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003: Intimate Partner Abuse of Men Workshop - Part 2

We feature highlights from the Intimate Partner Abuse of Men Workshop held on Wednesday 16 June 2010 in Perth, Western Australia. The workshop was aimed at service providers plus anyone who works with victims and perpetrators of family and domestic violence, and considered the implications for service providers of the Edith Cowan University Intimate Partner Abuse of Men research.

In this, the second part of the workshop, Emily Tilbrook presents the results of the interviews.

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Emily Tilbrook: As Greg mentioned, I’m Emily Tilbrook, and today I’m going to be talking about the stage one research findings from the research that Greg’s just introduced.

So we had 15 male victims in the study, eight service providers and five significant others. Greg just said that I’ll fill you in on the significant others, so I’d better do that. There was one participant who was a son of a male victim who lived in the household obviously with his father and his mother. He’s now an adult who experienced that when he was a child.

There was, as Greg had said, a sister-in-law and a sister. There was also a current partner, a non-abused and non-abusive current partner, and a non-abused and non-abusive ex-partner, as well. So we would have liked more significant others in the sample obviously, but that was a group that was difficult to get a hold of.

So, within stage one, there were five core categories in the findings: these were forms of abuse, targets of abuse, perceived etiology of abuse behaviour, impacts of abuse, and disclosure of abuse. Within the core category ‘forms of abuse,’ you can see there were seven subordinate categories. Within targets of abuse there were no subordinate categories. Within the core category ‘perceived etiology’ of abuse, the subordinate categories were perpetrator issues and victim issues. Within ‘impacts of abuse,’ this was on... the subordinate categories were on victims and on others. And lastly, the core category of ‘disclosure of abuse’ – the subordinate categories were barriers and facilitators to disclosure.

So, participants reported that men were subject to seven forms of abuse, that are similar to those reported by other victims of intimate partner abuse. Some men also appear to be subject to multiple forms of abuse. The pattern of abuse often started with abuse such as verbal, financial, and psychological abuse, and it stemmed to other forms of abuse which became increasingly more violent, such as physical and sexual abuse.

Physical abuse is the first subordinate category within the ‘forms of abuse’ category. The behaviour in this subordinate category reported by participants included violence against the person and property of victims, abuse against the person ranged from punching, biting, scratching, spitting, to throwing objects at men, and to spiking their drinks.

Damage to property was such a strong theme that it could have arguably been made a subordinate category of it’s own. However, we followed the tradition in some of the literature, which put it in the category of physical abuse. So damage to property included breaking into houses and breaking personal objects that belonged to the men.

So, psychological abuse was the next subordinate category. Participants reported perpetrators putting men down and humiliating them. They also reported that men felt threatened and even stalked by the behaviour of their partners. The most common form of psychological abuse reported was that men felt that they were disempowered by their female partners who controlled them and their circumstances either directly or indirectly.

The next subordinate category was verbal abuse. Participants reported that verbal abuse took the form of yelling, shouting, screaming, and swearing.

The next category was sexual abuse. They reported that – this is the victims – reported that they felt pressured to submit to sex against their will, indicating they were time acquiescent rather than consenting participants in sexual acts.

So the next category was financial abuse. Participants reported that financial abuse took the form of controlling of partners’ financial affairs – and often in an incompetent way. 

The next form was legal or administrative abuse. This was one that hadn’t been previously mentioned in the literature that we looked at. But some people felt that perpetrators manipulated legal and administrative resources to the detriment of their male partners. They believed that this happened because employees at the relevant governmental and nongovernmental agencies hold stereotypes that men are always the perpetrators and that females are always the victims.

The last category was social abuse. In this study, victims and significant others commented on strategies that women used to socially isolate their male partners.

So the category ‘targets of abuse’ emerged because participants indicated that men were frequently not the only victims of abusive females and that the abuse aimed at them was often a reflection of a broader pattern of abusive behaviour. They reported that other victims of the perpetrator included the children of the perpetrator, family, friends, and significant others of both the perpetrator and the victim, as well as acquaintances and strangers of the perpetrator. Interestingly, the latter generally led to criminal convictions and other legal sanctions whereas the two former ones didn’t.

As previously mentioned, within the category of perceived etiology of abuse, there were two subordinate categories: perpetrator issues and victim issues. As you can see on the slide, the subordinate categories of perpetrator and victim issues, there were also a number of themes that emerged. With perpetrator issues, a number or participants mentioned substance use as possible cause of the abuse that men experienced. These substances included alcohol, and illicit substances, usually amphetamines, and a combination of both alcohol and illicit substances.

The mental health of perpetrators was also mentioned as a possible cause. The disorders mentioned range from psychotic to personality and mood disorders, and in some cases was linked to post-natal depression. Some participants mentioned the possibility that growing up in a dysfunctional family may lead to abusive behaviour by women against men. The dysfunction aspect here is mainly related to abuse or high conflict in the childhood home.

There was also a perception among participants that the abuse was often a behaviour that perpetrators had learned as children – or in a former relationship where they were the victims - that they had learned that in some way abusive behaviour can be rewarding.

Some participants reported that they thought that in some cases perpetrators may have a history of traumatic events. Examples of such traumatic events were coming from war-torn areas and severe abuse or neglect as a child.

So, within the subordinate category of ‘victim issues,’ there was a perception among participants that men may have a propensity to enter into relationships with females who abuse them. Some participants, including service providers, expressed the opinion that some victims were people whose personality and upbringing made them an easy target for abuse, so personality factors described by this were passivity and dependence. And the upbringing was generally seemed to be related to religious beliefs.

Some victims also indicated a vulnerability as a result of physical illness, and this ranged from things like just a cold or a flu to things as severe as cancer.

So there were a number of impacts that participants noted occurring as a result of the abuse, and these impacts were not limited to impacts on the victims, but also included impacts on others. So within the subordinate category of ‘impacts of abuse on victims,’ five themes emerged and these were mental impacts, mental illness, suicide ideation, and physical well-being and loss. And there were no additional themes within the ‘impacts of abuse on others.’

So, in relation to the mental impacts on victims, they reported feeling mentally crushed, lonely, and without dignity. Participants also indicated that male victims often experienced feelings of helplessness and ambivalence about leaving the situation.

So quotes from male victims that demonstrate this: “I was frightened, and I was shaken. I wanted to protect my daughter, but I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t know what she (his wife) was going to do because she was just, yeah, ropeable. I was worried that if I did something, it might blow up the situation more, and I didn’t know what to do.” “I felt that I had died. I felt that I had gone on living, but the person inside was dead, had died. Life is crushed. You actually lose your dignity in a way you stop being able to be proud of yourself, and you sort of... I don’t know.”

A sister of a male victim, also said, “he was very withdrawn and very, very... he just wasn’t himself, and I thought there was something wrong. There was something terribly wrong.”

Some male victims reported developing psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression, but also more severe mental health problems. The quote from a service provider that demonstrated this was: “He developed a mental illness; he started to get all kinds of paranoid delusions because he thought the system was against him.”

Many of the male victims who participated in the study reported experiencing suicide ideation. Some quotes demonstrating this are: “I wasn’t coping. I know it was to the point where I was very suicidal. I was very suicidal, and if it wasn’t for the sake of those two baby boys... I mean, at one stage I nearly killed myself, and the only thing that stopped me was that I could, for some reason, I could hear my daughter talking to me in my head, and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t go through with it.”

Participants also indicated that male victims experienced a range of physical injuries as a result of the abuse that they experienced, including bite marks, bruising, scratches, and more permanent injuries such as partial loss of eyesight. Some quotes demonstrating this are: “So, I’ve turned up for work with scratches and bruises and all that sort of thing.” Also, a sister of a male victim said, “I’ve seen him with the skin off the side of his face. I’ve seen him with huge bruises on top of his head.” The sister-in-law of a male victim said, “...with bruises, you know, a black eye, bruises on his arms, and bruises on his face, and gouging on his face.” And in relation to more permanent injuries, one of the male victim participants said that “I couldn’t see out of the eye for three or four weeks. I went to see a specialist, and they done tests and done things to it. And it’s all damaged behind... all bruised and you know swollen behind, but now I can’t read out of that eye without glasses.”

Participants also indicated experiencing loss of employment, home and relationships. Generally, relationship loss was in regard to the relationships with their children. “So I lost my job. I had to walk away to a whole new house.” “He decided the best thing to do was to not have any contact whatsoever with his daughter, and then he doesn’t have to have any contact with his partner, and it has been much better since, but he misses his daughter.”

Participants also reported that the abuse had an immediate and long-term effect on a number of people such as grandparents, family and friends. It was, however, participants’ concerns about the psychological impact of the abuse on the children that was most prominent in our data. So, some quotes demonstrating this are: “As a result of the violence that went on, the little 3-year-old doesn’t speak properly.” “And then I saw my son. I think that’s what really ate into me... was seeing my oldest son crying.” At this point, the participant in the interview began to cry and said, “Excuse me for a second. Yeah, he had his hand over his ears yeah and over his face.”

Additionally a quote from the son of the male victim that we mentioned earlier demonstrates the impact that he felt the abuse had on him and his brother: “My brother is not fond of my mother because of what she did to my father growing up. People ask why I’m such a cynical person, and these (referring to the abuse) are factors involved in it all.”

So, ‘disclosure of abuse’. As Greg mentioned, one of the main issues with the research, one of the things that we wanted to find out was what led to men talking about the abuse that they experience. So participants reported that male victims were reluctant to disclose abuse by their female partners to the point where they would make excuses to cover up what was happening to them.

There were six themes that explain why men were hiding the abuse that they experienced, which we have termed barriers, and three themes that indicated what may facilitate disclosure. 

So within the ‘barriers’ category, there were the themes: denial, fear of not being believed, shame, lack of appropriate services, bias, protection of the perpetrator, and emotional turmoil and ambivalence.

And within the ‘facilitators’ subcategory, there were the themes: feeling supported, publicly available information, and attempts to understand abuse.

Some participants indicated the denial theme was related to men being unwilling to admit that they were experiencing abuse during the abusive relationship. For others it was a lack of knowledge or understanding about intimate partner abuse, either in general or in relation to male victims. And for others it was related to certain social cultural factors, which make it difficult for them to admit they are being abused, especially by a female partner.

Some examples of quotes within this theme are: “I think that he is in total denial. It is like a phantom-type thing. It’s like you see something you don’t know your brain can’t actually register it.”

“It wasn’t until some time later that I actually went and saw a psychologist a few times. He said, ‘Do you realise that you had just been the victim of abuse?’ And I looked at him, and I said, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ And I thought Oh, my God – I have. And it was the first time that I ever bothered to recognise the fact.”

“A lot of people it’s a pride factor and cultural issues of... you know, That just doesn’t happen to men.”

Some participants indicated that they did not disclose the abuse for fear that they would not be believed, and others indicated that this was no empty concern as they were not believed or their disclosures were minimised. Another aspect of abuse for males is that males are often not believed. “You know, to be a man and to be scared like that, but not to actually do anything about it, say anything to anyone because of the fact that you’re not going to be believed. Yeah, I spoke to everyone: counsellors, psychologists, lawyers, police... Everybody just went Oh, gee. If she’s that bad, get away from there. It’s something that shouldn’t happen. I mean, it just shouldn’t happen, but there are a lot of women out there that do it.”

‘Shame’ refers to participant’s perception that male victims fail to disclose the abuse or leave the situation because they feel ashamed. Participants indicated that shame may be linked to men’s well-documented reluctance to seek help, and where the perpetrator was a woman, especially their wives, it was indicated that this was even more difficult for men to disclose what’s happening to them. It also appeared that men fear that they will be judged as weak or to have failed as men.

Some participants believe that the fear that men reporting abuse would be seen as weak was in part because of the expectations of our mainstream Australian culture, of men in mainstream Australian culture.

It was also possible that the experience of shame for many men is related to their concept of masculinity. Some quotes that demonstrate this is: “Because of the shame, he didn’t want to walk away. He didn’t want to say anything to anybody. But what was worse was to go to someone and ask for help, which frankly you have to swallow your dignity somewhat to do that anyway. I don’t care if you’re a woman or a man. It is probably worse for a man because they are probably acculturated more to, you know, not to admit to that sort of thing. Usually men are in a position where whatever happens, you are supposed to deal with it. And I’d been dealing with it for ten years, and it was getting pretty heavy to carry around. And I never really told anyone per se all the things that had been happening.”

Another theme that may explain men’s failure to disclose abuse appears to be the lack of appropriate services for men. It appears that even if men tried to seek help, to seek assistance, they found that there were no services available to them. And that even service providers who participated in the research found this a problem. A quote that demonstrates this is: “There is no service provider is there for males who experience this kind of thing, I don’t think? No one who’d I imagine would take any notice of it.”

So participants commented on the lack of services for men in general, but particularly for men who are victims rather than perpetrators of intimate partner abuse and noted that as a consequence some men did not receive protection when required.

Participants felt that all the traditional services for victims of abuse fail men who are victims. Participants commented that services did not have the training, time, or attitude to provide appropriate services to abused men. The quote that sort of demonstrates this is: “Quite honestly, I’m a little cynical of the services offered by government and community in respect to this area. They are lacking badly.”

Participants did not consider the available help lines, which because anonymity, provide a very useful resource, as useful. General practitioners who would also generally be an obvious primary resource for assistance were also not regarded very highly. Participants also indicated that the justice system was not helpful to male victims of intimate partner abuse and may even exacerbate the situation. And the police were also criticised as being hostile and unhelpful.

They also reported that male victims experienced a hostile reception when they tried to report being abused. This is because men felt that they were at best not understood, and at worse – not believed. A quote demonstrating this is: “A lack of understanding and support, and just an unwillingness to want to know or be involved from probably all quarters, almost all quarters...”

The ‘bias’ theme reflects men’s reluctance to disclose abuse because they felt that service providers and other resources are predisposed to the needs of women and not men, and it is difficult, if not impossible, for men to obtain services, specifically in this area. “Women are taken care of out there, but men aren’t.” That was from a service provider.

“Men out there do actually go through and have a lot more hassle as a male than women do.” That’s a quote from a significant other.

“I think that, to be honest, these agencies follow a pattern, but they just follow that pattern almost ritualistically simply, and I think that frankly inside that pattern, there has become an element of sexual discrimination where they make assumptions about you once you are a man... once they identify you as a man. And I think that is what has led them to make mistakes in my case. I don’t think that they did it maliciously, but I certainly don’t think anyone stopped to think about it.”

“Yeah, you see domestic violence resources are set up for women. Only men hit women. Women don’t hit men, so what was I talking about? That was the general response I would get. Or they would say something like, ‘We really only help women here. We aren’t really a service... there aren’t really the services available.’ So I didn’t really get any support from any... out of them.”

Another explanation provided by participants of why men do not disclose abuse is because they want to protect the perpetrators, their family, and their children. “I’ve never laid charges on her because, you know, she’s my wife and I love her. I still feel something for her even though she has gone right off the deep end at the moment, and she is still my little boy’s mother.” “Trying to protect my wife and trying to protect my children.” “I realise somewhere in the piece it’s pretty common for victims of abuse to have a... for some reason, a desire to protect their abusers. It’s pretty common, and I guess I felt like I was in that situation.”

The emotional turmoil and ambivalence victims of abuse experience may also contribute to their failure to disclose the abuse or leave the relationships. Participants mentioned their fear that they will be overwhelmed by their emotions. As is often the case with people who find themselves in problematic relationships, men indicated they were unsettled by their feelings of confusion, ambivalence, and helplessness. 

Some quotes demonstrating this are: “You know, I haven’t spoken much about it because I think if I go into that territory, I’m going to break down. I’m on the verge of it now. It just... it kind of makes me feel tight and clenched up inside. I can’t really tell you why. I guess it’s because I don’t know. Maybe it’s emotional memory, but it’s just hard to sort of access that part of my experience without being – I don’t know how to describe it.”

“You don’t know whether you want to be in the relationship with this abusive person, naturally. And on the other hand, you’re enjoying and wanting to be with the person you appreciate. And because they are so distinctly different thoughts, it’s very disorienting. You know, it’s hard to settle on one and feel comfortable in that and make an informed choice. It’s just confusing and disorienting.”

It appears that men who felt supported were more likely to disclose abuse and seek further help. Areas of support mentioned by participants included family and friends, especially fathers, professionals generally in a therapeutic context and anonymous online services.

“My friends probably... I think they are the only reason I managed to pull through. My family and friends. The extended family was supportive. Well, she, a counsellor, was very receptive and very understanding. She clearly could relate to what I was saying, and that was very comforting to me. It was a huge relief to actually have someone listen and then be able to give me a bit of an explanation as to what was happening.”

“I finally joined one of the dad’s online support groups, which are the only real place that I’ve actually found any consolation. I’ve read other people’s stories, and I thought Yeah, it’s true. I really was abused. And there’s nothing wrong with it, and you know there’s no shame in it. And you know you can see that other guys have been through exactly the same thing, and you know that you’re not alone.”

Another important facilitator appeared to be publicly available information about intimate partner abuse. Participants believed that by providing people with information about intimate partner abuse in general and specifically that males are also sometimes victims, males would be more comfortable seeking assistance because they would be perceived that they would be expected to be believed.

“So in about 2003, I had seen an article in a newspaper. It was domestic violence prevention month, and I read the article. And as I read the article, I found myself and my experience very akin to what the women experience in domestic violence. So I went in, and I asked to speak to someone. I read the book probably in a couple of days and was utterly amazed at the parallels between my situation and what was going on in the book. Very informative. I felt that... I felt very into what was happening, and at that point I guess I realised that I was probably in more – I don’t know if the right word is ‘danger’ – but it was a much worse situation than I thought I was...”

“I think on a single message that goes out and says Yes, you know, all human beings can experience domestic violence, and men do, too. I think it is getting that message out there that this can happen and does happen to men, while at the same time acknowledging that it is still primarily, you know, men to women. But it is getting the message out there that this can and does happen.”

The third facilitator appeared to be victims’ own attempts to understand the abuse and get help from the perpetrator. Some examples of this are: “That changed to being trying to understand things a bit more like Why would that happen, you know? Almost like a forensic sort of amateur approach, like What were the circumstances?” “His focus was really on what was happening for her. He certainly wanted to check out what was going on for her probably more than what was going on for him.”

So, in summary, our data revealed that men face a range of forms of abuse. Most of these are those typically referred to in the family abuse literature. The data also suggests that women who abuse their intimate partners often abuse other people, as well, including their children and the friends of their partners. And that it is sometimes part of a wider pattern of antisocial behaviour.

Our participants suggest several factors that they believe contributed to the abuse that they reported. As I’ve mentioned, there was the use of substances, abusers’ mental health, growing up in a dysfunctional family, learning that abusive behaviour is in some way rewarding, having a history of traumatic events, and having a need for control. In respect to victim factors, participants indicated that the personalities, upbringing, and physical condition of some victims may make them more vulnerable to abuse than others.

Some participants also suggested that males who are victims of such abuse have an inclination to become involved in abusive relationships. The impact of this type of abuse is as pervasive as other types of abuse, and the children probably suffer emotionally, and the male victims suffer a range of consequences such as mental illness, which can lead to suicide ideation and a loss of work.

Despite these impacts men are reluctant to disclose what is happening to them or to seek help for the reasons that I’ve just discussed. Participants believed that men would find it easier to talk about and disclose the abuse if there was public acknowledgment that men could be victims of abuse too, and if there was appropriate services for men, and if they were given support when they did disclose.

And that’s pretty much it. I’ll hand you back over to Greg to talk about stage two.

Listen now (MP3)