The need to pay (academic) attention to men who experience intimate partner violence
Intimate partner violence is a serious crime and health issue in the world, with many victims suffering serious physical and psychological consequences of such abuse.
Thanks to feminist activism and scholarly research, the hidden reality of intimate partner violence – with a strong focus on female victims – has gained attention since the 1970s. Framed as a “battered wives” issue, the original focus was on violence against women by their male partners. Abuse experienced by men, however, was ignored and downplayed. Even now, the attention for men who experienced intimate partner violence is limited. Men do not fit the gender-based approach that is used to explain female victimization of partner violence: men relying on the use of violence to ensure their dominant position in the power hierarchy. However, a growing body of knowledge about the complexities and nuances of intimate partner violence – recently highlighted by the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard case – suggests that male victimization can no longer be ignored, and a better understanding could help us address intimate partner violence more effectively.
Based on our research in Canada and the Netherlands, we can think of three key reasons for why it is essential for academics and practitioners (and also for the public) to become aware of men’s experiences of intimate partner violence and incorporate this knowledge in social policies and violence prevention services and programs.
First, population studies in North America and Western Europe identified one in five men (19.3%) having experienced physical violence in an intimate relationship annually. For example, in the Netherlands, about 139.000, males are victims of intimate partner abuse annually. In Canada, about 655.400 men reported having experienced physical, sexual or psychological victimization in ongoing intimate relationships during a 5-year period in 2014. Moreover, about 64,000 of these men experienced the most severe type of partner abuse characterized by chronic and severe physical and psychological violence with a high probability of injuries and negative emotional effects on its victims. These numbers are difficult to ignore, especially because there are real individual men who suffer abuse behind this statistics. Like other victims, they require attention and help with recognizing the abuse earlier and more effectively coping with the consequences of the abuse.
The second reason for needing to think more about men’s victimization in intimate relationships is that there is a drastic service gap for male victims of abuse compared to female victims of partner abuse. For example, while there have been over 627 governmental-funded shelters for abused women in Canada in 2014, the first and the only shelter for abused men and their children was established in Ontario in April 2021. In the Netherlands there are currently six organizations that aid abused men, while for women there are over thirty organizations. Men experience many internal and external barriers to help-seeking and one of the major ones is the lack of professional services that focus directly on men’s gender-specific needs and could help them to overcome shame and embarrassment that many of the male victims of abuse experience.
Finally, there is strong evidence to suggest that helping male victims of intimate partner violence may lead to a more effective prevention of intimate partner homicide of both men and women. Studies have shown that when abused women received more opportunities to leave violent relationships (e.g., find refuge in a shelter for abused women), there was a reduction in female-perpetrated intimate partner homicides in the US and Canada. These studies suggest that, if abused men had similar opportunities to receive timely help (e.g., psychological, legal and/or financial), it can prevent escalation in abusive relationships, which, in turn, can potentially reduce male-perpetrated intimate partner homicides. It is therefore of vital interest that we start paying (academic) attention to men who experience intimate partner violence.