720 ABC PERTH - 26TH MAY 2010

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Gillian Oshaughnessy: If we think of a couple whose relationship has become so destructive that one lives in fear of the other, of a beating, of bullying, of injury – physical or psychological – what gender have you mentally given to each person involved?  It's recognised that men are the main perpetrators of domestic violence, but that doesn't negate the fact that there are men who are victims of abuse by their female partner, and these men often feel completely invisible and isolated, unlikely to be believed or supported.

A study released this morning by a team from Edith Cowan University highlights the particularly lonely existence of men who suffer at the hands of violent partners.  With me in the studio this afternoon is Alfred Allan - he is a a professor of psychology and one of the authors of the report – and Dr. Elizabeth Celi, who is a psychologist and author, and we welcome them both to the program today.  Hello.

Dr Elizabeth Celi: Good afternoon, Gillian.

Prof Alfred Allan: Hello.  Good afternoon.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Can you start, Professor Allan?  Can you outline some of the types of abuse that the men that you spoke with for this report had experienced?

Prof Alfred Allan: It was uncanny while I was reading the interviews because all the themes that came up were similar to the ones that come up when you read the literature on female victims.  So it was... it often started with verbal abuse, financial abuse, taking away a credit card, and then starts slowly escalating into violent abuse and so forth.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: And can you perhaps give us some specifics and expand on that just so we can understand, I guess, the daily reality of people who are in that position?

Prof Alfred Allan: Well, I think people who find themselves in a position of domestic violence live in anxiety all the time because often they're in a situation that whatever they do is going to be wrong, is going to be criticised, they're going to be put down.  And if things really go bad they could even be hurt, so it's a question of... it's feeling they're being victimised.  And then obviously if they can't speak about it there's a second layer of victimisation because they don't get that support they should get under the circumstances, or any victim I would say, should get under the circumstances.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: It's not something that sits comfortably with us, is it?  I mean, we... it's not a comfortable idea that women can be perpetrators of violence to start with.  It's not a comfortable idea.  In fact, I imagine it would be very shameful for men to not be able to protect themselves.

Prof Alfred Allan: Terribly.  And that's one of the things. One of the barriers to reporting is shame, and it's probably tied up to masculinity.  And it's not only Australian males – it's, I think, males all over the world that find it very difficult to even admit that they're being abused.  One of the findings of our study is that a lot of the men didn't realise they were being abused, and it took some time.  And this is what we get back from the service providers we spoke to.  And the significant others – that they're in absolute denial about what – that what they're experiencing is actually abuse.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: It's a small study; you spoke to 15 men.  Did you get any sense in that of how prevalent this problem is?

Prof Alfred Allan: No.  The study was never set up to be a prevalence study.  It was really... if there are men out there that are being abused, it means that they're not getting assistance, their families aren't getting assistance, so the children and the females...  So we couldn't really look at prevalence from that point of view.  There are figures out on prevalence, but I think one's got to be very careful about where you take your figures from.  And in a way, if you don't mind me saying this, I actually think we should move on.  The equation is not about prevalence.  It's yes, there are people out there; what do we do about it?

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Yeah, absolutely.  Fair enough.  Can I ask you, Dr. Celi, what sort of services do men in this situation need?

Dr Elizabeth Celi: Well, at the moment there aren't many services to attend to them because a lot of them have been developed with... on the backbone of many decades of helping female victims and male perpetrators.  And so what we need to realise is that there are some gender specific psychological issues men face when they're dealing with some of the same types of abuse that female victims may report.  But they are questioning their self-identity, they're questioning their masculinity, they have immense questions of self-worth in their own concept, and their strength, and a lot of shame and guilt.  And so tied in with that, there's a lot of their loyalty to their partner in staying in an abusive or a violent relationship, and that loyalty becomes unconditional to the point that they become more victim to abuse.  Services need to take into account some of those barriers that men experience internally, the shame and the guilt in disclosing, first up, because unfortunately more often than not men are disbelieved and disregarded when they do decide to speak up.  And once bitten, twice shy.  So if they've mentioned it once, they're likely to retreat and suffer in silence.  So where female victims were two to three decades ago, prior to the much needed social awareness and social education of the last few decades, modern-day man is experiencing now if he's a victim of abuse and violence by a female perpetrator.  So we need to be aware there's a few steps to go in helping them disclose initially, and then providing them with some non-judgmental support and empathy - being believed and supported without criticism or insult on their manhood.  They're already receiving that from female perpetrators.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: And what sort of effect would this have on families, as well on children around them?  Is that a specific issue?

Dr Elizabeth Celi: Absolutely.  The role modelling of children seeing their mother attacking their father, attacking his role as a father, criticising him, excessive need for control, incessant verbal barrages and emotional barrages – he can never do anything right.  The children are observing this kind of dynamic going on and not getting to know their father as a man in his own right and as a father in his own right because it’s so negatively influenced by this kind of verbal emotional abuse.  And then with the financial constraints or the financial abuse that can occur, social isolation... it becomes difficult for family or friends to be around them, or they're observing it and they're unsure what to do, unsure where to go for help, as are the male victims.  That he also ends up socially isolated and having to deal with it on his own until he knows he's got a supportive environment that he can speak up about it.  And so the effect on children leaves them quite confused in seeing the mother attacking the father physically or verbally in what they're seeing.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: And I imagine... Professor, if we can come back to you, it would be quite a diffi... And we do generalise in this... when we have these sorts of discussions.  And we make lots of generalisations, so we perhaps just assume that we do, but I imagine that it would be quite difficult for a man to defend himself.  There would be, in general, more sympathy for a woman defending herself physically against violence towards her, whereas when you reverse that, I imagine that would have it's own problems.

Prof Alfred Allan: Yes.  It came out in the interviews... And can I just say that we didn't only interview men – we also interviewed service providers, and we also interviewed significant others - amongst them an adult child.  And it's... men got to restrain themselves, and they actually report how when they're being abused, they keep back because they know that they can't do... So they feel hostages of the situation, and hostages of society, if I can put it that way, as well.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: And what sort of abuse are we talking about as part of what you've found?  Are we talking about emotional abuse?  Are we talking about real physical harm? Are we...?

Prof Alfred Allan: We had the whole range.  We had a fair amount of verbal abuse, putting down, putting men down before children.  Elizabeth has got a very good example I won't use – but, you know, just putting them down in public, where... just demeaning them as men.  But then there's also physical abuse at times, and that could be fairly serious like with bruises.  And once again, men come up with the classic excuses... “Oh, I was in a motorcar accident” or “I fell down the stairs” or something like that... “I hurt myself at work,” to actually protect the perpetrator - and themselves, to some extent, because it's really difficult for – I think it's difficult for any person to admit that he or she is a victim – but for men, it's even worse because we grow up in a society where men are not victims and where men should actually be able to go.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Well, we know how difficult it is for women, as you say, to speak up when they've been victims.  We know that silence in that issue is one of the major problems there, so I guess you just add another layer to that list when you're speaking about men.

Prof Alfred Allan: Absolutely.

Dr Elizabeth Celi: We need to address, too, perceptions, I guess, when we're talking about male victims and assumptions in that the whole perception that men are tough and strong, and therefore couldn't possibly be hurt by a female perpetrator's abuse or violence.  And then on the other side of the coin, the perception that a female perpetrator couldn't possibly be as damaging as a male perpetrator could be.  With female perpetrators... or females in general have an increased emotional and verbal literacy.  And the case of female perpetrators can become quite abusive and a power and intimidation tactic and strategy over male victims, which puts them again in the isolation and the shame cave that makes it difficult to then speak up.  So if we think back, young boys and men are incessantly taught never to hit a woman, and yet are young girls and women given that same kind of message as strongly - to never hit a boy?  And so when a boy or a man is then physically abused, or psychologically abused, or verbally attacked, his ability to defend himself has already been diminished from that time of “You never attack a female or even speak up for yourself.”  So a lot of male victims, even if they're assertively defending themselves, may be misinterpreted as being perpetrators or being inappropriate when in actual fact they're just standing up for themselves or defending themselves – and not being taken seriously or disregarded.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: You're on afternoons, and it's 20 minutes past two, and if you've just joined us, we're talking to Dr. Elizabeth Celi; she's an author and psychologist, and Professor Alfred Allan, who's one of the authors of the report, Intimate Partner Abuse of Men.  Do we have...?  And Professor, you had mentioned an example that you might have...  Elizabeth, is that something that you can...?

Dr Elizabeth Celi: If you're happy for me to share it, yeah.  I'd be happy to share it.  Right now?  I wasn't sure if we were going on a break.

Basically, being in a children's park area, and the peace and playfulness of the park with the children playing being interrupted by a wife verbally barraging her husband for quite a period of time – quite incessant verbal insults, and verbal attacks, and screaming and shrieking.  He was quite assertively responding in that situation, but the other disconcerting occurrence that happened was her dragging their four-year-old son by the arm and slamming him down to the ground and verbally slinging, “Your father's an idiot.”  And all of those examples are means and mechanisms of a female perpetrator's abuse and violence toward a male, of not only verbal barrage and assault. The child abuse of how the son, the four-year-old son was treated, and then attacking his role as a father to the child where the father's ability to get to know his father in his own right has been negatively influenced in that instance.

And so a lot of us were quite shocked watching that incident.  You look at that, and you're not quite sure how to react and respond, and yet if it was the other way around, and we'd observed him doing that we'd have all had been a lot more verbal or able to do something about the situation.  And yet she actually continued for what would have been close to five to ten minutes.  He remained assertive in his responses, stayed quite calm, which I was very impressed in seeing him be able to do that considering the situation.  But it was heartbreaking to see how the four-year-old son observed all of that – the role modelling of seeing his mother with that kind of aggressive behaviour, significant anger management issues, and an inability to communicate what her frustration would have been in an appropriate manner - but then the child also being mistreated and having certain words directed his way that were inappropriate.  And so we don't bat an eyelid at those kind of things, unfortunately.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Well, I imagine for a four-year-old any violence, particularly from members of their family, whether it's male or female, would have terrible effects.  Do we have any insight on women perpetrators?

Prof Alfred Allan: We haven't because there's not a lot of research, but from looking at what we get – and I just want to be very clear, this is a qualitative study... this wasn't meant to...  - but some of them are actually people probably with mental disorders.  We had reports of women who had postnatal depression, some more serious disorders, and some of them had not actually - were actually not getting assistance, either.  Then we probably have modelling behaviour, and actually part of what's concerning is that females, young girls, are seeing their mothers doing this, and that they're actually going to be maybe doing the same in future.  And then there were signs or indications that some of these women actually had very traumatic backgrounds themselves, and they probably learned that that's the way to manage the situation.  And you need to feel sorry for them, as well.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Well, I think most people who are violent have had violence instigated...

Prof Alfred Allan: Yes.

Dr Elizabeth Celi: And that goes for male perpetrators, as well, so we need to keep in mind that even with female perpetrators a lot of their motivations also surround about fear tactics, intimidation, power and control over their victims and whilst at times there may be mental health problems we've got to to be careful not to excuse the inappropriate behaviour.  They do need assistance, but there's always a choice in violent and abusive behaviour, as is the case with male perpetrators.  So we need to bear in mind that abuse and violence toward anyone, regardless of gender, is inappropriate.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: And obviously new behaviours need to be learned.  We do have a caller.  Is it all right if we go to Jack? Hi, Jack.

Jack: Hi.  Yeah, I just sort of caught that.  I’ll just talk about my own situation... I had a wife who was like abusive and at times quite violent.  And the problem it left me with is because I was so much stronger than her, that I... you know, it's like the inability to be able to hit back and retaliate.  Can you hear me?

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Yes, we can Jack.

Jack: Yeah, so it's kind of like here's this person like physically attacking me, and I think, “if I hit back here now, I'm going to hurt her a lot more than she can actually hurt me”.  If you can follow the logic of that so it's kind of like being attacked by a child, you know, where it’s like I think “well, yeah, this person can hurt me a little bit, but not much”.  But if I lash out, I'm going to cause damage... and that kind of holds you back, and so the whole thing just continues and continues, you know?  So the best you can ever do is just try to restrain.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: It must be just an incredibly difficult situation, Jack, but I guess as you say... you can't afford to lash out for all sorts of reasons.

Jack: Well, I mean, mostly the reason is that, you know, I was going to hurt her if I hit her because I'm so much stronger than she is.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: How did that situation resolve itself, Jack?  Are you still in that relationship?

Jack: Oh, no, no.  No, no, no... the relationship finished, but it's... I mean I don't know how common that is, and I don't know with any of your guests there, if they've struck that sort of comment from people that have been victims like that.  But that was very, very much to the fore in my situation.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Thanks for your call, Jack, and we might see if one of our guests can comment on that for you.

Dr Elizabeth Celi: Well, Jack, thank you for calling in and sharing that experience.  With a lot of the male victims that I do work with, there's this inherent component of men's normal masculine strength that just in terms of baseline is likely to be a bit stronger than it is for females' strength.  So in him being able to defend himself, having to be incredibly careful as to exactly what Jack's mentioned that if I'm even defending myself I may hurt her, and that's not my intention, but the self-defence aspect is to stop her being so hysterically violent or assaulting him.  And so, you know, we're quick to accept for self-defence of female victims.  And fair enough, it's not a pleasant situation at all, and self-defence is important, and yet males need to be all the more careful for those very reasons you raised of having... the risk is too high, and again, it creates such a feeling of being backed into a corner -“what do I do in this situation?” - which increases helplessness, increases hopelessness.  He's questioning himself again, and he's feeling all the more worthless and useless because it's such a conflicting situation – internally conflicting.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: Absolutely.  And another caller rang in to blame his wife's alcoholism, and I think... Again we all know what a terrible addition to the problem that alcohol can be.  What can we do to help?

Prof Alfred Allan: I think what we're doing at the moment is really important.

Dr Elizabeth Celi: Absolutely.

Prof Alfred Allan: Talking about it, making it part of the public debate, coming to the realisation that men can also be victims – I think the campaigns that the governments are running to give publicity to these... to violence to women and children are brilliant.  But in a way, it actually isolates men.  You take them out and give them a victim role... sorry, a perpetrator role.  We should bring them in because they can also be victims.

Dr Elizabeth Celi: I can also add to that that even from this research study, the male victims indicated they would find disclosure far easier with increased public knowledge and public awareness about the situation.  And being more comfortable and secure in the fact that when they do speak up, which can take some time and courage to do, that they will be believed and non-judgmentally supported.  And so the more we can inform service providers, researchers, government policy makers, program providers... that male victims exist and they're quite vulnerable – it can open the door where men will then feel they can disclose and it will facilitate their disclosure.  And so social awareness is a huge first step.

Gillian Oshaughnessy: And I guess, you know, we all need to be very aware that violence in a family situation is just never going to be okay.  And when we start looking at genders, then we start missing part of that problem.  Thank you, very much, both of you, for coming in and having that discussion today.  We've got a huge response to it on the telephone lines, so it's obviously an issue that people feel the need to talk about.

Dr Elizabeth Celi: Thank you for having us.

Prof Alfred Allan: Yes, thank you very much.