Regular insidMAN reader, Nigel Johnson, is a commissioning manager at an NHS Clinical Commissioning Group. Here he explores why the UK's approach to tackling domestic violence has consistently over-looked male victims and female perpetrators.
—This is article #56 in our series of #100Voices4Men and boys
Regular readers of insideMAN may well be aware of the recent debate in Wales around a consultation on a Violence Against Women Bill.
Given the very strong socialisation to be protective to women and girls, it can look churlish not to say “unmanly” to object to such a thing. Surely societies in the west have for centuries placed women in the role of “damsel” in need of care and protection and simply modernising this very traditional paradigm is all to the good? Protecting women and girls from harm, nothing could be more worthy.
So why has there been such a debate and why does it get so heated in some circles?
As is so often the case the devil is in the detail. The centuries-old tradition of protections and support for women and girls is still alive and well. Few in the debate seriously challenge the view that women and girls need to be protected from harms, though perhaps pointing out that boys and even men should be equally supported.
At the core of the debate is the idea that these harms are uniquely “gendered”. The notion that the collection of abusive behaviours covered by the bill are always committed by males and always against females. And here is the problem. Put simply, this view is both wrong in terms of actual fact and elsewhere has contributed to both misunderstanding of the causations and direct and indirect discrimination against boys and men, and women and girls who are on the “wrong” side (who need help with their abusive behaviour or find they are abused by a female).
Surprises and anomalies
The early years of looking at domestic abuse in the UK was driven by interest in “Dating Violence” in the United States. In the United States there had been a series if large scale quantative research reports indicating that violence -- which was generally taken to include “emotional violence” and other non physical abuse -- was relatively common in adolescent relationships. As is often the case this concern was picked up in the UK and there were a small number of relatively large scale pieces of research done. At the same time Sugar magazine and some other publications for girls and young women did online surveys of their readership.
In terms of covering the experience of both boys and girls navigating the transition to adulthood there was research done for NHS Scotland, Southwark, NSPCC and the Northern Ireland Government. Though not on the scale of the research done in the US, these were on relatively large populations with attempts to make sure these were “typical” of the age cohorts. Simply because of the difficulty in gaining funding most such research tends to be focussed on specific smaller populations (children in care, care leavers, victims in court cases etc.) so these reports remain the rare examples of a more typical population.
The results reported in the data tended to reflect some interesting trends common in US research. In particular in each the researchers reported a number of “surprises” or “anomalies” in the results. These were noteworthy as they were challenging to the hypotheses of the authors which reflected the gendered understanding of abuse in relationships.
'Boys less likely to see themselves as victims'
The studies found a much higher incidence of both violence and other abusive behaviours towards males than expected. In fact in some cases higher than experienced by the females. Indeed where girls were asked about their behaviours towards their partners, they were indicating even higher incidences. This particularly was so in “emotional violence” but included such things as hitting or throwing things.
Even more surprising is that more boys than girls reported being forced or coerced into sex. A result startling to the authors and not at all what could be expected.
The clues to this surprising set of findings perhaps can be found in the attitudes expressed by the young people. In a sense these perhaps reflect a combination of widespread public information programmes and some traditional social norms. Perhaps the higher reporting of their own abuse of their partners reflected that girls were much more likely to view behaviours as abusive. They were also much more likely to regard some behaviour as upsetting and having a long term effect. The boys reported being very much more tolerant of violence of all forms against themselves and fatalistic about this being what they had to put up with.
Absence of political will?
So how does this link to the debate in Wales. Well it has to do with what happened following these reports. The first thing is that the recommendations from the above mentioned reports were focussed on the findings for girls. At least in part because the commissions came from programmes focussed on abuse against women and girls. So anyone reading the Exec. Summaries and Recommendations will have little clue to the intriguing and unexpected findings with regard to boys.
The second is that because the anomalous findings are about boys, the suggestions that there should be further researched have gone un-headed. The cynical might think it’s because they represent a serious challenge to the authors’ lead hypothesis. But it is true that research funding in this area is driven by VAWG strategies.
So for instance the Bristol University unit followed up their research with a further piece looking at children in the care system again with a focus on vulnerable girls. As there is no funding to explore the intellectually interesting findings about boys’ victimisation then it takes considerable determination to research it.
Without any political will to further investigate typical populations nor to fund outside the gendered paradigm not only does the opportunity for paradigm shifting research get lost but far more importantly the widespread abuse of boys in relationships remains concealed from policy making on education, awareness, treatment and prosecution.
Nina Schutt, from her work for Safer Southwark Partnership, states: “The survey carried out among young people in Southwark overall identify that young people both experience and perpetrated various forms of adolescent domestic violence in their dating relationships. The survey also showed that this is something that is being experienced by both young men and women, and that in some cases young men report experiences higher levels than young women. The young men are also more likely than young women to accept aggressive behaviour in a relationship, as well as justify such behaviour with actions made by their partner, such a cheating on them”
The process of ignoring boys is facilitated by the Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy which is policy in England and the adoption by the Scottish Government of a “gendered” definition of Domestic Abuse. In this way these create indirect discrimination that “silences” the experiences of men and boys. Of course this reflects a much bigger silence about Domestic Abuse. One can see similar processes in forced marriage, elder abuse and abuse of disabled people as the actual variety and complexity gets more and more reduced to issues of gender and so a very specific paradigm reinforced by funding being attached to this paradigm.
—Picture credit: Flickr/David Goehring
- Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships, Christine Barter, Melanie McCarry, David Berridge and Kathy Evans October 2009 www.nspcc.org.uk
- Young People’s Attitudes to Gendered Violence. By Michelle Burman and Fred Cartmel University of Glasgow Published by NHS Scotland 2005
- Domestic Violence in Adolescent Relationships. By Nina Shutt. Published by Safer Southwark Partnership 2006
- Attitudes of Young People towards Domestic Violence, Judith Bell, Community Information Branch, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Northern Ireland) 2008
You can find all of the #100Voices4Men articles that will be published in the run up to International Men’s Day 2014 by clicking on this link—#100Voices4Men—and follow the discussion on twitter by searching for #100Voices4Men
The views expressed in these articles are not the views of insideMAN editorial team. Whether you agree with the views expressed in this article or not we invite you to take take part in this important discussion, our only request is that you express yourself in a way that ensures everyone’s voice can be heard.