Supporting survivors ‘should not be a zero-sum game’ in which only one gender receives empathy, says noted researcher and Simon Fraser University criminologist
It’s widely held that women are more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence that has a sexual component.
In escalating spousal conflicts, it’s also often noted that women tend to endure the most severe kinds of physical violence, including homicide, in part because men are often stronger.
What is not so well known, however, is that males are more likely to be recipients of different kinds of spousal violence — such as slapping, kicking, biting and hitting with the fist. Men also more often experience emotional abuse when their jealous spouses try to limit their contact with friends or family, or demand to know who they were with and where they were at all times.
Simon Fraser University criminologist Alexandra Lysova has been collaborating with top researchers around the world since she began almost two decades ago to investigate spousal violence in her home city of Vladivostok, Russia.
Working in the field of what is now called “intimate partner violence,” Lysova’s initial hope was to encourage better support for female victims of domestic violence in Russia, which is far behind most Western countries in offering services and shelters.
But Lysova soon discovered many Russian men were also on the receiving end of a wide range of violence and abuse, often linked to alcohol. Her work eventually attracted a Fulbright Scholarship, which took her to New York University, followed by the University of Toronto and the past four years at SFU.
Now, as Lysova peels back the layers of Canada’s General Social Survey data on intimate partner violence (IPV), she and her colleagues have uncovered that 418,000 Canadian males and 341,000 females report being victims of physical or sexual spousal violence.
Along with Eugene Emeka Dim, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Lysova presented their findings this week at the University of B.C.’s large Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The duo’s talk was titled “The hidden realities of men’s and boy’s victimization.” It was based on work they and others have had published in top journals, about a phenomenon they now realize occurs in countries around the world.
Lysova knows the kind of data they’re uncovering can disturb some people, who don’t want to see information about men’s domestic anguish used to erode hard-won programs for female victims of violence. But Lysova emphasizes that supporting survivors “should not be a zero-sum game” in which only one gender receives empathy.
“It’s not about taking from women,” Lysova said in her presentation, which called for new public policies sensitive to each gender’s disparate experience of abuse.
“Women’s experience of injuries and homicides necessitates continuing efforts to help female victims of intimate partner violence. Helping men will also help women and families.”
One piece of good news Lysova and a small group of researchers have begun to be able to share is that domestic violence in general is going down in Canada, likely as the result of heightened awareness programs.
The General Social Survey in 1999 found eight per cent of females and seven per cent of Canadian males reporting spousal violence against them in the previous five years.
By 2014, fortunately, the proportion of women reporting spousal violence had dropped dramatically, to 3.5 per cent. But the segment of spousal violence against males had declined slower, to 4.2 per cent.
The Canadian data collected by Lysova shows that spousal violence and abuse are experienced significantly differently by women and men (most studies focus on heterosexuals).
Women are more likely to be victims of sexual aggression than men, according to the General Social Survey, which is conducted every five years by Statistics Canada. Although the number of reported cases is relatively small, women are also most likely to receive physical injuries or become victims of homicide.
In contrast, the latest General Social Survey found men were far more likely to report that their spouse threatened to hit, threw something at them that could hurt, slapped them, kicked them, bit or hit them with the fist.
Another spousal violence survey, created by American psychologist Denise Hines, looked at additional ways that women and men are domestic victims, including of legal and administrative aggression.
While Hines has found females are more likely to report being called names or prevented access to family income, male spouses more often said their partner tried to control their every move or denied them access to their children.
The latter is leading to increasingly common cases of “parental alienation,” Lysova said, in which one partner, particularly after a separation, unjustly poisons the reputation of the other spouse in the minds of their children.
Men and women who are exposed to severe abuse — emotional or physical, Lysova said, are extremely vulnerable to various forms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), such as numbness, avoidance and feeling a desperate need to constantly be on guard — an experience some some now refer to as “intimate terrorism.”
However, most of this information about domestic violence against both men and women is lost to the general public and even many professionals.
“Many people just can’t imagine,” Lysova said, that men are also victims of spousal violence.
While Lysova says Canadian criminologists and psychologists are usually up to speed on the reality of domestic violence against boys and men, she’s concerned that is not always the case among some service providers, as well as police and social workers.
Since the latter are on the front lines when domestic disputes occur, it’s part of the reason men who experience spousal abuse don’t often report it to authorities (whereas more women do, and most statistics cited about domestic abuse are based on police reports).
The male victims sense that the chances are high they won’t be believed by police and other professionals, Lysova said. “And they don’t want to be re-victimized.”
Compounding the complications surrounding men not seeking help, Lysova said, is the way many males are raised in cultures in which they’re told not to complain or cry, and in which it’s perceived to be shameful to be struck by a female. Many men, she said, fear that if they report being attacked by a woman they will be laughed at.
There is also a fundamental structural problem. While there are now hundreds of shelters across the country for women who are fleeing domestic abuse, Lysova said, “We know there are no shelters for men in Canada. Where do they go?”
To avoid run-of-the-mill household conflicts escalating into much more serious cases of physical violence or emotional and financial abuse, Lysova recommends both men and women “look for red flags” in their domestic situations.
Partners who want to keep away from explosive scenes of anger, Lysova said, need to watch for signs in their spouse of drug or alcohol abuse. They also need to recognize when they are “living with a partner who wants to totally control their life.”
But it’s especially hard for men to notice when they’re living in a toxic and dangerous household, Lysova said. “Men don’t like to think of themselves as ‘victims.’ ”
If that’s the case, what term might distressed males accept being called?
“Men who experienced violence.”
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