Men’s Ignored Suffering from Serious Domestic Violence Injuries

face of a prisoner

While vicious scholarly controversy has raged about domestic violence since the late 1970s, anyone can easily recognize that many men suffer serious injuries from domestic violence. A wide range of acts are labeled domestic violence under domestic violence law. Serious domestic violence injury here means domestic violence that physically injures a person to the extent that the victim goes to a hospital emergency department for care. According to a U.S. nationally representative, high-quality government survey, men made an estimated 230,000 U.S. emergency hospital visits for domestic violence injuries in 2008. That’s about 40% of total men’s and women’s emergency hospital visits for domestic violence injuries.

“I was writhing, crying in the corner … I couldn’t get up for two hours … she kicked me in the groin at least 12 times.”^

Regardless of their genders, persons in close relationships are vulnerable to each other. A person who destroys his life can cause intense pain to those who love him. Persons who share common assets and have common liability can destroy each other financially. Persons who are physically intimate can transmit to each other deadly diseases. A person can make a home a dangerous, hostile place for a cohabitant. Humans’ tool-using capabilities and intimates’ exposure to each other makes stereotypical sex differences in physical strength have little relevance to violent victimization among persons living together. The problem isn’t just self-hatred, accidents, imprudence, or negligence. Persons in close relationships sometimes intentionally hurt each other.

“She spit at me, pushed me, and when she couldn’t get a reaction, she hit me in the head with a cutting board. I don’t want to be hurt any more.”^

Claims that men are a minority of domestic violence victims are often used to justify domestic violence gender stereotyping. Domestic violence authorities commonly show no concern for injuries to men. They ignore scholarly controversy about domestic violence, ignore credible, publicly available data on hospital emergency department visits, and assert that many times fewer men than women are victims of domestic violence. That’s wrong. Moreover, ignoring or trivializing domestic violence against men because men are a minority among those injured is heartless and sexist.^

They {domestic violence agency} asked how much I weighed and how much she weighed and hung up on me … I was told by this agency I was full of BS.

{a domestic violence agency} told me that women don’t commit domestic violence — it must have been my fault.^

Expanding domestic violence services beyond the model of a man battering a woman faces serious obstacles among domestic violence shelters. Consider, for example, the primary provider of services to victims of domestic violence in Sacramento County, California. Like many domestic violence shelters, it opened in the 1970s to serve women. It’s called WEAVE. At its founding, WEAVE stood for Women Escaping a Violent Environment. WEAVE has admirably attempted to expand its service model to encompass mutual couple violence, domestic violence against men, and domestic violence in homosexual relationships. Doing so has required a deep rethinking of WEAVE’s values and services. The Director of Programs at WEAVE explained:

Victim services are presently intertwined with the issue of gender, but, as the complexity unravels, it is apparent that either party in a couple, either heterosexual or gay, can experience a power differential that ignites violence. The abuse is not necessarily related to gender but can be. In order to welcome and serve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer (LGBTQ) victims, a philosophy other than one that is gender-based needs to evolve. The question is how to acknowledge the aspects that are related to gender and serve all victims regardless of gender in the most effective way. In the last five years we have worked to create a program that acknowledges the gender issues that arise without creating an unfair bias toward one or the other.

How to evolve from being a grass-roots, feminist-based organization to a professional, clinically sound model while honoring the best of both worlds is a challenge with which we have struggled. The internal conflict has created an opportunity to develop a new paradigm. There are strengths and drawbacks to each modality. The underlying question that must be asked is: Does serving male victims exclude feminist theory?^

Domestic violence service providers are acutely concerned to reconcile feminist theory and feminist global understanding of gender with the reality of specific, beaten men seeking their help. That’s a telling constraint.

“J tried to access the limited resources available in his area in an attempt to initiate couples counseling. Reaching out for help left J feeling further abused; he was treated with suspicion, disbelief and thinly veiled accusations that he was a ‘batterer.’ {DAHM (Domestic Abuse Hotline for Men) confirmed. The first response of the agency supervisor was, ‘Why would a man call a helpline if he were not the abuser.’}”

“She stabbed me with a knife, and I didn’t even defend myself, and after I got out of the hospital two weeks later, the court tells me to go to a group they say is for victims. It turns out to be for batterers and I am expected to admit to being an abuser and talk about what I did to deserve getting stabbed.”^

“I called eleven different numbers for battered women and got no help.”^

Prospects for men receiving equal protection from domestic violence are poor. Among persons in the U.S. ages 15 to 44 in 2010, men suffered 31% more injury-related visits to hospital emergency departments than women did. Men suffered 59% more injury-related visits from violence than did women. Nonetheless, men have been largely missing from the U.S. national injury research agenda. Injuries to men matter little in public discourse.^

Lack of concern for injuries to men is deeply entrenched in domestic violence victim services. U.S. federal funding for domestic violence services since 1994 have been provided under a law entitled the Violence Against Women Act. In Woods v. Shewry (2008), a California Court of Appeal ruled:

We find the gender-based classifications in the challenged statutes that provide programs for victims of domestic violence violate equal protection. We find male victims of domestic violence are similarly situated to female victims for purposes of the statutory programs and no compelling state interest justifies the gender classification. We reform the affected statutes by invalidating the exemption of males and extending the statutory benefits to men, whom the Legislature improperly excluded.^

Such rulings, like Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma (1948), uphold important ideals of equal protection. Unfortunately, actual social change is much more difficult. The Woods v. Shewry opinion stated:

the only evidence that some state-funded programs discriminate against men is the declaration of Dr. Susann Steinberg that 85 percent of agencies funded by DHS {California Department of Health Services} provide services to men, from which we presume the other 15 percent do not.^

The sex-disparity in domestic violence services is much greater than that superficial analysis indicates. One might laugh with Professor Black to avoid weeping.^ Domestic violence victim services historically developed with an exclusive focus on women victims. For two decades, highly exaggerated claims about domestic violence against women have been prevalent across public discourses. At the same time, the few persons who have dared to state that domestic violence against men is a serious social problem have encountered intense personal hostility. Deeply rooted, pervasive discrimination against men in agencies and programs addressing domestic violence is as obvious as the social pressure to avoid acknowledging the problem.

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