Nick Smithers works for a Scottish charity that wants male victims to be included in the public perception of domestic violence.
I recently started a new job as the National Development Officer for Abused Men in Scotland (AMIS), a charity that’s been working to improve services of male victims of domestic violence since 2010. Part of my role is to raise awareness of male victims which often means taking our message to events where the focus has traditionally been on women. Which is why, earlier this year I ending up co-presenting a workshop with a representative of a prominent organisation which provides essential supports to women who are fleeing abusive partners.
Conversations about male and female victims of domestic violence can often get reduced to arguments about gender politics. AMIS works hard to avoid this type of dialogue. As a frontline service we bring real expertise of working with male victims and we back this up with rigorous and original research such as our recent report on Men’s Experience of Domestic Abuse in Scotland.
One of the key themes that has emerged from our research is the extent to which the “public story” of domestic abuse is extremely pervasive—that being the notion that domestic abuse is perpetrated almost exclusively by men against women. It’s one thing knowing this, the challenge we face is finding ways to create a new public story that accounts for both male and female victims.
As I sat in the hall awaiting the call to step up to stage and begin my presentation I was approached by the chairperson and informed that we would be joined by the Queen’s daughter the Princess Royal and asked whether I knew royal protocol. Well for those of you who live in more evolved democracies such things as royal protocol are likely to be something of a mystery – well, they are also a mystery to me, Scots born and bred. My innate urge to conform overcame any rebelliousness and I stood when expected, sat when instructed and generally behaved myself – I wanted to make friends and influence people of course.
While I sat on stage and listened to the informative and moving presentation by my co-presenter, my anxiety grew, as the heightened atmosphere in the hall became apparent. As my co-presenter sat down there was much muttering and whispering and I could see that there was some disagreement between Her Royal Highness and her consort. Horror, against her will the Princess was being ushered from the room before having the opportunity to hear about the experience of men in Scotland who are victim to domestic abuse, she turned and offered an apology to me as she was led away and I took to the lectern.
Well I hope I can say confidently that she missed something, as the talk attracted a good deal of interest and the majority of questions afterwards were related to my presentation. Many of the professionals from around Europe recognised the iniquity that I related affecting men. I had described the ingrained, gendered conceptualisation which renders male victimhood counter-intuitive. This can create a service vacuum where repeat victimisation of men can become a common occurrence from an uncomprehending system.
I was asked my view on the introduction of the term “gender based violence” (GBV) to replace ‘domestic abuse’ in many official publications and discourse. I suggested that this could be another barrier to men getting help as the implication was that GBV was male on female—the standard assumption. My co-presenter intervened to make what, to me, was a telling clarification. It was asserted that GBV was not about ‘who does what to whom’ but about why some people were victimised due to their gender.
My co-presenter then stated that social construction theory explains this phenomenon as it illuminates the fact that men are brought up to control women and that this is the context for domestic abuse. Well I was somewhat taken aback by this statement which I could neither relate to on a personal level as a man nor on a professional level having worked with men in a deprived area of Edinburgh for six years.
This exchange has been reverberating in my mind since then. It seems to encapsulate an ideology which is the hidden, guiding hand of domestic abuse policy here in Scotland and beyond. While it was surprising for me to hear such a political definition of sex roles it was highly instructive as to why abused men in Scotland often suffer in silence.
Men experiencing domestic abuse can feel stigmatised and ashamed. In many cases men will not recognise their experience as domestic abuse such is the prevalence of the public story- they will believe it is something which only happens to women. It is imperative that the narrative around domestic abuse shifts to allow gender inclusive language to become the norm.
The first step is the recognition that significant numbers of men are experiencing domestic abuse but often feel that they have nowhere to turn for help.
I believe that if we keep speaking out for male victims then the public story about domestic violence will change and everyone — including the Princess Royal—will recognize that both male and female victims of domestic violence need our help and support.
Photo Credit: Flickr/The New Institute