In 2007, a New South Wales father of two who we’ll call Kevin Logan fell ill. Paralysed, he went to hospital and stayed there for two months. On returning home, he was bedridden for most of the day and unable to work. That’s when his wife’s verbal taunting began. What started as persistent criticisms intensified into threats. Gradually the emotional abuse escalated into physical violence.
One night a few years later, as she set upon him with shoving and biting, Kevin pushed his wife. She fell and hit her head on the side of the couch. When the police arrived, she was demanding his arrest. But on hearing the full story, the police said she should be arrested. She’d initiated the altercation and her husband had acted to defend himself. Kevin refused to press charges.
After the episode with police, Kevin left his family home and lived out of his cleaning van for three months. “People say to me, ‘Why didn’t you go to your mum’s or your brother’s first?'” Kevin told VICE. “But how do you go and tell your family that your wife’s been abusing you?”
The silence experienced by Kevin is typical of family violence against men. And while this could be said of family violence in general, there is a particular shortage of dialogue and services around male victims.
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from 2013 outline that for the prior 12 months one in three victims of current intimate partner violence were male. In January, NSW Police reported that last year one in every five family violence incidents they responded to involving intimate partners were for male victims. The perpetrators in these incidents were both male and female.
Any man can experience family violence, regardless of socio-economic status, sexual preference, and culture. However, the limited research available suggests that men with disabilities or mental health issues, members of the LGBTI community and those who have grown up in an environment with family violence, are more likely to experience it.
The 2010 Intimate Partner Abuse of Men Report outlines that the physical abuse suffered by men ranges from punching to biting to use of weapons. And there were many reported cases of abuse that were not physical but rather verbal, psychological, or sexual. The effects of abuse can lead victims to develop mental disorders and suicidal tendencies. They can lose sense of their own masculinity and many become unemployed as a result.
At present family violence is very much on the national agenda. Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced last week that a Council of Australian Governments national advisory panel into family violence will be established and a Victorian Royal Commission into the issue begins sitting this month. While these inquiries and others like them are vital, it’s likely they’ll only touch on the issue of male victims, if they do at all.
So as Australia begins dealing with its family violence crisis, what’s causing the almost blanket denial of its male victims?
According to Greg Andresen, senior researcher of the One in Three Campaign, a lot of it has to do with society’s deep-seated views on masculinity, which leave male victims unable to discuss what’s happening to them because they’re too ashamed.
“They fear they won’t be believed or understood, that their experiences will be downplayed, that they will be blamed for the violence,” Andresen said. “They may not even identify as a victim of family violence because they have been told victims are female.”
Many in the community struggle to grasp the idea of a man being physically abused, but as Andresen explained, “a woman with a knife is going to be just as effective as a man with a knife.”
This silence is further impacted by the lack of any specialist services for men. In 2009, when Kevin began his search for help, he found little available. A local case worker told him he didn’t fit the criteria for their family violence program, while a second counsellor advised him to attend an anger management course.
“The services just weren’t there. I rang the NSW Department of Community Services, their domestic violence hotline and they said, ‘Sorry I don’t believe you were abused by your wife. Only men abuse women,'” He recounted.
And little has changed. Frontline services — such as ambulances, Lifeline and Legal Aid — are available to both women and men, but most family violence crisis services that provide support through the court process and help in finding accommodation are available only for women. “That is the link in the chain that is still not available to men,” Andresen added.
But there have been some positive changes in NSW. Recently, small pilot programs at the Downing Centre and Parramatta courthouses have started providing free assistance to men during the court process. The NSW Senate Inquiry into Domestic Violence recognised that men make up a significant portion of family violence victims, yet don’t have access to adequate services. This has resulted in some services being made available to men as well as women, such as the housing subsidy Start Safely.
Last month, NSW Police posted a message on their Facebook page to raise public awareness about family violence towards men. Part of an ongoing family violence campaign, the post sparked a social media debate, simultaneously supporting police for finally addressing the issue, whilst criticising the approach they take when dealing with male victims.
But Andresen thinks on whole the police are doing a good job. “They’re quite aware that male victims exist because they’re out there on the front line going into houses at 3am.” But he added, “Unfortunately there are still individual police officers who may, when a male victim comes to the station, tell him to man up, go home and take it on the chin.”
Over recent years, NSW Police have been dealing with more incidents of family violence, as reported cases against both women and men have increased. Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch from NSW Police told VICE that police provide the same level of service to all victims regardless of their gender, age or social circumstance.
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