By BRUCE WATSON
30 Jan 2010
Amid the media frenzy over Tiger Woods and Bengals receiver Chris Henry, a key aspect of both stories slipped through the cracks: Like millions of other men, Woods and Henry were -- allegedly at least -- the victims of domestic violence perpetrated by their wives or girlfriends. Beyond its brutal physical and psychological costs, domestic violence against men exacts a cruel economic toll at the personal, societal and national levels.
For the most part, the media, authorities and average citizens see domestic violence as a crime that is committed by men and victimizes women. Consequently, funding to combat the problem has overwhelmingly been spent on programs that support women.
Widely Ignored Problem
And yet, more than 200 survey-based studies show that domestic violence is just as likely to strike men as women. In fact, the overwhelming mass of evidence indicates that half of all domestic violence cases involve an exchange of blows and the remaining 50% is evenly split between men and women who are brutalized by their partners.
Part of the reason that this problem is widely ignored lies in the notion that battered males are weak or unmanly. A good example of this is the Barry Williams case: Recently, the former Brady Bunch star sought a restraining order against his live-in girlfriend, who had hit him, stolen $29,000 from his bank account, attempted to kick and stab him and had repeatedly threatened his life.
It is hard to imagine a media outlet mocking a battered woman, but E! online took the opportunity to poke fun at Williams, comparing the event to various Brady Bunch episodes. Similarly, when Saturday Night Live ran a segment in which a frightened Tiger Woods was repeatedly brutalized by his wife, the show was roundly attacked -- for being insensitive to musical guest Rihanna, herself a victim of domestic violence.
Lack of Research
Sometimes it is impossible to ignore the problem, but when domestic violence against men turns deadly -- as in the case of actor Phil Hartman -- the focus tends to shift to mental illness. The same can be said of the Andrea Yates case, which many pundits presented as the story of how an insensitive husband can drive a wife to murder.
Much of the information on domestic violence against men is anecdotal, largely because of the lack of funding to study the problem. Although several organizations explore domestic violence, the biggest single resource is the Department of Justice, which administers grants through its Office on Violence Against Women.
For years, the DOJ has explicitly refused to fund studies that investigate domestic violence against men. According to specialists in this field, the DOJ recently agreed to cover this problem -- as long as researchers give equal time to addressing violence against women.
First National Study
Researchers Denise Hines and Emily Douglas recently completed the first national study to scientifically measure the mental and social impact of domestic violence on male victims. Interestingly, their research was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, not the DOJ. Not only does this demonstrate the lack of resources for researchers of this issue, but it also suggests that male battering is perceived as a mental health issue, not a crime.
This decriminalization of domestic violence against men affects research conclusions. While survey-based studies have found that men and women commit domestic violence in equal numbers, crime-based studies show that women are far more likely to be victimized. This inconsistency begins to make sense when one considers that man-on-woman violence tends to be seen through a criminal lens, while woman-on-man violence is viewed more benignly.
A recent 32-nation study revealed that more than 51% of men and 52% of women felt that there were times when it was appropriate for a wife to slap her husband. By comparison, only 26% of men and 21% of women felt that there were times when it was appropriate for a husband to slap his wife. Murray Straus, creator of the Conflict Tactics Scale and one of the authors of the study, explained this discrepancy: "We don't perceive men as victims. We see women as being more vulnerable than men."
Kneed In The Groin
This trend becomes particularly striking when one considers the 1996 case of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Warren Moon, who tried to restrain his wife after she threw a candlestick at his head and kneed him in the groin. Subsequently charged with spousal abuse, he was only acquitted after his wife admitted that she attacked him -- and that her wounds were self-inflicted. Ironically, her admission of fault did not result in charges being brought against her.
While Moon's trial was particularly high profile, his situation is actually very common. In fact, studies have found that a man who calls the police to report domestic violence is three times more likely to be arrested than the woman who is abusing him.
The mainstream perception of domestic violence also impacts the resources that are available to battered men. For example, the Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women, the only national toll-free hot line that specializes in helping male victims of domestic violence, has faced numerous roadblocks in its search for funding. In Maine, where the helpline is based, the surest route to funding is through membership in the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
On A Shoestring
But, according to Helpline director Jan Brown, the Coalition refused to even issue the program an application for membership, effectively denying it access to funding. Today, 45 Helpline volunteers field 550 calls per month, 80% of which are from men or people who are looking for help on behalf of a man. Operating with a yearly budget of less than $15,000, it provides intensive training to its workers and offers victims housing, food, bus tickets and a host of other services.
The Helpline's sheltering services are informal and ad hoc, largely because its lack of access to funding makes a shelter financially impossible. In fact, of the estimated 1,200 to 1,800 shelters in the U.S., only one -- the Valley Oasis shelter in Antelope Valley, Calif. -- provides a full range of shelter services to men. And, on average, less than 10% of OVW funds allocated to fight domestic violence are used to help men.
For male victims of domestic violence, the legal system can become another tool for abuse. As in the Moon case, battered men are often likely to find themselves arrested, even when they are the ones who call the police. And, even after the arrest, the process of incarceration, restraining orders, divorce court and child custody hearings continue to disadvantage men.
A High Cost
Restraining orders are a particularly difficult hurdle. Radar Services, a watchdog organization, estimates that approximately 85% of the roughly 2 million temporary restraining orders that are issued every year are made against men. In many states, the requirements for an order are exceedingly vague: In Oregon, for example, a "fear" of violence is sufficient for a restraining order, while Michigan issues them to protect family members against "fear of mental harm."
But there's nothing vague about the effect of restraining orders: They often turn men out of their homes, deny them access to children and result in further personal costs as millions of men have to find new places to live, hire lawyers and pay other expenses. For some men, as Hines and Brown point out, the legal system gives abusive wives and girlfriends tools to continue attacks even after their relationships end.
As Straus notes, "The preponderance of [domestic violence] resources should be made available to women. They are injured more often, are more economically vulnerable, and are often responsible for the couple's children. That having been said, more resources need to be made available to men."
There is no doubt that domestic violence against men can be reduced; the domestic violence initiatives of the past 40 years have brought a hidden crime to light and provided protection for millions of women. The next step is to admit that domestic violence is not a male or female problem, but rather a human problem, and that a lasting solution must address the cruelty -- and suffering -- of both sexes.