It is not just women who are the victims of spousal violence

Robert Smol on domestic violence against men and what the numbers say.

In the almost 40 years since the first shelter for battered women opened its doors, we have made noticeable progress in dealing with and denouncing domestic violence.

Nevertheless, much still needs to be done and the biggest challenge, in my view, is what to do about men.

Not men as perpetrators — there we seem to have a handle on things. Rather, I'm talking about the hundred thousand or so confirmed male victims who are, often violently, abused by their female partners every year.

Domestic violence is not a gender-specific reality. Women are capable of hitting, beating, abusing and killing their male partners.

Just how prevalent these attacks are depends on what statistical study you choose to highlight.

But based on what we know, there should be no argument that female violence against men is at least a problem worthy of much greater consideration than we have given it so far.

Gender neutral

According to a large-scale Statistics Canada study in 2005, the likelihood of a man being the victim of violent abuse by his female partner is almost the same as it is for a woman.

A "red silhouette" campaign to mark the 32 individuals killed by family violence in South Carolina in 2007; 28 of them women. Begun by Minnesota art students in 1990, the campaign has spread to 18 countries, including Canada. (Associated Press)

In this study, an estimated seven per cent of women and six per cent of men surveyed had encountered some form of spousal violence over the previous five years.

This means, StatsCan said, that roughly 653,000 women and 546,000 men considered themselves the victims of violence at the hands of a current or previous spouse or common-law partner, an estimate that was unchanged from an earlier study.

However, if you look simply at cases that are reported to police, the victim profile changes significantly.

In 83 per cent of these cases, women are the victims, according to a different Statistics Canada survey.

There may be a simple reason for this. "Men are less likely to report domestic violence to police than women are, and police are less likely to take male complaints seriously," says Don Dutton, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

As a result, he says, we end up with a reporting system on the subject in which "men are selected out" and then "government agencies say 'look, it is only women who are the victims,' which of course is a self-fulfilling prophesy."

Higher standards of proof

Dutton is no axe-grinder in this debate. He has written extensively about wife assault and the abusive personality, and he has been an expert witness on many occasions, including, notably, for the prosecution in the O.J. Simpson trial in the U.S.

He is also far from the only person in the field who feels this way.

For Erin Pizzey who founded the world's first shelter for battered women in the U.K back in 1971, the reality of female violence against men did not have to wait for the statisticians to sort out and analyze the research.

"Of the first 100 women who came into my refuge, 62 were as violent or more violent than the men that they were leaving," she says. "This was not a gender issue."

It makes you wonder then why more battered men are not coming forward and demanding access to the same resources that women are increasingly seeking out.

Part of the answer there, according to recent research by Denise Hines, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts, is that men are often confronted with higher standards of proof when they make a complaint.

All three of the institutions that Hines studied — assault hotlines, domestic violence agencies and police — "blatantly told the men that it was somehow their fault and that they must have been the real batterer," she says.

"As a matter of fact, when the men called the police on their female partners they were just as likely to be arrested as she was."

Off the pedestal

Yes, the male recipient of female-instigated violence might well be a "bastard" and an "idiot."

And, yes, most studies indicate that women experience more severe forms of domestic violence than men. Although here, too, the results can vary significantly depending on how the statistics are compiled, whether through police reports or independent research.

But just as the alleged shortcomings of a female partner should never be used as a rationalization for violence against women, the same should be true when the situation is reversed.

Call me stubborn, but I can't accept any notion that gives women a different moral or legal standing when it comes to domestic violence. In fact, that may be the problem that landed us in this box in the first place.

As things now stand, several provinces offer support to men who are victims of female abuse. But these services have largely been baby steps.

What seems to be holding them back is our society's lingering assumptions about male superiority and, what you might call, chivalry, which remain the single biggest obstacles to resolving domestic violence.

"Men have an extraordinary fear of supporting each other or alienating women," says Pizzey. "The reason why men will not see women for what they are — human like everyone else — is the male need to put women on the pedestal."

The result, she says, is that "we refuse to see domestic violence as a human issue, we insist on seeing it as a political issue. Everything is driven on this hatred of men."

When might it all change?

In my view only when we all climb down from our respective pedestals and see this as a common problem that transcends our he-said, she-said views of the world.