Domestic violence is usually seen as inflicted on women by men. But a fictional book and some research say the abused victim is quite often the man. Lynnette Haas reports.
These days, more so than before, author and journalist Matthew Condon finds people want to take him aside to tell him their stories. At parties, in pubs, at literary festivals, Condon has found himself acting as a de facto counsellor as friends, acquaintances and strangers confide distressing secrets they’d previously kept to themselves.
He’s become a confidante because his latest novel, The Pillow Fight, a powerful fictional tale of domestic violence, has clearly struck a chord with some readers who feel their experiences have been ratified by the drama in his pages.
But there’s a controversial element to this scenario in that Condon’s novel turns the tables on the accepted notion of domestic violence. In The Pillow Fight it is the female partner, a successful and beautiful young wife named Charlotte, who is striking the blows. And it’s the male partner, the naive but totally smitten Luke, who is the victim.
So, in turn, Condon’s conversations have been with men who have admitted being victims of domestic abuse and, in a few cases, women who confess to being perpetrators. And what he’s heard has shocked and saddened him.
“You have almost ended up being a shoulder to cry on,” says Condon, who describes most men in question as “ostensibly the Aussie bloke”.
“By and large, they’ve been professional people. I’ve had lawyers. I’ve had media people who have come out of nowhere and have quietly confided their confirmation of the novel. I have a friend who had a carving knife pulled on him and put to his throat. You just don’t hear or read these stories.”
Try to uncover more of those stories in an effort to draw a clearer picture of the prevalence and nature of female-to-male domestic violence and you’re confronted with two very different and conflicting schools of thought.
There is research that says it exists, and that it occurs in significant numbers – and there are the welfare groups, the frontline workers, who say it doesn’t.
International research on female-male domestic violence has been extensive since a 1980s landmark study by sociologists Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz outlined its persuasiveness.
[Picture of Matthew Condon]
That study, Behind, Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family, revealed that of couples reporting domestic abuse, 49% of spouses admitted they were both violent. When questioned about the specifics of the incidents in the previous year, 27% of men claimed they were the sole perpetrators of that violence, compared to 24% of women.
In instances of so-called severe violence, 3.8% of wives were identified as victims, while 4.6% of husbands were victims.
In the Sunshine State [Queensland, Australia], similar large-scale research has been scant. In 1988 the Queensland Domestic Violence Taskforce, researching male-female abuse, reported that 6.2% of domestic violence victims were male.
The Victorian Injury Surveillance System last year concluded that of 372 victims of “partner-inflicted violence” identified by several hospitals 76.1% were female and 23.9% were male. It further concluded: “The admission rate was 14.6% for male and 10.9% for females, suggesting that a greater proportion of males received more severe injuries”.
In an ongoing study of 198 violent marriages in rural Australia, Charles Sturt University associate professor of sociology Sotirios Sarantakos identified 64 abused husbands.
Through a series of intense interviews, conducted over many years, with the husband, the wife, one of the couple’s children over 16 and one of the wife’s parents (usually the mother), Sarantakos investigated the claim that most female-male abuse is self-defence – that the male victim physically encourages the attack. He found otherwise.
“The vast majority of abusive wives admitted they did not hit their husband in self-defence,” Sarantakos writes in ‘Husband Abuse as Self-Defence’, a paper presented at the International Congress of Sociology in Canada last year.
“They did not feel threatened by the husband even after they assaulted him and were not in need (of) protection from the husband. This is by no means a situation which justifies violence against the husband and certainly (is) not self-defence.”
However, many of the major domestic violence help organisations are unconvinced by these findings.
Relationships Australia executive director Ian MacDonald says while he accepts female-to-male abuse does occur, he sees it “at a minuscule rate, compared with male-to-female violence that’s reported to us”.
However, he agrees men would have trouble admitting their victim status.
“I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult (than for women), but I think it is difficult for men,” MacDonald says.
“There is that additional block of him feeling that somehow his masculinity is impugned because he hasn’t defended himself and he hasn’t behaved “like a man”. That is a very difficult position. And the reported (sceptical) position response of police to that situation does tend to indicate that men are feeling extremely awkward about exposing himself to that.”
Meeta Iyer, director of the Domestic Violence Research Centre at Brisbane’s inner-city West End, says since July 1998 the centre has received only five calls from male victims seeking counselling or information. That’s from a total of about 700 or 800 help calls. She doesn’t believe that those five calls misrepresent the overall incidence.
“While there is a lot of information out there that says men find it difficult to talk about domestic violence, I think it is the same (for women),” she says. “I believe (this figure) is indicative of true victims of domestic violence who are men.”
That victims can be “true” or “real” is a point emphasised by the Men’s Domestic Violence Telephone Counselling Service.Peter, (who won’t reveal his surname) has been with the service since its inception in 1996. He says the service primarily fields calls from men “who are perpetrators of domestic violence, with 20% of incoming calls from men who say they’re the aggrieved spouse”.
Peter says there is a difference between male-female and female-male violence. Most abused males do not fear their partner’s attacks, he says and seem to be part of a mutually violent relationship.
When asked whether there were situations in which men refrained from hitting back and merely copped the attacks, Peter replied: “We do get those guys but I can’t tell what they’re doing themselves or what they’re doing back.”
There is a Queensland organisation which fully supports the notion of female-male violence.
The Waterford-based Men’s Rights Agency, run by husband and wife team, Reg and Sue Price, has in the past been ridiculed as right-wing extremist for its stance on family issues.
But the self-funded organisation remains the only one nationwide that iscompletely sympathetic and open to abused men.
Sue Price says: “A small amount of (government) money is given to male perpetrator programs but there is nothing for men (victims) who need help.
If a man comes to me with his children in tow, trying to escape the violence the wife is exhibiting, we have nowhere to send him, apart from the internal type of refuge system we’re trying to build, where people who have a home, a large home, will willingly offer some emergency accommodation to people in that situation.”
[Picture of Reg & Sue Price]
[Caption – HELP AT HAND: Sue and Reg Price, of Men’s Rights Agency]
Having helped men through various personal crises, Price is convinced many men will never report their abuse at the hands of a woman.
“The last time we had an article published (about domestic violence) I had one guy ring me,” she says. “We’d been talking to him for eight months and he finally acknowledged to me that he was a victim of his wife’s domestic violence when he saw the article.”
[Picture of scene from the film War of the Roses]
[Caption – Left: “Violent times, captured in the Hollywood film, War of the Roses”]
[Picture of Peter X with face partially covered]
[Caption – Above: Peter X says he feared for his safety
The story of a battered man
Another man who finally chose to speak about his abuse is a Queensland freelance journalist, identified here as Peter X.
Peter X lived in a violent relationship for four years before finally fronting up to Police, after a particularly brutal assault.
“I copped a lot before I took physical measures to just stop being beaten,” he says. “The violence had gone from the mere slaps and punches to sustained beating. Basically, I cringe when I say it, (but) I feared for my safety and I had to take defensive measures to stop that.”
The first time Peter X says he took a “defensive measure” was when his partner was jumping on his back in her stiletto heels. He says he threw an ashtray at the window and soon after the police arrived. Peter X , who hadn’t fought back in any way, was taken away. A Domestic Violence Order was issued against him. But, as in many cases of domestic violence, Peter X eventually was reunited with his partner, who promised to control her outbursts. She didn’t. And, as in all cases of domestic violence, the detached outsider can’t help but ask why the victim didn’t remove himself (or herself) from the situation sooner.
Did he think he could change her?
“A fool in love thinks that,” Peter X says. “The wise person knows things don’t really change.”
Things didn’t change in that relationship and Peter X finally realised he could take the uncertainly no longer. Since leaving his partner, he’s told his story on radio and in print and is constantly amazed to find out he’s not alone. Men across the country regularly seek him out for support.
“In getting embroiled in (the issue of female-male domestic violence) I came across guy after guy who has actually been on the receiving end,” he says.
“But, they never really want to come forward because people regard you as a wimp, not for being hit by a woman, but for complaining. It seems to be that women’s violence is acceptable in a sense.”
And if not quite accepted, says Dr Sotirios Sarantakos, then it is at least overlooked. “I think the sad part is the way husband abuse is treated at the moment is exactly the way wife abuse was treated 30 years ago,” he says.
“We were trying to bring wife abuse to the forefront to put it in the focus of policies and make people aware of what was happening … But (men) didn’t want to hear about it. It was a domestic matter. Men (said we) shouldn’t get involved and feminists were angry. We were talking about how women deserved it or whatever. That was not tue. Of course it was not true. We’ve got the same problem now. They ignore this. (They say) it doesn’t exist and if it does exist they’re blaming the victim.”
But Sarantakos wants to emphasise any type of abuse – be it male-female, female-male, father-son, daughter-mother or violence within same-sex couples – should be of concern to the wider community. It shouldn’t be dismissed on the grounds of gender.
Matthew Condon and Peter X agree.
“All domestic violence is a crime and it’s a human issue,” says Condon.
“I’m opposed to domestic violence against men and I’m strongly opposed to domestic violence against women,” says Peter X. “There should be structures to protect both sexes. To ignore one isn’t solving the problem.”