The scale of the problem
This chapter will focus primarily on the four groups that seem to be most active in lobbying for, and offering support to, abused men. The most recently established of these is the ‘it does happen network’, set up in September 2004. Its website states that it was first created to provide a ‘safe haven for men to seek information, help, advice, support and a place to talk and share their experi – ences’. It claims that within the first two weeks of its existence over 3,000 men had made contact. It is not clear, however, what counts as contact. Nor is it clear how many of these contacts were made by victims of domestic violence.
Another group, the Mankind Initiative, is an organisation concerned with fighting what it sees as discrimination against men and boys in fields such as education, employment, and ‘family abuse’. It has produced a document, ‘The Mankind Family Abuse Campaign’, which sets out to draw attention to the abuse of men by women. Only seven case studies are provided, but the organisation is at pains to stress that these are ‘just the tip of the iceberg’. However, even the studies that are documented are difficult to evaluate. Some are phrased in the form of simple assertions such as ‘Mr B and his two children suffered years of abuse’; no indication is given of the form that the abuse took. In only three studies is any relevant detail given. One woman broke a window with a cricket bat. Another is described as abusive for denigrating her husband and throwing a table. Yet this woman is also said to have ‘engineered] arguments’ so as to provoke ‘a verbal reaction or better still a physical reaction’. She made ‘false allegations’ and was able to ‘play the DV card’ in order to get the man out of the house. A further case also involved ‘provocation into an argument followed by a false accusation’ resulting in cautions and, after a subsequent allegation, the man’s arrest.
These descriptions, with their references to provocation, give some grounds for suspecting that at least some of the men may themselves have been violent. No information is given to substantiate the claim that the women’s allegations were false and, in one case, violence by the man is conceded. In any event, the studies are insufficiently informative or numerous to make a convincing case that abuse of men is an unrecognised and serious social problem.
The Men’s Aid website is no more enlightening. This organisation was originally established specifically to help male victims of domestic violence as well as men engaged in contact disputes. Yet despite its central role in lobbying for, and offering support to, abused men, the organisation is somewhat vague on the question of the prevalence of male victims and the nature of their unmet needs. As regards the scale of the problem, there is no information on their newly reorganised website. Until recently, however, their website included a report that, in 2002, they were receiving around 700 requests for help each month. But since changing their statistical recording methods, they were receiving fewer. They say they ‘support’ fifty families ‘with a comparable sized waiting list’. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to read in their response to the government consultation on domestic violence a reference to the ‘many hundreds of thousands of men, women and children that we support’.
This discrepancy in the figures is difficult to explain and the figures themselves are difficult to interpret. This is because Men’s Aid, like other men’s organisations, has been seeking to expand the definition of domestic violence to encompass what they see as a major problem: mothers who deny fathers contact with their children. There is no way of knowing whether the families they are ‘supporting’ are victims of women’s violence, ‘falsely’ accused men or protagonists in contact disputes. On the basis of its own figures, it seems that most of Men’s Aid’s referrals concern contact disputes and that the number of men coming forward because of violence is relatively small. Gordon, writing the group’s response to the government’s consultation paper, says that ‘[m]ore than 60% of the men that approach Men’s Aid for assistance are being consistently abused by their ex-partners by deliberately refusing reasonable child contact’.
There does appear to be some demand for refuge space. The ‘it does happen network’ and Men’s Aid report plans to provide ‘refuge space for men and their children’. The Mankind Initiative is also establishing a refuge and has set up helplines for men. Yet, although men’s groups complain of discrimination and deplore the lack of refuges, it is not clear whether the kind of refuges that some are setting up are needed. Men’s Aid, for example, says that ‘most male victims would find communal refuge solutions inappropriate’. In any event, none of the organisations shows the existence of a large number of men subjected to abuse that is comparable with that suffered by women. Neither the numbers cited nor the broad definitions used support the equivalence argument.
Nor is it apparent from the websites that all the groups prioritise domestic violence. With the possible exceptions of ‘the it does happen network’ and the Mankind Initiative, which are focusing on refuge provision and seeking to secure resources, they seem to be primarily concerned with agendas other than protection of victims of violence: they want to prevent men from being removed from the home; they want to place men at the centre of the family; and they want to gain control over women and their sexuality. A statement from Men’s Aid neatly encapsulates all these themes:
The state’s willingness to accept a women’s (sic) allegation as an evidential truth sufficient enough to have a man removed from his home, and have him separated from his children is unpardonable, a power arbitrarily afforded to women alone, which is often employed by female abusers to further abuse their partners. There is also evidence that many women ‘let their hair down’ after separation.
For Families Need Fathers, as for some of the other groups, the greatest significance of the incidence of domestic violence evidently lies in its implications for contact disputes. Families Need Fathers is clear about its concerns: ‘[T]here are attempts to create a stereotype of fathers being a danger to their children. . . If false stereotypes are believed, this will cause social policy and decisions about families to be based on prejudice.’ It goes on to say that: ‘Secondly, our work is affected when accusations of domestic violence are raised in individual cases where residence and contact are being decided.. . Because of discriminatory and prejudicial stereotypes many individual cases are not judged fairly and on their merits.’ It appears, therefore, that the main task that groups like Families Need Fathers have set themselves is to render the family man safe.