Crimestoppers, an official UK central government public information service, today published a piece about male victims of domestic violence on their blog. The piece was authored by Ippo Panteloudakis, a staff member from Respect UK, the charity which runs the Men’s Advice Line and which accredits DV perpetrator rehabilitation schemes, among many other responsibilities.
Towards the end of the piece, it states:
Although attitudes are changing, gender stereotypes make it difficult for some to think of men as victims, i.e. men must always be strong and if they are physically stronger they can’t be victims.
This is true, of course, and we should welcome its inclusion. Unfortunately the very next paragraph goes on to say this
Another issue some callers bring is the use of violence by both partners – working out who the ‘primary perpetrator/aggressor’ is in these cases and who was genuinely in self-defence is crucial if we want to manage the risk and increase the safety of victims. It is well established by now that some perpetrators approach victim services claiming they are the victim in their relationship. This has important implications for service delivery as perpetrators may be offered support as victims and victims as perpetrators.
One of the nastiest stereotypes that hovers around male victims of intimate partner violence is that he must have done something to provoke it, to deserve it, or that the abuser must have been defending herself because the man is invariably the violent one. There is no evidence that this is true for male victims any more frequently than it is for female victims, and yet this type of victim-blaming would be immediately hounded out of the room if it were applied to women. Indeed, Erin Pizzey was famously excommunicated from the feminist / domestic violence realm about 40 years ago for making exactly this point about the women she saw in Chiswick.
Last summer I praised the excellent report by Abused Men in Scotland which evaluated the experiences of men accessing services for victims and survivors. One point this report picked up was that some men who had called the Men’s Advice Line felt as if they were being themselves ‘screened’ as perpetrators and all but accused of being wife-beaters when they called for help. It should not take much imagination to appreciate how damaging that can be to the trust relationship between a vulnerable person seeking help and the agency which is supposed to be supporting him.
The Men’s Advice Line reacted angrily, firing off a letter to AMIS demanding retraction and correction, and insisting that they did not practice “screening”, they merely “risk and needs assess.” Brian Dempsey, author of the original report, provided a response that was, I think, quite definitive. According to Men’s Advice Line’s own published data, their helpline workers ask sufficient questions on first contact to make a (supposed) assessment of whether the caller is a victim, a perpetrator, a victim who uses violent resistance or a perpetrator whose victim uses violent resistance.
Brian Dempsey’s response also notes that in July 2013, while these letters were bouncing back and forth, the noted feminist academic Catherine Donovan appeared on Women’s Hour and praised Respect / MAL for they way in which they “screen” callers to establish whether they are victims or perpetrators.
The reality is that there is no straightforward model of family violence. Some instances happen with one violent controlling bully who batters the other party without retaliation. Such offenders can be male or female, and so can their victims. A large proportion of family violence (most research suggests as much as half) is to some extent reciprocal and mutual, with no easy answer as to who is starting it, who is escalating it, who is aggressing and who is acting in self defence. Asking who is the perpetrator and who is the victim is meaningless. The answer to both is both. The urge to carefully delineate callers into perpetrators and victims is a simplistic attempt to divide the world into goodies and baddies and much of the time the world just does not work like that. It must be noted that other services for victims of partner violence – not only all services for female victims but also the Mankind Initiative Helpline and Dyn Project in Wales run successful and acclaimed services without the need to screen or “risk and needs assess.”
Someone who approaches a victim support service – whether a helpline, a refuge or anything else – must be assumed to be in need of support and be offered the help they need. There is a good argument to say that as part of the support process, all victims should somehow be offered help with any violent or aggressive tendencies of their own. Raising such an issue without alienating and adding to the distress of victims would be an exceptionally delicate and difficult task. Which is why Respect / MAL’s cavalier approach to the issue is so deeply concerning.