Experts: Abuse doesn't just affect women
Recent high-profile case shows men often battered, but they fail to report it
By Amanda Cuda
Updated: 03/25/2009 11:16:42 PM EDT
Most people have an image of what a victim of domestic violence looks like. And it's probably of a bruised and frightened woman.
But that picture doesn't tell the whole story, a fact that was made clear earlier this week when Fairfield police arrested Helen Sun, 37, after she allegedly handcuffed herself to her husband and bit him on the head, arms and chest. The incident was just the latest attack by Sun on her estranged spouse, who reported she also once broke an acoustic guitar over his head.
The bizarre case sheds light on the fact that not all victims of partner violence are women, said officials at domestic violence agencies.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 85 percent of intimate partner violence victims are women. Those statistics are reflected at facilities in the region that help those fleeing violent relationships. Debra Greenwood, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Women and Families of Eastern Fairfield County in Bridgeport, said men make up about 20 percent of the shelter's clientele.
Meanwhile, at The Umbrella domestic violence program in Ansonia, programming director Susan DeLeon said she sees only a handful of male clients come through the agency each year.
But both said, though domestic violence disproportionately affects women, it's a real problem among men as well. In fact, it might be a bigger problem than people realize.
Many male victims of violence are
unwilling to come forward and seek help said Erika Tindill, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The coalition oversees 18 domestic violence programs throughout the state, including The Umbrella and the Center for Women and Families. Tindill said men who are abused by female partners can feel emasculated by the situation.
"We are in a paternalistic society," Tindill said. "We depend on men to be the providers."
Being abused by a wife or girlfriend flies in the face of that macho archetype, she said, and male abuse victims might be unwilling to admit what has happened to them. As a result, Tindill said, female on male violence "is clearly underreported."
DeLeon agreed men might be uncomfortable confessing they have been hurt by a woman.
"There's definitely a stigma there," she said.
They also could feel uncomfortable coming to shelters, thinking such services are for women and children only.
That's understandable, DeLeon said. "These shelters stemmed out of the women's movement, so I think people do see us as more of a woman's service," she said.
These services are also primarily staffed by women, DeLeon said, and some men might not be comfortable discussing their problems with someone of the opposite gender.
Penny Leisring, associate professor of psychology at Quinnipiac University, had another perspective on why abused men might not open up about their problems. Leisring has done several studies about various aspects of domestic violence, including violence perpetrated by women. She said males who are abused usually suffer less serious injuries at the hands of their abusers than their female counterparts. Thus, she said, "they may not see themselves as victims."
Leisring also pointed out society generally regards violence by women as far less serious than abuse inflicted by men. Nowhere is that discrepancy clearer than in our popular culture, Leisring said. "If a woman slaps her partner in a movie, people aren't as horrified as they are when a man does it," she said.
Societal perceptions aside, the experts said there aren't many differences between violence against men and violence against women. The warning signs of an abusive relationship are the same no matter the gender of the victim, Tindill said. With few exceptions, the abuser is always controlling, possessive, jealous and set on isolating the victim from friends and family.
Greenwood, meanwhile, said the incident with Sun and her husband should not only make people aware that men can be victims, but should remind them domestic violence -- by and against both men and women -- is a constant problem. In fact, she said, the tension caused by the poor economy has intensified the issue. In Fairfield County alone, Greenwood said, she has seen domestic violence incidents go up 38 percent since October, around the time the nation's financial crisis went into full swing.
With people losing their homes and their jobs, relationships that were already troubled can crack under the strain, resulting in abuse, she said.
Like Tindill, Greenwood said, though more women than men are abused, violence is violence no matter who is perpetrating. "It all goes back to power and control,"
Where to get help If you think that you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, here are some local resources: The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 888-774-2900 The Center for Women and Families of Eastern Fairfield County, 334-6154 The Umbrella, 736-9944http://www.connpost.com/ci_11995138