Recent headlines announcing arrests of girlfriends and wives for physically abusing their NFL-player boyfriends or husbands[i] have prompted the question we don’t ask often enough: for all of the male-on-female domestic violence cases we hear so much about, how many men are victimized?
In reality, many male domestic violence victims suffer in silence. Despite men being often much larger physically than their partners, many consistently fail to report being physically abused. Why? Research gives us some answers.
Men Are Victims Too
I have prosecuted many women for abusing their husbands and boyfriends, as well as same-sex partners. Such "non-traditional" intimate partner violence happens more frequently than people think. There is nothing legally or physically that prevents a much larger man from being victimized by a smaller partner. The size differential, unfortunately, often only makes him more unwilling to report it. Researchers help to explain why.
Andreia Machado et al. (2017) examined the help seeking behavior of male victims abused by women.[ii] Recognizing the worldwide problem of intimate partner violence (IPV), they note the paucity of research exploring cases with female perpetrators and male victims. Interviewing ten men in Portugal between the ages of 35 and 75 who had sought help from police or domestic violence agencies, they sought to understand the nature of violence they experienced, as well how it adversely impacted their lives.
Machado et al. found a consistent pattern of violence, including a progression of abuse beginning with factors such as jealousy, control, and social isolation, similar to what is referred to in the research as the cycle of violence. Factors that intensified violence included housework, children, betrayal, divorce, and economic issues.
Why Men Don’t Report
Machado et al. also addressed the issue of nonreporting. For most of the men in their study, they found that seeking help had a negative emotional impact. They found that most of the male victims reportedly experienced gender-stereotyped treatment from professionals and services, and that seeking formal help frequently led to secondary victimization in the form of statements or behavior that could cause them further distress. In fact, seeking formal help itself had a negative impact on well-being, aggravating their victimization.
Venus Tsui et al. (2010)[iii] also studied help seeking behavior among male victims of partner abuse, and discovered some common themes among the sample they studied. Their study included 68 agency representatives in the United States who completed a survey to identify issues related to male victims suffering from partner abuse: half of them referenced responses from male clients, with the other half consisting of responses from male victims.
Silenced by Social Stigma
Tsui et al. found that men do not seek assistance because of what they describe as “societal obstacles against men and lack of support.” Obstacles mentioned include denial, fear, shame and embarrassment, stigmatization, and what the authors note is most important: the fact that they did not receive equal treatment as a service target. They note that consequently, men minimize their abuse and attempt to avoid social stigma regarding their inability to protect themselves, and often end up concealing or denying the abuse.
Tsui et al. further observe that regarding societal expectations, men are viewed as “unacceptable” marital violence victims, recognizing that such a designation could be considered a “social taboo.” They also note male reluctance to view themselves as victims stems from considering their complaints to be a major weakness.
Perhaps most significantly in terms of examining abused men who are much larger than their abusive female partners, Tsui et al. note that when abuse involves physical violence, battered men do not report the abuse out of fear that they would be “laughed at, humiliated, or reversely accused of being the abuser due to a belief that men are physically capable of fighting back when being challenged.”
Changing Perspectives and Positive Directions
Research confirms what many members of police agencies and practitioners already know and are actively working to address: the need for law enforcement and victim assistance groups to meet the unique issues faced by male victims, and continue to refine the availability of specialized services tailored to provide assistance to this underreported victim group. This in turn will increase public awareness of the problem, and hopefully minimize the adverse effects of stigmatization or fear, promoting public safety for everyone.
[ii] Machado, Andreia, Anita Santos, Nicola Graham-Kevan, and Marlene Matos. 2017. “Exploring Help Seeking Experiences of Male Victims of Female Perpetrators of IPV.” Journal of Family Violence 32 (5): 513–23. doi:10.1007/s10896-016-9853-8.
[iii] Tsui, Venus, Monit Cheung, and Patrick Leung. 2010. “Help-Seeking among Male Victims of Partner Abuse: Men’s Hard Times.” Journal of Community Psychology 38 (6): 769–80. doi:10.1002/jcop.20394.