There are rising concerns male victims of domestic violence in Australia are unable to access crucial support. And the coronavirus crisis may be making things worse.
Men who reach out for help with domestic abuse often struggle to be believed, experts say. (ABC News: Ben Sanders)
One chilly evening a few weeks ago, as most Australians were trying to make sense of the worsening coronavirus pandemic, Andy* curled up in his car, his jaw swollen and throbbing, struggling to process what had just happened at his home in country Victoria.
For a couple of years tensions in the house had been rising, he said: his long-term partner Linda* had become increasingly verbally and emotionally abusive, usually after she’d been drinking. The two would often clash over their different parenting styles, Andy said: he felt her teenage children were “out of control” and needed disciplining — they were getting into trouble around town and doing as they pleased at home — but she was reluctant to rein them in.
One time, an argument about the kids spiralled, he said, and Linda became so angry she threw her arms up in frustration. “I got a hand to the side of the face, which I think was more of an accident,” Andy told ABC News.
Still, it was unusual for her to express anger physically, and one of a handful of moments that gave him pause. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “I felt belittled, scared. I knew about her previous marriage and the domestic violence she had been subjected to, so I was thinking, has some of that rubbed off on her?”
Family and domestic violence support services:
The situation came to a head when Linda’s children accused him of beating a family pet (which he denies) and a heated argument quickly escalated. Without warning, he said, Linda’s son stormed in and punched him hard in the face. “I felt an almighty whack, and my glasses went flying off. I was gob-smacked … I just kind of sat down on the bed, bawling my eyes out.”
But after ushering her son to another room, Linda contacted police, telling them she felt threatened by Andy and wanted him out of the house, which she owned. The officers instructed him to leave and, although they ended up taking action on the teenager’s assault, Andy felt completely betrayed.
To make matters worse, he found himself homeless just as COVID-19 restrictions were coming into force, and his friends didn’t feel comfortable letting him stay with them.
“The next few nights I slept in my car … I had nowhere to go,” Andy said. “I think most people think domestic violence doesn’t happen to men, that men are the stronger sex and so it won’t happen to them. But having experienced it first hand, I feel there’s not a lot of support for men, there’s not much help out there at all.”
Shining a light on an underdiscussed subject
For almost a decade in Australia we have been having an urgent national conversation about domestic violence. The issue has been thrust repeatedly under the microscope of several major inquiries in an effort to better understand its devastating costs and preventable causes and, as a result, we’re more aware of its contours than ever.
But despite the intense focus, one group of victims remains poorly understood and rarely discussed: men.
Many experts say this is partly because men don’t experience domestic violence as frequently or severely as women and, when they do, they generally don’t fear for their lives. Some weeks it’s hard just to keep track of the number of women killed by husbands or ex-partners, so it’s perhaps not surprising if communities don’t have headspace for the much smaller number of victims who are male. Asking ‘what about men?’, then, might feel a bit like complaining about a stomach bug to someone with terminal cancer.
But that may be part of the problem. Even if women’s violence against men causes less harm, it’s not harmless — it’s violence. Men can be severely affected by physical and psychological abuse and struggle with crippling issues like trauma and homelessness.
Yet ABC News has found there are rising concerns many male victims in Australia are unable to access crucial support — and that some causes of domestic violence may be going unaddressed — because of a reluctance to recognise that men can be victims in the first instance, and a lack of services if they manage to overcome intense shame and stigma and reach out for help.
There are almost no specialist domestic violence services for heterosexual male victims in Australia. (ABC News: Ben Sanders)
“The reality is, right now, those men have almost nowhere to turn — there are virtually no specialist family violence services for victims who are male,” said Troy McEwan, an associate professor of clinical and forensic psychology at Swinburne University. “We know that more women are killed in domestic violence incidents, we know that men perpetrate more injury overall. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore a bunch of victims just because they don’t fit within our service provision model. It’s not an argument for equivalency … but it is saying there are genuine problems here.”
And the coronavirus pandemic, it seems, may be exacerbating those problems — as it has for female victims. New data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics show police recorded 985 male victims of domestic violence assault in March this year, when lockdowns were first flagged — an increase of almost 10 per cent from the same period last year.
Meanwhile Mensline, the national support and referral service for men with relationship concerns, has found the proportion of callers who named family and domestic violence as their “presenting issue” (which includes men who identify as perpetrators) increased 44 per cent in the four months to June 30 compared with the four months to February 29, when the pandemic hit.
The national sexual and domestic violence counselling and referral service 1800RESPECT also saw a 21 per cent increase in contacts between April and July, including from men, who made up 10 per cent of those who got in touch.
Yet some frontline workers say it can be difficult to advocate for male victims — and speak frankly about gaps in the service system — because the issue inevitably ends up tangled in toxic culture wars.
Over six months ABC News contacted more than 30 professionals and agencies supporting domestic violence victims, many of whom declined to speak on record or at all. Some said they simply did not work with men experiencing abuse and could not comment, while others refused to participate because of how politically sensitive the subject is.
On one side of the debate are scholars and feminists who accuse men’s rights activists (MRAs) of twisting data on male victims and attacking women’s organisations as part of an attempt to derail feminism. On the other are men’s groups who claim male victims are ignored, and women’s violence is overlooked, because it doesn’t fit the widely accepted theory that gender inequality is a root cause of domestic abuse.
The result is that even sympathetic people avoid discussing it altogether. “It’s like a stuck record rather than a progressive, productive conversation,” said Jacqui Watt, the chief executive of No To Violence. “How do we shine a light on something that’s not being properly talked about, when the minute you do, you get the MRA groups going, ‘See? We told you that men are victims, women are violent, too’?”
What do we know about male victims?
The first problem is that there’s a striking lack of research on men’s experiences of domestic violence. Large-scale surveys and police data provide some insights into how many are affected, but don’t paint a full picture. The latest Personal Safety Survey suggests one in 16 men have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner since the age of 15, while one in six say they’ve experienced emotional abuse.
Partner violence at a glance
According to the latest Personal Safety Survey, since the age of 15:
- 1 in 6 (17%) women and 1 in 16 (6.1%) men have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a current or ex-partner
- 1 in 4 (23%) women and 1 in 6 (16%) men have experienced emotional abuse from a current or ex-partner
- 1 in 5 (18%) women and 1 in 20 (4.7%) men have experienced sexual violence
- More than half (57%) of women and 1 in 4 (24%) men who experienced emotional abuse were also assaulted or threatened with assault.
Figures from police and government agencies show similar proportions of domestic violence victims are male. In the financial year ending June 2019, Victoria Police completed reports for 51,622 alleged victims of violence by current or former partners. Of those, almost one in five (19 per cent) were male — which includes men in same-sex relationships, who experience domestic abuse at least at similar rates as heterosexual couples.
And in NSW, a recent evaluation showed that, between 2014 and 2018, men accounted for almost one in four (23 per cent) intimate domestic violence referrals to Safer Pathway, the program to which police refer victims.
Men’s rights activists often claim these figures suggest at least one in four victims of domestic violence is male. But researchers say surveys like the Personal Safety Survey can be misleading because they don’t provide any context for the violence and its impacts: how severe it was, whether it was a one-off outburst or part of an ongoing pattern of controlling behaviour, whether it was defensive or retaliatory, if it involved fear.
Of the male victims referred to Safer Pathway in NSW, for instance, just seven per cent were assessed as being at serious threat, compared with 16 per cent of female referrals.
“It’s useful to know about the numbers of people who have experienced any kind of physical aggression but that doesn’t tell us about people’s experiences of domestic violence ‘proper’,” said Michael Flood, an associate professor at Queensland University of Technology, who estimates about one in 10 victims are male.
“That is, where one person is using a range of techniques — and often severe forms of physical violence — to maintain power and control over another person.” (Men, Dr Flood said, are more likely to experience violence from other men, including male family members, than female partners.)
That’s not to say a one-off punch or kick is harmless. “It’s abhorrent for anyone to be a victim of violence,” said Andrew King, practice specialist at Relationships Australia NSW, one of a handful of services that works with male victims in that state. “But not all victims’ experiences of violence are exactly the same.”
Women’s violence is not always defensive
Or rather, there are some telling differences. A body of research shows that in general, women and men perpetrate “equivalent levels” of physical and psychological aggression, but that women’s physical violence is more likely than men’s to be motivated by self-defence and fear, while men’s is more likely to be driven by a need for control.
Women are also injured more often and more severely in domestic violence incidents than men, and are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner. In that respect, the domestic homicide gender gap paints a stark picture: an analysis of 152 intimate partner homicides in Australia in the four years to June 2014 found the majority — 80 per cent — involved a male killing his female partner. Of those men, almost all — 93 per cent — had been the primary abuser in their relationship. Just two of the 28 women who killed male partners had been the primary abuser prior to the homicide.
‘Everyone is so caught up in the idea that women are always the primary victim and men are the aggressor,’ said Elise Stephens. (ABC News: Ben Sanders)
But not all women’s violence is committed in response to men’s. A recent study by the Australian Institute of Criminology, for instance, analysed 153 police narratives of domestic violence incidents involving a female person of interest. It found that while roughly half the episodes involved women using self-defensive or retaliatory violence, half appeared to be motivated by other factors.
“Where you have genuine female perpetration and male victimisation I think there are probably more similarities than there are differences,” Dr McEwan said. “The ways women use violence might be different because of the physical differences between sexes and … the broader ways women and men are different. But there are fundamental similarities between who is violent and the reasons they are violent, which can include things like alcohol and drug use, mental illness, and previous experiences of violence.”
And although male victims tend to be less fearful of female partners, they can still be “deeply impacted” by psychological and financial abuse and coercive controlling behaviours, said Detective Senior Sergeant Bradley Lawrence, who runs a family violence investigation unit in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
Police rarely encounter cases of women killing male partners not in self-defence, said Mr Lawrence, whose team is currently managing 131 high-risk perpetrators of partner violence, just eight of whom are women. “But we still see cases where men are victims of unlawful assault, criminal damage, theft and obviously breaches of family violence intervention orders.”
And it is these men we hear little of.
What about coercive control?
One reason for this is that violence against men can be tricky to identify. Frontline workers consistently report men are more likely to suffer psychological abuse than physical violence.
“Male victims are often not battered and bruised when they come to us for help,” said Rebecca O’Connor, the chief executive of DV Connect in Queensland, which operates the Mensline phone service for victims and perpetrators. “So it can be difficult for them to recognise they’re being abused and identify as a victim in their own mind.”
Similarly, in her private practice, forensic psychiatrist and associate professor Carolyn Quadrio says she rarely sees men who’ve been physically abused. “I’ve often seen men who’ve complained of verbal violence, who say their wife or partner yells at them or humiliates them, calls them names, makes them feel bad,” she said. “But one-sided physical violence from women to men is really uncommon.”
The question of whether men experience coercive control, however, is fiercely disputed.
Sometimes referred to as “intimate terrorism”, coercive control is an ongoing pattern of behaviour perpetrators use to dominate, isolate and entrap victims, and a predictor of severe and fatal violence. Many researchers argue it is perpetrated almost exclusively by men against women — reflecting broader, male-dominated systems of social inequality — and is what drives women to flee to shelters with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing.
The claim is backed up by prosecutions data in jurisdictions where coercive control is a criminal offence. A recent study by researchers from Deakin University, for instance, found the vast majority — 99 per cent — of those convicted of coercive controlling behaviours in England and Wales are male.
Still, there are exceptions. Men are “probably less likely” than women to experience coercive control, says Damian Green, chief executive of Stopping Family Violence in Western Australia, but they can “absolutely” be victims of it.
“This is really clear if we look at cases where boys are experiencing coercive control from their fathers,” said Mr Green, who worked with male perpetrators for more than a decade. “When they grow into adults they don’t suddenly become immune from that kind of abuse.”
In particular, data on coercive control convictions don’t necessarily tell the whole story, Mr Green said, because it is less socially acceptable for men to admit to and report experiencing abuse. “I think it’s important that those sorts of statistics are contextualised. It may well be that we don’t know how men experience coercive control, not that they can’t be coercively controlled.”
‘She would punch like a man — in the eye, the lip, the nose’
Occasionally, rare cases involving male victims hit the courts. A few years ago, Dr Quadrio gave evidence in the trial of a Victorian man who was acquitted of murdering his violent partner by shooting her several times at close range, with the jury accepting he had acted in self-defence.
The couple’s relationship showed all the hallmarks of the “most severe” form of family violence known as “intimate terrorism”, Dr Quadrio told the Supreme Court, where one partner is highly controlling of and often physically violent towards the other.
The man claimed his partner, who had bipolar affective disorder and a drinking problem, had controlled all aspects of his life, and would often lash out with physical violence during her frequent outbursts of anger, which sometimes lasted for days. The court heard he became isolated and withdrawn, hid his injuries from colleagues and stopped visiting his family as a result.
He also told police he doubted an intervention order would be effective, let alone that an abused man would be believed. “He said it’s hard to believe because you only ever hear about men hitting women,” Dr Quadrio told the court. “She would snap for no reason. She was very angry. She would punch like a man — in the eye, the lip, the nose. It would go on for 10 to 15 minutes and then everything would settle down.”
Shame and embarrassment deters many male victims from seeking help for domestic abuse, experts say. (ABC News: Ben Sanders)
Crucially, Dr Quadrio said, male victims can feel a much greater sense of shame and humiliation about being abused because the idea that a man could be dominated or intimidated by a woman “flies in the face of what a man sees as appropriate for a man”.
For some men, she said, their commitment to a moral code that “men don’t hit women” can leave them feeling helpless to defend themselves, and compound their sense of entrapment in a violent relationship.
“Certainly in that case it seemed to me there was exactly the same situation of coercive control,” Dr Quadrio told ABC News. “And when you consider that, looking at female victims, coercive control can be just as powerful when there is no physical force used at all, then there’s no reason to expect that it should be any different with the genders reversed.”
Helen Consta, senior manager of family violence and victims assistance services at Windermere in Victoria’s south-east, puts it this way: “How often do I encounter men who are victims of domestic violence? Not as often as women. But of the men who do come forward, coercive control is often one of the presenting factors,” she said.
“They’re often not terrorised in terms of being physically in fear of their life. But they certainly experience mental health impacts, feelings of hopelessness and shame — particularly about talking about it … and so they can feel weak, ineffectual.”
Nowhere to turn
So what happens if a man who’s being abused works up the courage to seek help, if responding police take his complaints seriously?
Sometimes he’ll be supported, experts say, but often he’ll struggle. This can be complicated by the high proportion of men who present to domestic violence services — including perpetrator behaviour change programs — as victims, which means frontline staff may initially question or doubt men’s accounts. “The irony is, men who present as victims are the least likely to be victims,” Mr Green said.
Yet depending on the state, there are almost no specialist bricks-and-mortar services for heterosexual male victims, particularly in regional or rural areas.
‘The irony is, men who present as victims are the least likely to be victims,’ said Damian Green. (ABC News: Ben Sanders)
These shortcomings were probed by Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, which in 2016 found there were “opportunities to improve the understanding of male victims and services for them” and that the Government should take steps to “identify and take account” of their needs.
Years later, however, it seems some victims’ needs are still not being met. (A Department of Justice and Community Safety spokesperson said the Victorian Government was working to implement all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission to keep women, children and families safe. “Other work includes undertaking analysis of police referrals relating to male victims of family violence in order to better understand this complex issue, and ensure males are receiving appropriate support.”)
There may not be the same need among men for domestic violence refuges, advocates say (there are none in Australia), but many still require counselling, legal assistance and, like Andy, short-term and crisis accommodation. Because the police were involved in one of his incidents, Andy was eventually connected with a state government-funded victims assistance program, which helped him with legal issues, counselling and other support.
But prior to that, he said, he went on a “goose chase” trying to find help. He rang Mensline, which he said gave him phone numbers for a handful of services based hundreds of kilometres away, in Melbourne. When he contacted those services, he said, they pointed him back to Mensline.
“I just felt like I was on a merry-go-round,” Andy said. “I don’t blame Mensline because the guy that helped me was really good, very sympathetic — he looked up heaps of stuff for me, gave me contacts. But it is hard enough reaching out for help, only to reach out for help and get put on this merry-go-round … it’s shocking.”
An impossible conversation
Experiences like Andy’s can invalidate men’s needs at a community level, Mr Green said. “If you are a genuine male victim of family violence, why would you try and reach out for support if there are no specialist services available for you anyway?”
The scarcity of services also “feeds the men’s rights agenda”, he said, because it legitimises their claim that men’s needs aren’t being addressed. “And that little bit of truth then enables them to generalise in all kinds of ways that are not so helpful.”
One “generalisation” MRAs frequently make is that domestic abuse is not “gendered” or caused by gender inequality — theories which underpin both federal and state government policies on family and sexual violence. The Federal Government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, for example, briefly acknowledges both men and women can be perpetrators. Yet “overwhelmingly”, it says, “the people who carry out domestic, family and sexual violence are men, who commit violence against women”.
This is true, but experts say the lack of emphasis on male victims in key policies — and the prioritisation of tackling gender inequality over more immediate interventions — is at least partly why there are so few specialist services for men.
“We need to talk about gender inequality and power differences between men and women because it’s an important reason why women are victimised,” Dr McEwan said. “But it makes it almost impossible to have a conversation about male victimisation … and silences conversations about other causes of domestic violence and appropriate interventions for them.”
For some frontline workers, the framing of the problem predominantly as one of gendered power imbalances sometimes reveals striking double standards.
“There is a lack of specialist services for male victim-survivors and similarly there is a lack of specialist services for women who use violence,” Ms Consta said. It is often assumed that women’s violence is linked with mental health issues or substance use, she said, and women are often supported to address those “underlying factors”. “But when we talk about men who use violence, the stance is that we don’t permit them to provide an excuse for it.”
Of course, men’s groups frequently seize on this as evidence of bias against men, an attempt to “silence” male victims. But the irony in such arguments is not lost on Dr Flood, who points out many men’s rights campaigners seem to be more focused on “undermining attention” to men’s violence against women and attacking domestic violence services than building genuine support for male victims.
As a result, he says, their calls for attention to male victims are more likely to be seen as politically motivated — “part of an anti-feminist backlash” — and therefore not heard in good faith. “They’re actually undermining efforts to provide services for male victims of violence,” Dr Flood said. “And that is terrible because we do need to respond well to male victims.”
So how to overcome the impasse?
Thousands of kilometres away, in the UK, some believe the government’s commitment to building a separate strategy for male victims of domestic violence has dissolved much of the tension between feminists and men’s groups.
Last year, the Home Office published a position statement on male victims intended to “sit alongside” its broader strategy for ending violence against women and girls. The idea was to highlight the unique challenges male victims can face — and boost funding for agencies supporting them — without drawing comparisons or creating divisions between different groups of survivors.
‘It is hard enough reaching out for help, only to reach out for help and get put on this merry-go-round,’ Andy said. (ABC News: Ben Sanders)
“There are still disagreements about the numbers and context of violence against men, but hardly anyone, including in the women’s sector, disbelieves there are male victims of domestic abuse,” said Ippo Panteloudakis, the head of services for Respect UK, which runs helplines for both male perpetrators and victims.
And men’s groups which previously devoted energy to attacking women’s organisations, he said, have calmed down. “It’s not about taking resources away from one group of victims to give to another,” he said. “It’s about understanding that we need services that are appropriate for men, then overcoming the stigma and embarrassment that can prevent them from accessing those services.”
Of course, the assumption that any funding for men’s services would be drawn from the pool for women’s organisations is another reason some advocates hesitate. Bernadette Carroll, director of clinical governance at Relationships Australia Canberra and region said the chronic underfunding of the domestic violence sector overall can create a culture of competitiveness between organisations serving different groups.
“There are still so little resources to respond adequately to the epidemic of family violence more broadly,” Ms Carroll said, “to the majority of victims who are women.”
For that reason Damian Green believes Australia, too, needs a separate national policy for male victims that doesn’t “distract or detract from” its policy on women and children. “What I think having a specific strategy for male victims [would do] is allow us to focus on … understanding the issue better, allocating resources for men who are victims, and encouraging men to come forward,” Mr Green said. “All of this in the context of addressing it, rather than arguing about whether there is a need.”
Thinking in shades of grey, seeing beyond stereotypes
Anne Ruston, the Minister for Families and Social Services, told ABC News the National Plan has a particular focus on women “because the rate at which women experience family, domestic and sexual violence is disproportionately high”.
“However, violence perpetrated against anyone is completely unacceptable and as such the Government funds a range of services for men, women and their children including those from diverse communities,” Ms Ruston said. This includes Mensline, 1800RESPECT and 23 family violence services around Australia that provide counselling for anyone experiencing family violence.
Still, there are hints that any blind-spots for male victims will be considered more closely by the parliamentary Inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence, which just closed its call for submissions. Chair of the Social Policy and Legal Affairs Committee Andrew Wallace told the ABC he was “very conscious of the need to ensure that the Committee inquires into the resultant damaging impacts on our society, irrespective of the sex of the perpetrator or the victim”.
In the meantime, Elise Stephens, the practice lead at Interrelate, an agency working with male victims in NSW, says addressing domestic abuse sometimes requires thinking in “shades of grey”, seeing beyond stereotypes.
“Everyone is so caught up in the idea that women are always the primary victim and men are the aggressor — we get so fixated on which person did what to whom, but forget to look at the bigger picture, and how we can help people,” Ms Stephens said. Responding to domestic abuse, she added, is “not about gender as such, it’s about assessing the victim who comes through, their family as a whole. What do they want and need, how can we help them … have respectful relationships?”
Carolyn Quadrio agrees. “If we really are trying to encourage men to break out of that macho stereotype” — to overcome social norms that reinforce male dominance and control and stigmatise displays of vulnerability or weakness — “we’re going to have to take them seriously,” she said. “For many years women who said they were sexually assaulted didn’t get a sympathetic response either, but things have changed enormously in the last two decades.”
When it comes to men’s complaints of abuse, however, “We’re not there yet. General societal attitudes would still be, a man should just suck it up — I think that’s where we still are with men.”
*The names of survivors have been changed for legal and safety reasons.