myself….but that was too hard, so I said…just move it an inch. If you can move your big toe just an inch…” and she did, “After that I just kept moving and didn’t stop.”

I could see clearly the emotional intelligence in the way she had overcome her barriers. “wow that is amazing that you were able to do that. You took a problem that was so big you couldn’t face it, and made it a small as wiggling your big toe. you made it small enough that you could manage it.”

Her face changed, her eyes lit up “You’re right. I did that. I have never thought about it that way before. I took a big problem and made it small.”

“Not many people can do that. it takes a great amount of skill and self-awareness” I said.

The bus came to a stop, I had hardly noticed her pull the cable as she rose to exit the bus. She moved quickly, but in the doorway, she stopped and turned back to me, she took my hand.

“You know…I am so glad you are going to be working in Domestic violence. I wanted to tell you that the injuries I mentioned, my head injuries and the reason I couldn’t walk….was the result of domestic violence.” She released my hand and said a few final words “People need your help much more than you think…”

And she was gone. I never got her name. But she taught me more than I will ever be able to tell her. She helped me to understand my role as a counsellor and how all the strength lays in the people we help, all the goodness and resiliency is in her, as she struggled to build her life after experiencing such a life changing event as violence is. It’s not in us. As social workers all we can do is show them that strength. All we can do is facilitate the movement of that big toe, that bite of the whale.

So I sat for hours in my hotel room crying, processing, hurting for her but also celebrating with her, for how far she had come and the path she had chosen.

 I spent the rest of my trip doing adventurous, terrifying things like sea kayaking and whale watching.

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I watched that beautiful Orca spring up from the water, and dashed under our boat is if to say “I see you there, you tiny humans. I will show you my might.”

Scary and wild, hauntingly beautiful, much like the ocean itself. You float on a tiny kayak and think, this huge ocean could just swallow me whole, fold me into its depths.

It released me to live another day.

Life can swallow us up, but if move with the waves and take things one step at a time we can survive that deep swirling dark mass. If it’s too big to handle, break it down into something smaller that you know you can manage.

For some people all they can manage is just moving an inch, and that’s ok. We just have to keep moving forward. One day we will look back on that moment that we made the choice to try, and see how far we have come.


Thank you for reading this story, I promise you every word is true, even though sometimes looking back on it I think she may have been a ghost, but the reality is that these moments happen in our lives, such surreal moments. Her face will never leave my memory.