Skip to main content

David Woodside/The Globe and Mail

As men today face a similar battle women did long before spousal abuse was recognized, the idea of a silent population of stigmatized, abused husbands remains a fraught proposition, Zosia Bielski writes

John Smith remembers the day his wife shoved him so hard, a stud on his jeans chipped the wall he'd slammed into.

It was one bad day of many in a 17-month-long marriage marred by physical and psychological abuse, isolation from family and friends and constant fights, with one argument grinding on for seven hours, according to the 46-year-old Calgary consultant, who asked that his real name not be used because he's mid-divorce from the woman.

Once, he said, she elbowed and bruised him as he tried to walk past her. Another day, she tried to box in his car with her own, speeding after him as he drove to a police station, he said. "I never struck back. I'm so grateful that I didn't," said Smith, who at 6 foot 4 is a full foot taller than his ex. "It was David and Goliath, really."

What hurt most were the relentless putdowns, including the time she derided him for crying during his marriage proposal to her. "I'd been emotionally destroyed," Smith said. "I realized that she didn't love me. It was about something else."

The couple, who had no children, separated a year ago and he finally confided in his family. There was shock, but also questions familiar to any abused woman: "'Why did you stay in the relationship so long?'" Smith recalled them asking.

When he phoned a shelter for help, he said he was mistakenly redirected to group therapy for abusive husbands. "It's denied and dismissed," Smith said. "How can a big guy be abused by a tiny woman? How can a husband be abused by a wife? 'I bet he deserves it. He's done something wrong.' It's the mental process that women faced in the 1970s and 80s."

It wasn't so long ago that "wife abuse" was a fuzzy concept for most Canadians. Ask MP Margaret Mitchell, who raised the issue of battered women in the House of Commons in 1982. When she noted that one in 10 husbands regularly beats his wife, Mitchell got jeers from her male colleagues. "This is no laughing matter," Mitchell retorted then.

In 2016, we remain similarly retrograde about husband abuse. Men who get hit by their wives or by their girlfriends – and dare to divulge it – are still often doubted and ridiculed. While many abused women don't report because they're ashamed or protecting their partners, there is a particular stigma for heterosexual male victims of domestic assault. It is still seen as highly emasculating for a man to be cowed by a violent woman – hardly something most men would volunteer over a beer.

The idea of a silent population of stigmatized, abused husbands remains a fraught proposition. Many advocates for abused women believe that focusing on abused men detracts from female victims, who are still more likely to be repeatedly struck, injured and killed by their male partners, who are stronger and strike harder than women.

On the other end of the spectrum, men's rights activists (MRAs) believe abused men have been underserved in the public discourse and complain that support and shelter programs are geared predominantly toward abused women.

Caught in the middle are the men actually suffering in violent relationships. Outreach workers who help male victims argue that these men are a long-ignored and misunderstood cohort, with few resources or high-profile advocates to turn to.

Male victims do certainly exist, as do women who use violence in their relationships with men. Equal proportions of women and men – 4 per cent – reported being the victims of spousal violence in the past five years, according to 2014 data from Statistics Canada.

But those figures diverge once police get involved: Four out of five victims of police-reported intimate partner violence are women. Some 18,840 men and 69,848 women reported intimate partner violence to police in 2014, although it's unknown how many were in heterosexual relationships. While 42 per cent of the violent crimes women report to police involve their partners, that number falls to 12 per cent for men, who are much more likely to be physically attacked by a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger than by a girlfriend or a wife.

The statistics point to another gendered reality: Female victims suffer more damage. Abused women are 10 times more at risk than abused men to be sexaully assaulted and twice as likely to be beaten, choked or threatened with a gun or a knife. Forty per cent of female victims report physical injuries, compared with 24 per cent of male victims. As a result of the violence, women are more likely than men to suffer post-traumatic stress and miss school and work.

Of course, there are exceptions: Some women are in fact the primary abusers in their relationships with men. Michael Johnson, an emeritus professor of women's studies at Pennsylvania State University, recalls a husband in a support group who was being physically attacked by his wife, a police officer.

"She monitored his behaviour regularly. She threatened him with weapons and she threatened to do things to the children. It was small-town Pennsylvania and her buddies were all in law enforcement so he couldn't go to the police. He was attached to his children and didn't want to leave them with her," Johnson said, adding, "I don't know the end of that story."

A small number of Canadian outreach centres are now tailoring therapy and shelter programs to abused men. The Calgary Counselling Centre, which helps abused women, opened its doors to abused men in 2005. The centre's seen 94 women and 83 men come through between January and October this year; most men describe psychological abuse, with a much smaller fraction suffering physical assault. Often, someone in a man's life – a colleague or a mother – nudges him to seek help.

A brochure from the Calgary Counselling Centre.

A brochure from the Calgary Counselling Centre.

As with female victims, male victims tend to minimize the abuse they've experienced. The outreach program focuses on healthy relationships, interpersonal stress management and safety plans for leaving when there's a risk of violence.

"We're trying to help them get inside, to deal with the man who's been really hurt and doesn't want to walk away from a partner that he really cares about," said chief executive officer Dr. Robbie Babins-Wagner. "They need to decide how they're going to have a safer life."

At the Wheatland Crisis Society, a rural shelter outside Calgary, men are welcome right alongside women. Though they sleep in separate bedrooms over a 21-day stay, men and women take part together in programming about relationship red flags, self-esteem and self-care, among other topics. "The camaraderie that happens in the building is remarkable," said chief executive officer Wanda McGinnis.

Though most of her male clients face psychological and not physical abuse, McGinnis argues that this shouldn't be underestimated. "That demoralizing behaviour leaves them with no sense of self, feeling completely defeated," she said.

Dr. Leslie Tutty, a professor emerita in social work at the University of Calgary, witnessed the carnage of emotional abuse first-hand when she observed 14 group-therapy sessions for men at the Calgary Counselling Centre. Tutty described one husband who had had his self-esteem systematically destroyed by his wife.

"There was nothing that he could do right. She actually gave him 'walking lessons.' She told him he 'laughed wrong.' She thought he was overweight and when she found out he'd had a cake for a birthday at work, she berated him," said Tutty, who penned a meta-analysis on husband abuse for Health Canada in 1999. "No abuse is okay. I don't care who's doing it."

Even so, Tutty isn't sold on men-only domestic-assault shelters: She doesn't think the numbers warrant it and argues that abused men often have jobs and resources, unlike their female counterparts who are often financially entrapped by their abusers. Tutty also doesn't think men are any more stigmatized than women from coming forward when they've suffered domestic assault.

Other advocates believe that a host of systemic barriers keeps abused men from coming forward. For men, they say, the greatest hindrance is shame – that you're not a man if you're suffering in an unsafe relationship.

Dr. Peter Jaffe, a University of Western Ontario education professor, calls it self-stigma. "Men are socialized to be strong and tough. If they're a victim they don't want to see themselves as a victim. It's much harder to reach out for help," said Jaffe, director of the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women & Children.

Traditional notions of masculinity often steer men away from asking for help of any kind, be it booking a doctor's appointment or asking for directions on the road. That reluctance is hugely amplified when a man is feeling vulnerable in a romantic relationship.

Adding to the stigma is that men are sometimes not believed or even laughed at when they finally do ask for help, Babins-Wagner said. Her centre educates police, shelters, hospitals and social services on male victimization. "The hardest part of this – like it was in the [women's] shelter movement 30 years ago – is making it okay for men to come forward," she said. "The research and the work is very much in its infancy."

Perhaps we doubt assaulted men because, collectively, we still buy into outdated ideas of what it means to be man. Is it so improbable that a man could be abused by a woman, or that he, not she, is the sensitive, gentle party in a heterosexual relationship? Perhaps it's time to adjust our cultural lenses: Just as women should never be questioned or blamed for staying with harmful partners, men who claim abuse by women shouldn't necessarily be discounted – or worse, emasculated for being on the receiving end of violence.

"If our goal is to stop violence, then the way we engage people has to be different," Babins-Wagner said. "We can't take a critical perspective of people who are abusive or who are victims, if we really want to help them."

The isolation in abuse

Former Joy Division bassist Peter Hook writes in a new memoir that he was abused by his ex-wife, comedian Caroline Aherne.

Former Joy Division bassist Peter Hook writes in a new memoir that he was abused by his ex-wife, comedian Caroline Aherne.

Mark Blinch / Reuters

Abusive women are mainly treated as a salacious anomaly, as evidenced by the flurry of headlines around Substance, a new memoir by former New Order bassist Peter Hook. In it, Hook accuses his ex-wife, the comedian Caroline Aherne, of attacking him with chairs, bottles, knives and lit cigarettes throughout their marriage.

"I was an abused husband and it's embarrassing, and you feel ashamed, and you can't tell anyone. I needed help," Hook wrote. (Aherne died in July of cancer and Hook declined repeated requests from The Globe and Mail to comment.) Though many abused men feel isolated, some outreach workers are beginning to work with them, while others are developing programs for women who hit.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., Lisa Larance works with a broad swath of clients – from prison inmates to CEOs – in RENEW, her program for women who use force in their relationships. Larance believes that women who hit men (and are outed for it) find themselves especially scrutinized. Abusive men are an old story, but "women aren't 'supposed to' be violent," Larance said. "It gets sensationalized: a violent woman, the trainwreck you can't stop watching."

Larance said that in her experience, women lash out as a last resort, in self-defence: Many are being physically abused in the current relationship, or have been battered in the past. "The first thing women will tell me is, 'I grabbed whatever was closest because I knew he was coming after me,'" she said. "She's looking to say 'stop.'"

Male victims were nearly four times more likely than female victims to be hit with something, according to the latest data from Statistics Canada, which also found that these men self-reported cuts, scratches and burns more often than abused women. Larance describes one client who cut her husband's face with the zipper on her purse when she swung it at him.

The woman called police because her husband was bleeding, but she intentionally omitted the backstory of that night because "she wasn't done with that relationship," Larance explained. Earlier, the two had fought about money and he walked out on her. When he returned hours later, she badgered him to explain where he'd been, fearing that he'd met with a drug dealer. The husband, who had abused her in the past, slammed her against a wall. When she wouldn't desist, he hit her, hard. That's when she swung the purse, and got booked by police.

Larance describes the deep shame and self-hatred abusive women will often feel for failing to hold their relationships together. Indeed, unlike male abusers, female abusers will often quickly and remorsefully admit exactly what they did to a partner.

"We find that in week one, the women tell you their stories," says Robbie Babins-Wagner of the Calgary Counselling Centre, which helps female abusers. "The men are way more reticent to share their story early on."