Family Violence : what you haven't heard

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The Backlash! - March 1996
Family Violence
What you haven't heard
by Steven Easton
Copyright 1994 by Steven Easton

When Everyman invited me to write an article about family violence, I was intrigued by the opportunity to write about an issue that has received almost no media attention or public support. If you are confused by this opening statement, what with the proliferation of wife abuse commercials on television and a very effective, widespread public education campaign, your confusion is easily understood. However, I will write about family violence from a male perspective, and about an area of family violence that has received selective inattention in both the media and society at large.
I have been involved with this "hidden" form of family violence for over six years in both a professional and a personal capacity. I work with men who have been abused by a female partner. Therefore, I am going to challenge some commonly held theories about family violence, and I am going to talk about male victims as though they were real people, with real problems, who need real help.

In March 1993, I founded The Easton Alliance for the Prevention of Family Violence, in Toronto, Ontario. Our mission was simple -- to assist abused/battered husbands and male victims of relationship violence. My reason for founding The Easton Alliance was equally simple. I was myself a victim of spouse abuse.

At that time, I would have gladly joined a group supporting men abused by their wives. However, the only groups for men involved in family violence were for men abusing their female partners. Not a single group in Canada existed to assist abused men. After discussing this with my City Councillor, Tom Jacobek, he confirmed it through his own research and advised me that I was on my own.

Not only did no one know of a support group for abused men, no one even knew that men were being abused (or no one was willing to admit it). And those who admitted that it might hypothetically occur were unwilling to offer anything other than laughter, sarcasm or ridicule -- not what an abused person, male or female, needs to hear. And so I started my research. I began by calling wife abuse shelters to see if any relevant statistics existed that might support my efforts. From these agencies I learned that, although men are abused by their wives, it happens with such infrequency and irregularity that it hasn't been formally recognized as an issue worthy of widespread attention. I was routinely quoted statistics that indicated that abused men make up about 2-4 percent of the total abuse population. These statistics were frequently backed up by police arrest data which show that in domestic violence situations, men are arrested approximately 95 percent of the time. It seemed pretty conclusive.

Then I met a man whom I'll call Michael. He lived in my neighbourhood and had heard of the Easton Alliance through an article in the local paper. When we met, he showed me a conspicuous blue file case. We spoke about his abuse situation for some time; all the while I salivated over what might be contained in Michael's curious blue case. When he finally allowed me a look inside, I was shocked to discover how much research was readily available on husband abuse, if you knew where to look. What I learned from the research also came as a surprise. It was obvious that the women who had spoken to me about husband abuse either didn't know much about it, or deliberately misinterpreted the statistics. Since that time, I have learned that it was more the former, but also some of the latter.

Armed with this new information, I started to see a more complicated picture of violence in the family, based on some very interesting university studies. For example, in the case of severe violence, women are more violent than men. Severe wife-to-husband violence occurs in 4.6 out of 100 families, while the rate for severe husband-to-wife violence is 3.8 out of 100.(1) This surprised me to say the least, as it wasn't supported by police data or our understanding of family violence. Another study reported that 39.1 percent of married or cohabiting females engaged in at least one form of spousal abuse against their partner. (2) The final shock came when I read that family violence against men is often more destructive than that against women. As noted in McLeod (1984), female assailants are less inclined to use bodily force and instead often resort to weapon use. Male victims are injured more often and more seriously than are female victims. Medical attention is required for a large proportion of these injuries. (3) Cate, Henton, Koval, Christopher and Lloyd (1982) found that their sample of 355 college students yielded 79 who had experienced premarital violence. Nearly 75 percent (59 out of 79) were in relationships where the abuse was mutual. Of the remaining students, 10 percent were in relationships where the male was the only abuser, while 22 percent said that in their relationships the female was the sole abuser. These studies indicate that much of the violence is mutual, but when it is not, the female is as likely as the male to be the sole abuser. (4)

This was just the tip of the iceberg. Every report I have seen that has included both male and female respondents shows an equal occurrence of victimization. An analysis of these studies yields a mean frequency of one in five men who are involved with an abusive female partner. The same frequency occurs in husband- to-wife violence. Furthermore, in a preliminary study of lesbian violence, the same one in five victimization rate occurs. While these figures are not conclusive, it can be speculated that as a society of men and women we tend to abuse each other in approximately equal numbers. Gender or sexual orientation is not a major factor. If this is true, then what can we say about the perception that male-to-female violence is about power and control and that our patriarchal society influences men to believe they have the right to use violence to dominate? Why are we seeing the same rates of abuse in lesbian relationships?

The truth is more complicated than this easy "patriarchal society" catch-all. Since our first support group began in March 1993, almost all the men who complained of living with an abusive spouse have described their wives as insecure, jealous, quick to anger, having unrealistic expectations and -- most revealing of all -- having been either physically, emotionally or sexually abused as a child. Intergenerational transmission of violence breeds more abusive adults than any other single factor. To understand this it is helpful to look at what we already know about the psychology of an abused woman. She is usually lacking self- confidence and self-esteem, is overly dependent on others, has a pervading sense of worthlessness, and often other mental health issues. It can take years of therapy to recover these vital emotional characteristics. We are only now beginning to understand the full extent of this form of violence and its roots. And what of those who suffered as children for all those years when we did nothing? They have become our walking wounded. They have become our abusers.

Our male and female children have suffered and are now returning pain for pain. Studies show that mothers (many having been abused as children) are as capable of abusing their children as are fathers. This same violence is readily returned upon a husband or domestic partner. This is a completely different issue than how many corporate C.E.O.s are women.

This issue is one of emotional powerlessness and the need to control rather than the expression of power and control. An emotionally empowered person does not have unresolved issues of low self-confidence, lack of self-esteem or a sense of worthlessness. Those qualities are associated with powerlessness. A man may believe that it is his right to rule the home or be the king of his castle, but he is not going to abuse his wife to attain his rights unless he has unresolved emotional problems. In this example, the issue of power and control and its maintenance through abusive acts is just a mirror reflecting the underlying emotional trauma. Other evidence for this conclusion derives from women who have come to our organization after abusing their partners. In many cases, the women spoke of living with an abusive husband and suffering for many years at his hands. Now in new relationships, they were surprised to find themselves abusing their new partners in order to never again lose control. Women are just as vulnerable to their inner weaknesses, and to exert some measure of control, are just as likely to react in a physical or psychological way to a more passive partner. By linking wife abuse to our patriarchal society, feminism and the women's movement will achieve very little for victims. Wife (and husband) abuse will still exist. This approach will only prolong the agony faced by both the victim and the abuser in family conflict situations.

I have observed the men in our Male Survivors of Relationship Violence (M.S.R.V.) program and can offer the following observations about male victimization. Men suffer from abuse in these areas: physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, systemic, financial and threats of physical or legal abuse. Each area is unique, but without a doubt the most emotionally damaging seem to be physical and systemic abuse. Many people have questioned the frequency of physical abuse in male victimization. This is the abuse most frequently identified by our male clients as the most damaging. Clients of our programs have reported being stabbed, punched, kicked, bitten, slapped, pushed and even run down with a family vehicle. Although the physical damage caused by these incidents may be severe, the emotional aftermath is often devastating to the men. In many of these incidents, police intervention was required and resulted in a form of systemic abuse. This occurred when male clients restrained their wives to prevent further physical violence against themselves, and were promptly arrested. They were often charged with assault while no charges were brought against the assaultive wife. This is becoming the rule, not the exception. Further systemic abuse occurs when the arrested male is released from jail and finds he has nowhere to go; he cannot return home, and in many cases he has had all access to his children removed by a vindictive wife, using a sympathetic legal system to further abuse him. These examples may sound extreme, but as I have said they are fast becoming the rule. I have discussed this with police departments around Ontario and have learned that a protocol exists that provides attending officers an exact and precise response to wife abuse, not spouse abuse; wife abuse, not domestic violence. Yet many field personnel have frequently complained that this directive does nothing for the male complainant except to remove him from the situation where it is often assumed that he has provoked his wife's assault. This scenario is similar to the complaints of women twenty years ago when police officers often assumed she had done something to provoke her husband into assaulting her, and she was routinely sent home. History certainly likes to repeat itself.

We are now at a point in human development where we can provide assistance to those who suffer. We must not dogmatically assign suffering to one gender group and preclude the other gender from this exclusive victims' club. As men and women, we suffer in similar ways and we have the horrible distinction of being able to inflict great amounts of emotional and physical pain on each other. It is time we looked into the mirror of society and saw the bruised face looking back at us. It will do us no good to provide only one side of the face the help it needs to heal, and to ignore the other side. When we look back into that mirror, we will still see the scars.

Steve Easton is the President & C.E.O. of The Easton Alliance for the Prevention of Family Violence, in Toronto, Ontario, and a member of the York Region Abuse and Assault Committee. He can be reached at the Alliance office in Toronto at (416) 691-5212.

Reprinted with permission from Everyman, a Men's Journal.

Family relations Magazine, "Relationship Violence by Women: Issues and Implications," Clifton P. Flynn, Asst. Professor of Sociology, U.S.C. (quoting Straus et al, 1980)

Departments of Family Studies and Internal Medicine, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, "Alcohol Consumption, Alcohol Abuse, Personality and Female Perpetrated Spouse Abuse," Reena Sommer, Gordon E. Barnes and Robert P. Murray.

Justice Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1984, "Women Against Men: An Examination of Domestic Violence Based on an Analysis of Official Data and National Victimization Data," Maureen McLeod, Asst. Professor of Criminal Justice and Coordinator of Women's Studies Program, Stockton State College, Pomona, New Jersey.

Journal of Family Issues, "Premarital Abuse: A Social Psychological Perspective."
y book, Men's Rights Activists.

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