No Man's Land
by Mary Cleary
"Society does not have the right to discriminate against victims of domestic abuse because of their gender" -Mary Cleary
AMEN is a voluntary service founded in December 1997 that provides confidential help, information, and support for male victims of domestic abuse. These men, in the past, suffered silently and alone in abusive relationships. Amen was set up following a huge response to a national appeal for abused men to come forward to tell of their experience. It is the only such service in Ireland. In our first year we have heard from in excess of 3,500 men and concerned members of their families. Callers range in age from 18 to 88, come from all walks of life, and every social stratum. They speak and write of their feelings of guilt, loneliness, unworthiness, depression, isolation, and of their suicidal thoughts.
As one man said, "It was not so much that I wanted to die, but that I could see no reason to live." Some men have tried to take their own lives and have been hospitalised. Many are on sleeping tablets and antidepressants. Relatives and friends of men who were involved with abusive partners and who have taken their own lives have contacted Amen. Groups now meet in Waterford, Cork, Monaghan, Wexford, Dublin, Derry, Tipperary and Belfast. We have recently opened up an office in Navan. This office will serve as the National Headquarters for Amen.
Types of Abuse The men who contact us tell of the physical, emotional/psychological, and sexual abuse they encounter from their female partners. They also tell of being alienated from their children. They are often threatened with false accusations of sexual abuse of their children.
Physical The injuries they describe include: contusions, lacerations, abrasions, stabbings, kicking, biting, scratching, spitting, cigarette burns, pulling out tufts of hair, etc. What women lack in physical size they make up by using the element of surprise. Men are attacked when most vulnerable, often in their sleep, or from behind.
Because of social attitudes and the fear of ridicule male victims use various excuses to explain their injuries. One man told recently of going to hospital to discover on X-ray that four of his ribs were fractured. He explained away his injuries by saying he tripped on the cat and fell down the stairs. Another excuse used by an electrical contractor was that he was working with a big spanner that slipped, resulting in a fractured finger. Other excuses offered include: a mirror fell from on top of the wardrobe causing a four inch laceration to his scalp, when in fact, his wife hit him on the head with a steel bucket.
Emotional/Psychological Studies show that violence is damaging in a number of ways, and not just in terms of physical injury. There is a mountain of evidence to demonstrate that victims of domestic abuse suffer grave damage to their self-esteem, thus reducing the opportunity to be fully productive citizens. For instance, one man, a soldier, was often told, "You are thick, not a real man, no use, you are a ******* idiot. I can have any man I want, no one would have you. How do you know you are the father of the children?" Many men say that the physical scars heal quicker than the psychological scars. Domestic violence also contributes to alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, suicide, parasuicide and depression
Sexual Men are regularly threatened with accusations of rape or sexual abuse of children. Spiteful and vindictive women make these threats and often follow through with malicious and malevolent accusations. The innocent victims describe this as the atom bomb or the ultimate weapon. "We have not slept together for years. If I don't have sex when she demands she becomes very abusive verbally and physically. Sometimes when she comes in with drink on her she tries to force me to have sex with her. How am I supposed to get an erection? Sometimes, she has been with other men and she flaunts her knickers under my nose." (An account from a consultant.)
A man with a high profile in the Gardai related how his wife tore her dress and then called his colleagues to report that he had raped her. She later retracted this statement. In the meantime he suffered huge trauma and contemplated suicide.
Social attitudes Violence in the home, whether committed by men or women is a serious social problem. The vast majority of recorded incidents of domestic abuse are of men on women. One possible explanation for this might be that men are not encouraged to report violence perpetrated towards them and added to this is the cultural rejection, disbelief, and ridicule with which they are met when they seek help. Some of the only incidents of violence on men by their female partners that come to the attention of the authorities are fatal or near fatal assaults.
Society, although aware of the male victim, treats him as a joke. In reality he is a man in fear, a man stigmatised as being weak. Words such as "hen-pecked" and "wimp" are commonly used and are bandied about without much thought put into the implications and connotations of using such negative terminology. Although we are aware that male victims exist, they are treated differently, flippantly, and almost as a joke. Their plight is not viewed with the same sympathy as that of female victims.
Violence on women is viewed much more negatively. In reality, the male victim lives in fear and in isolation, but society fails to recognise this. He is neglected because he does not conform to the stereotypical male image. Male victims react by staying silent, this is encouraged by the fear of ridicule and the realisation that their female partners will not be evicted. Indeed, once the matter is in legal hands, male victims often find that the courts are primarily concerned with the payment of maintenance and who gets the house, rather than sorting out satisfactory custody and access of the children. It seems that the law, seeking to uphold the mother-and-child unit, views the woman as the victim and the man as the perpetrator.
The two most commonly used words we hear from male victims are "isolation" and "impotence." Their isolation very often stems from the fact that they know no other person in the same situation and they imagine that this is happening to them alone. The feeling of impotence is a result of their helplessness to take any sort of action to improve their plight. They do not have the "listening ear" of caring agencies.
Excuses Post-natal depression, pre-menstrual tension, eating disorders, childhood traumas, the menopause provocation, and self-defence are but a sample of the excuses proffered by society when women are abusive. Other conditions such as personality disorders are known to have an association with anti-social and violent behaviour. The above often require medical intervention and should not be accepted as an excuse for violence
When a woman is abusive in a relationship, it is not necessarily assumed she is a bad mother, yet, if a man is abusive to his partner, it is automatically assumed he is an unfit parent. The law generally assumes the children will be better off with their mother despite her suitability. Consequently, the option for the man seems to be to put up with the abuse or leave the home. There are those who will argue that men and women are equally protected under the law, this may be so, but it is the application and interpretation of those same laws which demonstrate blatant discrimination, bias, and prejudice.
The Bias In law, a male victim faces two obstacles; firstly to prove he is a victim, and secondly, to ensure that his children are protected and do not become the new victims. Men very often remain in these abusive relationships for the sake and protection of their children. Most men react by staying silent. Often this silence is encouraged by factors such as fear of ridicule and the realisation that it is unlikely that his partner will be evicted.
One man recently wrote, " I picked up your leaflet in a chapel in Donegal. Please send me some information and put me in touch with others in my situation. My wife has been violent to me for years. I recently paid the price for not speaking out when my wife had me removed from my home with a barring order. I was the victim. There is no justice for a man in the family law courts. If you are a man you are ten down starting off."
Even when a man has proved he is the victim it seems the only course of action is for him to leave the home. He is then separated from his children and often experience difficulty in obtaining realistic and regular contact with them. He is, in fact, treated as the perpetrator rather than the victim that he is. The man is doubly victimized firstly by his partner, and then by the courts and the judicial system. As one man recently said, "You would think my legal team were working for her."
Another said, "All my team wanted to discuss was the maintainence. I was only interested in the custody and access arrangements for my children. The carefully choreographed mother-and-child unity props up and perpetuates the public perception of the man as the perpetrator and the woman as victim. Is it any wonder that these men feel lonely, isolated and impotent?"
AMEN offers these men practical advice and support. Hopefully, they receive a better understanding of their situation and will be empowered to make positive decisions about their lives and their relationships. Once they understand all the options, each man can then decide to do what is right for him. This becomes easier when he is no longer isolated in the violent situation. Domestic violence is not just a women's issue. It is a social issue and a family issue affecting men, women, and children. It needs to be examined in this light, otherwise it will continue to do damage to family systems and create even bigger division within such families.
For many years now, we have been told that the only victims of domestic abuse are women and we have swallowed this story whole and undigested. There is an ad which says, "It is a crime to beat a woman." It is of course a crime to beat a woman, but it is also a crime to beat men and children too!
Another one says, "Men, like posies, are disposable.". John Waters recently in the Irish Times suggested that men stand up and challenge this blatant bias, discrimination, prejudice and injustice. Edmund Burke said, "In order for evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing." This is a human problem, a people problem. It is not about who is bigger or best, whether it is 30% or 70%. It is most certainly a woman's problem but it is also a man's problem, and more importantly, a children's problem. Until we examine the full picture we are unlikely to arrive at a balanced outcome and consequently we will fail to break the cycle of violence.
The issue of male victims of domestic abuse needs to be treated in a gender sensitive manner. It requires public debate and discussion. It has to be brought into the public arena. It needs mainstream attention and funding. This is an emergency situation. As the founder of Amen, I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, which is of epidemic proportion.
Mary T. Cleary, National Co-ordinator, Amen 1 Brews Hill, Navan, County Meath, Ireland Tel/ Fax 046-23718