Domestic Violence and the Male
Ann Lewis and Dr Sotirios
Over the past few decades,
'domestic violence' has been defined as violence by men against women and
children, and women's violence against their male partners has been considered
to be either non-existent, or the fault of men, or has been trivialised and
justified in a variety of ways. This paper challenges this notion of abuse
against males and, using data from a study of men abused by their female
partners, argues that domestic violence against males exists, that their voices
are not heard; and that the refusal to acknowledge the existence of this form of
abuse is part of a fundamental disempowerment of men which has arisen from a
tacit acceptance in society of the radical feminist agenda. The paper concludes
that domestic violence is not an issue of gender, and that official policy
should be directed to providing the kind of help for abused men which up until
now has been available only to women.
Over the past thirty years, the
focus of research and public attention shifted from couples (or rather men) to
women. This is most obvious in the area of domestic violence (DV) where public
interest and concern has almost exclusively focused on women, leading to
feminisation of domestic violence, and implying an invisibility of the male
victim (Sarantakos, 1999).
This is justified by a new
philosophy which equates domestic violence with wife abuse, where husbands are
taken to be the primary perpetrators and wives the primary victims (Adams,
1988:191; Dobash and Dobash, 1977-78, 1980, 1992; Grace, 1995:3; Kurz, 1993:88,
99; Saunders, 1988: 90; Schechter, 1982; Seth-Perdie, 1996; Thorpe and Irwin,
1996:6; Tierney, 1982), and the conviction that "only violence against
women should be evaluated as a social problem requiring concern and social
intervention" (Kurz, 1993, reported in Gelles and Loseke, 1993:63), that
"only men can be perpetrators of violence" (Kurz, 1993:88), and that
"women are typically victims and not perpetrators of violence in intimate
relationships" (Kurz, 1993:99).
This interpretation of family
violence implies further that women's aggression is a reaction to men's actions
toward them, blaming the victim for his plight.
It is argued, for instance, that
a wife who beats her husband has herself been beaten and that her violence is
the violence of self-defence (Straus and Gelles, 1990; Pagelow, 1985; Saunders,
1988); that when women assault their husbands they do so to defend themselves
and to prevent further damage (Wolfgang, 1957); they use violence as the last
resort (Totman, 1978), and that they are usually subjected to violence for a
number of years before they assault or kill their spouse (Browne, 1986;
McCormick, 1976, quoted in Bauman, 1997).
This perception of DV resulted in
a marked shift in relevant policies from a pro-husband to a pro-wife position,
and a bias in favour of abused wives and against abused males, who are being
ignored, neglected and disbelieved.
The validity of this perception
of DV and the relevance and efficiency of the policies that are informed by this
paradigm have been seriously questioned by many writers (for a summary of such
studies see Archer, 2000; Fiebert, 1998; Sarantakos, 1998b, 1999), who, using
extensive empirical evidence, demonstrate that men and women are equally violent
against each other, and that although men might on average cause more damage to
their spouses, women's violence is by no means harmless, but very
Although the validity of these
findings is hard to refute, the question as to the nature and structure of
husband abuse (used throughout the paper as the counterpart of wife abuse to
denote abuse of males by their female spouse/partner) is still being contested,
and requires stronger and more convincing answers, to overcome doubt and
disbelief among the critics of husband abuse.
More particularly, there is a
need for qualitative evidence that explains thoroughly and directly the internal
structure of husband abuse, that is, the way it is constructed, the extent
husbands and wives contribute to the creation of the problem, the system of
power, the presence of abuse prior to the wife's assault, etc. There is simply a
need for qualitative data that would provide a clearer and more convincing
presentation of facts relating to male victims of DV, that will shed light on
the reality of this problem. To provide such data is the purpose of this paper.
The main concern of the analysis is to ascertain whether there are families in
which wives abuse their male partners, and if so how genuine these cases are,
what do they contain and how can they be explained.
This paper presents findings
gathered through a study of abused men from Australia and New Zealand, conducted
by A. Lewis. The respondents were identified in a variety of ways but
predominantly through contacts with men's support groups. This informal and
non-systematic sampling construction is justified by the fact that there are no
sampling frames available to draw samples from; apart from this, abused men do
not respond readily to calls to participate in surveys, particularly when they
are still living with their abusive spouse.
Initially an information sheet
about the proposed study was sent to men's support groups and to organizations
working for reform of family law, asking for assistance with the project.
Included was an invitation for men who had been abused by their female partners
to phone the researcher for an interview. It was also stated in the information
that men who were to answer this call were supposed to have been abused by their
partner for at least twelve months and that the relationship has already ended.
Confidentiality and anonymity of the respondents was assured. This avenue to
assuring respondents for the study was successful and led to the identification
of 48 respondents. Their background was rather diverse, with their occupations
ranging from tradesmen to medical specialists. The majority of the respondents
were of Anglo-Celtic background, and the age range was thirty to sixty-five.
Twenty-one of the respondents lived in Sydney.
Data collection was accomplished
by means of unstructured interviews. This was consistent with the nature of the
study, which was qualitative and as such placed strong emphasis on DV as seen
from the point of view of the respondents, allowing scope for exploration and
for collection of personal stories, and for detailed description of their
feelings at the time of the abuse, and of the effects violence had on their
It goes without saying that a
qualitative study based on a non-systematic sampling model cannot claim
representativeness and therefore its design does not allow inductive
generalisations (see Sarantakos, 1998a). Nevertheless, in its qualitative
context, the study allows analytical generalisations, and is equipped with the
required attributes to address effectively the research question.
Analytical generalisations can
provide a logical and methodological basis for explaining issues such as whether
there are males who feel abused, what this abuse entails, how male victims of
domestic violence experience such an abuse, how destructive this is felt to be,
how males respond to it, and how they think it affects their life.
In summary, the findings are
expected to help better understand women's violence against their male partners,
what it contains, and how and why women's violence is viable in a modern
Findings and discussion
1. Women's violence
The study revealed a number of
trends which allow a clearer understanding of what women's violence against
their partners entails. The first finding of this part of the study is that
abuse of males by their female partner is a real problem, with women abusing
their spouse/partner in a manner which is felt to be not markedly different to
that of husbands abusing wives.
In most cases, violence was
reported to begin in a mild form as 'expressive' violence and to quickly develop
into a serious family problem. When the relationship became gradually more
committing, particularly through the birth of children and common ownership of
house, and emotional dependence, the problem became manifested in the
relationship, and rather difficult to control. It was also found that the types
of violence inflicted by women on their partners were diverse, but serious
nevertheless, causing considerable damage to the victims.
Respondents stated that, over the
history of their relationship, they experienced types of violence listed
(a) Physical assault - Verbal
assault: The most commonly reported form of violence was unreasonable and
unprovoked verbal attack: endless shouting, calling names, insulting, etc.
paralysed the man's ego and his defence system to the breaking point. On the
physical side of the problem, most common were reports of husbands being kicked,
scratched and punched, or having their hands and arms bitten while trying to
protect themselves, throwing or making direct contact with weapons such as
knives, bottles, plates, photos, ashtrays, hot irons, and hot liquid, causing
the man serious injury, often requiring medical attention.
(b) Psychological abuse: Abusive
wives were reported to target the husband's feelings and emotions, and the 'soft
spots' that affect his mood, self-esteem, and confidence. An example of this is
a man's feelings as a father, where women would accuse him for being inadequate
or that even the kids were not his ('they're not your kids anyway; you've only
been a sucker; I've been having affairs with other men all the time').
His capacity as a worker is
another example ('who did the work for you?' 'whose palm did you grease?).
Women would also put down their
partner's body shape, his sense of colour, his ethnic background, his mental
capacity, his economic or social status, his friends, the way he fixed things
around the house, and the way he cooked a meal.
(c) Abuse of money and property:
Abuse included also cases of inappropriate and improper use of money, financial
deprivation, misuse/damage of property, eg destroying husband's clothes, and
ripping out the windscreen wipers. Peter, an abused partner, describes one such
example as follows: She kept making demands that I earn more money, so I
finished up working three jobs, seven days a week. But no matter how much I
earned, she would spend it all on luxuries and abuse me because we were getting
deeper into debt.
(d) Social control: Wives
controlled the husbands' relationships with friends and his freedom in general
by using a variety of means ranging from lying down in front of the car to
prevent him from leaving the home, to locking the husband in the house, or
removing his credit card to restraint his mobility and independence.
(e) Domination and control: Abuse
was not just a sum of violent acts, but in almost all cases it constituted a
system that was imposed upon the abused spouse, that dominated his whole
The study reported that abusive
women assumed total control of the relationship eg by getting hold of power
producing resources, imposing themselves upon the husband by enforcing authority
over him or indirectly making serious threats to frighten him into
(f) Intimidation and fear: In
most cases, the wife's intent to control and dominate the husband entailed
efforts to induce fear in him relating to his personal safety as well as the
fate of the children and property in general. She would often threaten to burn
the house down, hurt the children or animals, or kill herself, him or the
children: she would often drive dangerously to frighten him, and make him
realise how serious and dangerous she could be. This generated intimidation,
insecurity, and fear in the husbands and the family members in general.
(g) Child abuse: Many women were
reported in this study to also abuse their children, including all possible
violent acts, ranging from verbal abuse to physical and emotional abuse. In such
cases, the husband felt totally powerless to interfere. Stuart, an abused
partner describes a 'mild case' of child abuse in the following example: 'My
daughter was using paint brushes and she kept putting them in her mouth. My
partner said to her, 'if you like it so much you can drink it' and she forced
the liquid down her throat.'
(h) Abusing relationships: Abuse
took many other different forms such as disappearing from the house without
explanation, sleeping in the spare room, locking the husband out of the bed
room, treating the man 'like a boarder', not passing on messages, or refusing to
communicate with him.
(i) Sexual abuse: Women used sex
as a form of punishment, or as a means of manipulation, with some demanding sex
at any hour of the day or night, or in a manner the partner disliked or was
unable to perform. If the man did not comply, the woman would go on the attack,
making derogatory remarks about his virility ('if you really loved me, you would
cut off your penis' or 'What are you, a man or a mouse?'). Retaliation for
'non-performance' included things like humiliation (often in front of friends),
criticising his manhood, making threats to have affairs with other men, or just
locking the man out of the house.
(j) False allegations of
violence: Wives did not hesitate to make false allegations of violence to
achieve their goals. Geoff, an abused partner, described one of his experiences
as follows: 'She started punching me violently. As I moved away, one of the
punches landed in the door frame and she broke her hand. She told everyone I had
attacked her with a cricket bat.'. In other cases, after a fight with her
partner the wife would run to the police making false allegations of violence;
when a trace of injury was present, her allegations were thought to be
substantiated; it was automatically assumed it was the fault of the male.
In some cases the severity of the
abuse decreased with time, with victims becoming increasingly more tolerant, to
avoid confrontation or displeasing the wife, at least until they felt safe to
leave. In most cases, the severity of assaults increased, with males becoming
increasingly disappointed and pessimistic, resisting, revolting and questioning
the presence and legitimacy of violence.
In all cases, the experiences
were most painful and destructive, ultimately leading to full breakdown of the
2. Experiencing abuse
The intensity of pain that
victims of women's violence experienced in their home was evident in their
statements but also in the manner they described their experiences, the tone of
their voice and the kind of descriptions they used to show their
However, all sources of
information converge to demonstrate that all respondents have suffered immensely
in the hands of their wives. Regardless of the severity of the attack, the pain
was almost always the same. The most common experiences of the victims are
briefly described below.
(i) Pain, loss and betrayal: The
most obvious response was physical pain, physical discomfort, ill health,
inability to function properly, eg when they could not use their arms, legs,
hands, etc. fully, limited movement, also as a result of controlled resources,
car use, threats, etc., and reduced productivity at home as well as at work. In
the view of the respondents, this issue, despite its severity, has not received
adequate attention, mostly due to the fact that men are normally thought to be
strong enough to cope with physical attacks and to deal with their consequences.
Loss was evident in all aspects of their lives, including property and finances,
loss of friendships, loss of trust, loss of children and personal loss.
Another issue which many men
reported to have affected their well-being significantly was betrayal. They felt
they had opened up themselves to their partner, shared their sense of
inadequacy, their fears and vulnerabilities, and then the woman used the
information as ammunition against them.
(ii) Fear, and psycho-somatic
symptoms: Men reported also symptoms such as tightness in the stomach, muscular
pain, racing pulse, thought distortion, and panic attacks. Perpetual fear and
being 'on guard' were experienced by most participants. Other commonly expressed
reactions were, feelings of lack of control and inadequacy and constant
denigration of the man, which often caused him to accept his partner's view of
himself, and to lose self esteem. As Adam, an abused male, noted: 'It got to the
point where what self esteem I had, had gone. I was afraid to even attempt to do
anything, because I knew within myself that I was going to fail - or she would
tell me I'd failed. So it just wasn't worth trying.'
(iii) Confusion: Several men
reported confusion and uncertainty, and found they could not continue in their
jobs. Their skills were so affected that they risked injury. But the belief that
the abuse was all their fault was also common. Many were led to believe that
women were superior to men, so when the abuse started, they assumed they must
have done something wrong. The woman would blame the man for all her feeling
states and he would be manipulated into feeling guilty.
(iv) Despair: This situation was
compounded by the fact that there was no other option for them but to either
leave or accept the situation as it was, at least up to the time when leaving
would be possible. This sense of powerlessness often led to intense emotional
pain and feelings about death. The methods the men used to avoid potentially
violent situations included avoiding close contacts with the wife, remaining
calm and passive, locking themselves in a safe place, getting home late, staying
at a friend's place but without divulging the reason, sleeping in the car, the
bath tub, shed, garage or wherever they could find shelter.
(v) Disempowerment: As noted by
many writers (Young, 1997), respondents stated that powerlessness at home is
exacerbated by the fact that it is reinforced and solidified in the community
through the response of friends, the professionals, and the authorities, who
respond to men's complaints and call for help with mistrust, disbelief, and
ridicule. Here, defending himself against her attacks is pointless and
counterproductive: his self-defence will be interpreted as attack, and he will
lose more than gain from this (freedom, children, house etc.). Yet, when the
woman claims to have been assaulted or makes false accusations of sexual
molestation of their children, everyone listens, believes her, trusts her and
employs all available means (eg Apprehended Violence Orders).
This situation is well documented
(see Cook 1997:62; Green 1998:213; Ambrose et al. 1983 cited in Smith 1998:24;
Jacob 1986 cited in Smith 1998:12; Sarantakos, 1999; Arndt, 1995:225).
The study shows clearly that
women's violence against their partner is a real issue and a serious problem.
Women engage in persistent, often unprovoked physical and verbal attacks,
humiliate their partner, force him to be totally accountable to them, threaten
his safety and that of his children, manipulate him into staying in the
relationship, and persuade others (including authority figures) that she, not
he, is the victim, and in so doing they destroy any sense of personal power and
autonomy which the man may once have possessed.
Women's violence and
The findings of this study offer
sufficient evidence showing that women's aggression against their partner is a
hard and indisputable reality, and that it is not different from men's violence
against their female partners. This is no longer a contentious issue; many other
overseas and Australian (Hagon, 2000; Sarantakos, 1998b; Stockdale, 1998, 1999)
studies have provided similar results. Hence, the question is no longer whether
or not women abuse their male partners but about the factors which contribute to
this problem and to the sustenance of this privileged position of women in the
context of the family and the society.
There are obviously many factors
contributing to this, but the most relevant and also most important is radical
feminist philosophy. This holds that the sexes are adversarially poised; that
all forms of oppression are derived from the power men have over women; and that
men are a class of abusers, from which arise individuals with greater or lesser
It is for instance argued that
phallocracy is 'the most basic, radical and universal societal manifestation of
evil', and the underlying cause of genocide, racism, nuclear and chemical
contamination, and spiritual pollution, with men being the 'enemy', to be blamed
for the present situation (Daly, 1984).
It is argued further that, 'the
penis is linked with rape, manhood is synonymous with violence, maleness is a
violation of an innately feminine nature, and indeed masculinity itself is no
more than an abominable fiction or construct that "progressive"
politics must attempt to destroy' (Tacey, 1997).
So extreme these views might be,
they have become a part of our public domain (Sheaffer, 1997) and constitute the
basis of our policies. Hence, men are thought to be powerful and women
powerless, and therefore men are the violent spouses and women the
Violent experiences at home,
accompanied by tolerant social practices and community attitudes as well as
social policies treating men as the villains even when they are the victims, and
making systematic efforts to 'resocialise' them to submission, cannot but lead
men to alienation and disempowerment.
Men gradually succumb to feelings
of self-hatred when faced with accusations that they are bad people who must be
blamed for what is wrong with the world and who cannot expect to be treated with
kindness or consideration (Thomas, 1993).
Further, since victim-hood is
associated with innocence, the alleged moral disparity between the sexes, as
expounded in radical feminism, is given even greater credence because of women's
Taking the moral high ground has
allowed women to act towards men in the roles of judge and executioner.
Despite the pain and humiliation
experienced by the participants in this study, many still held to the idea that
'women are better than men'. Further, external, institutionalised oppression
results in the creation of 'distress recordings' (Whyte, 1998a); they
internalise the endless criticism that drenches society, and this leaves them
feeling discouraged, isolated, guilty, depressed, angry, and vulnerable to
interacting with other men's negative recordings (Whyte, 1998b).
Because of the shift in the
perception of men and the prejudice against them in the public domain, women are
now in a position of being able to exploit that power to the detriment of
A woman can abuse a man with
impunity, since she knows he will have little, if any, recourse in the legal
system, and that in the event of a breakdown in the relationship, she will have
custody of the children and can use them as a weapon against her partner.
Disempowerment has traditionally
been seen as the result of an interaction between powerful and oppressed groups.
Whyte (1998a) suggests that the oppression of men does not fall within this
definition. He states that there is no well-identified powerful group which
oppresses men; it is the whole of society.
A similar argument is used by
Fauldi (1990) when she asks 'Why don't contemporary men rise up in protest
against their betrayal?… Why don't they challenge the culture as women did?'
Her answer is that whereas women were fighting against something identifiable,
male domination, men have no clearly defined enemy.
Men cannot be oppressed when the
culture has already identified them as the oppressors and when they see
themselves that way.
This research showed that the
abuse of men by their female partners is a real family problem, and a serious
problem indeed, which varies little from the abuse of women by their spouse. Men
in families with abusive wives suffer all consequences of violence abused wives
experience, which are as damaging and as traumatic as assaults by men. Although
in the cases studied, the severity of physical assaults by wives is not as high
as that of some inflicted by males, they are serious and damaging
Abusive wives make more use of
weapons and other instruments than abusive husbands, and the rate of women
killing their husbands is high enough to demonstrate the destructive capacity of
women in their families. The fact that the number of mothers killing their
children exceeds by far that of father attests to this (Thomas, 1993).
The study verified, further, the
presence of male disempowerment which has disastrous effects on the well-being
of males in families and the society, and inevitably on their relationships at
home and on their children. These findings have implications for theory, the
family and for social policy.
In the first instance, the study
proves that the public image of abused husbands portrayed by media driven
feminist paradigms is incorrect and misleading and misrepresents reality. Males
are not the 'diabolic husbands' who oppress and tyrannise their female partners.
In the words of a counsellor who has been dealing with male victims of DV for
several years, 'Men are not the violent time bombs that propaganda lead us to
expect; this false image is the result of politicised hysteria and tendentious
surveys' (LFAA 1998).
The view of the participants in
this study present a clear image of the above. They were mostly quietly spoken,
non-aggressive men. When they were being attacked they exercised restraint,
either removing themselves from the vicinity or trying to reason with their
partner in an attempt to calm her down. In the interviews they were more than
willing to acknowledge personal deficiencies, and to make all kinds of
allowances for their partner's behaviour. These men did not fit the radical
feminist view of men as oppressors.
Men are certainly not the
diabolic monsters, and women not the angelic creatures that hold the monopoly of
victimhood. The damage they cause to their partners, their children and their
aged parents is a testimony for their destructive violence, which unfortunately
remains hidden and - more so - is excused, justified and even glorified by media
and women's groups.
As a politician noted some time
ago, men too are victims and women too are perpetrators; neither sex has a
monopoly of vice or virtue. Unfortunately, feminist aggression and male
tolerance and respect for females corroborated in creating a situation where
maleness is disregarded, bashed and trivialised and female victimhood
unjustifiably promoted and supported, for the benefits of the DV industry, which
obviously is in the hands of feminists.
Vested interests and the urge for
keeping 'the business going' necessitate that the image of the battered,
victimised and maltreated wife remains alive and at the top of the political
agenda; only then can funds be guaranteed and sustenance of the industry
Obviously, accepting the fact
that women are equally dangerous and destructive at home works against their
business interests and is to be suppressed. Hence, abuse of males by their
female partners is trivialised, ignored and excused, the high proportion of
husband murderers (in the USA more than 40 percent of all spouse murders) is
either suppressed or justified and excused as self-defence, and the high
proportion of female child abusers and child murderers (much higher than that of
men) is suppressed and ignored.
Moreover public figures present
an image of DV as being a male crime. Further, even men themselves are made to
believe they are the villains who do not deserve acknowledgment and
As critical social theorists
noted, adherence to this kind of ideology ultimately becomes a form of false
consciousness in that it may conceal unjust social practices (Mezirow 1990). It
can cause the members of an oppressed category to believe that there is
something intrinsic and natural about the way they are treated, rather than
something socially constructed.
Certainly nothing new, feminists
were talking about this process for some time now to justify their claims for
equality regardless of the views and attitudes of women; but is not thought to
be applicable to men.
Finally, where there is a
discrepancy between official policy and the manner in which it is implemented,
it can be difficult for disempowered individuals to realise that they are in
fact part of an oppressed group, and that the unacknowledged policies and
practices which work against them have arisen because of a perception in society
that they are given exactly what they deserve.
It is therefore important that
policies addressing male victims of DV entail the task to elucidate men about
their real status and that they cannot continue to be seen as oppressors, and
that in many cases they have become the oppressed.
The pain and humiliation of being
abused by a woman, together with the lack of response to their predicament
within the public arena, should cause them to challenge those structures which
have undermined their belief in themselves as worthwhile human beings. And the
government has the task to facilitate this by abolishing policies based on
discrimination, bias and prejudice, and by taking a fair and balanced view of
gender in the family and society.
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