Hidden Men: Male Victims of Domestic Abuse

by Mary McFadden

Statistics show that men are victims of domestic abuse almost as often as women, yet there is a vast difference in support services in Ireland. 

Generally when one thinks of domestic abuse, it’s likely you’ll think of a woman being abused by a man. Through the use of national campaigns and influence by the media, the idea of a woman being a victim and a man being a perpetrator is ingrained in our society. Many reject the notion of a man being abused by a woman, reacting with dismissal and amusement instead of concern. However, domestic abuse affects all types of people in Irish society, but whereas women can easily find services that will help them, it is a different story for men who are abused.   

According to a survey by the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, when both minor and severe forms of domestic abuse are considered, 29% of women and 25% of men report experiencing domestic abuse.

There is evidence to suggest that people tend to judge the seriousness of the impact of domestic abuse differently depending on the gender of the perpetrator. For example, a 2001 Australian report stated that most respondents think that the effect of domestic abuse on men is minimal. Also, in 1983 C.S. Greenblat reported that men and women in the US are more accepting of women hitting men than men hitting women. He suggests this is because people view the vulnerability and possible harm to women and men as victims and perpetrators differently.

Niamh Farrell, manager of Amen, said, “Abuse against men is a big problem which is not taken seriously. We get calls from men who have been to Gardaí or social workers and they weren’t believed; Gardaí would laugh at them and social workers told them to go home, you’d hear a lot of that but it has gotten better in the last few years.” Amen is the only support service for men suffering from domestic abuse in Ireland.  “They experience a great deal of shame, embarrassment, denial that it happened and they don’t recognise the abuse so they don’t look for help or they think that maybe they’re at fault.” In 2012 there were 1250 new individuals contacting Amen. They started doing annual reports in 2009 and from 2009 – 2012 there was a 45% increase in the overall number of calls. A 2005 survey by the National Crime Council found that 13% of women and 13% of men suffered physical abuse.

“Money brings more awareness; we do a campaign every year and at this time we always get more people contacting us. Money and education will cause the most change. If you educate people that men can and are abused, you change society’s perception so that it’s okay to look for help.” Ms Farrell believes that there is a real need for a male shelter in the country, and says, “I have no doubt that if we could set up even a one day clinic it would be full, if you get talking about it you’re going to have more people contacting the service. Even if we were given access to a small pot of money we could put men in emergency care to start off with, to tide them over.” She believes that a brand new facility isn’t going to happen soon but clearly access to money would start that process off.

Eager to find out more about the issue, I spoke to a male victim of domestic abuse who requested anonymity, so for clarity’s sake I’ll call him Bob.

“I was a much bigger build than my ex-wife,” Bob said, “So I didn’t think it could happen and other men said the same to me. You just didn’t want to believe that your wife was abusing you.”

He explains how he heard of Amen on a local radio station and how social workers had contacted him long before that about his ex-wife hitting his children.

“I think there should be more funding for campaigns highlighting the abuse,” he said, “There needs to be other groups like Amen because there’s no other groups that I’m aware of; there’s a lot of men not even aware of Amen. Someone reported my ex-wife for hitting the children and that’s the first time the social workers came. I didn’t mention anything to her but she noticed and said that if I had any problems that I should call her. She was aware of what was happening and after the abuse escalated me and my four children were removed from the family home. Amen were very helpful, very supportive. They’ve been a great help to me for years; if I had any questions I’d just ring them up and they’d help. “

There seems to be a great deal more shame and embarrassment for male victims of abuse, and some who have gone to the Gardaí or doctors about it have been laughed out the door.

Bob faced similar stigma. “I felt ashamed to tell anyone in the beginning and even when I did tell they didn’t believe me, they said things like ‘there’s two sides to every story’. They didn’t think it could happen the other way around. People think the man is hurting the woman, sure I didn’t think it could happen myself even when it was happening to me. There’s an awful lot more men out there like me and we need more support.”

Eighteen shelters exist in Ireland, yet not a single one is available to men. Although many women have been turned away from shelters in this country, it still does not change the desperate need for a shelter for men. Niamh Farrell said, “Lots of men who are being abused end up sleeping rough or at friend’s houses because there isn’t anywhere for them to go. This then lowers their dignity and self esteem even further.”

“I had to leave the family home and I had nowhere to go,” Bob continued, “Only for my mother putting me up I didn’t know where I’d have gone; I had four children with me and we had nowhere to go but my mother’s house so there is a real need for a shelter for men in this country.”

One of the campaign pictures on Cosc's website

One of the campaign pictures on Cosc’s website

Cosc is the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence. The organization was established in 2007 with its main responsibility to ensure a governmental response to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.  The organisation works with state and non-state organisations to protect both genders from domestic abuse. I called up Cosc to ask about shelters for men in Ireland. The person who answered the phone, who did not give his name, did not know how many shelters there were for men, and after several minutes of being put on hold, he came to tell me that there were none. I eventually managed to get in contact with a researcher at Cosc, Philip McCormack, who said, “We are the coordinating body around policy for domestic abuse services state and non-state across Ireland. We work with funders to ensure there are services available for victims of domestic abuse. Services are available on a pro-rata basis; it’s a question of the severity of abuse. The kind of support that men and women turn to might not necessarily be the same. In Ireland we have a history of the women’s movement which began in the late 1970s so they pushed for these services and they got these services and rightly so. We haven’t seen the same in the men’s movement; we haven’t as many men coming forward to push for refuges in the way the women’s organisations have.”

 Mr McCormack explained that there is very little research on domestic violence towards men, and stresses the importance of data collection. “Many have come forward to ask why there is no refuge for men in Ireland and we don’t have an answer for that.”

Cosc organises perpetrator intervention programmes of which there are three core groups. These are broken down into groups that are court mandated, where a man has been ordered to attend, and another where men have recognised their behavior and have sought out treatment. “The programmes are free to attend, and ultimately we’re protecting women and children. There are very few domestic violence intervention programmes aimed at women because the risk to men isn’t as high. This treatment happens on a one-to-one basis.”

Mr McCormack went on to explain in overwhelming detail how women have to deal with more severe abuse. His insistence on steering the conversation back to statistics on women’s abuse suggested a reluctance to address the questions I was posing. The fact of the matter is that men are abused as well as women, and the idea that men should have to ‘lobby’ for their own funding to get a refuge when only 1 in 20 even report it compared to 1 in 3 women is quite frankly a ridiculous excuse. Clearly there is a background problem at work on a cultural level, where men who are being abused are simply too ashamed to come forward and talk about it for fear of dismissal or humiliation. A quick Google search of ‘domestic violence Ireland’ will bring up ten results; nine of which are services directed at women and the final result being a gender-neutral research paper. With such a focus on female abuse, it could make it harder for a man to come forward and speak out.

Niamh Farrell was adamant that a shelter would be beneficial to the men who call the service, yet Cosc claims that they are not approached by anyone lobbying for one, which to me seems hard to believe. I am currently still waiting on a response from Amen about this. In conclusion, there seems to be no good reason as to why there are so few services for men in Ireland. However, societal attitudes first need to be tackled before real change can occur, and until abuse against men is highlighted, few things are likely to improve in this country in regards to support services for men.

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