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Can we degenderize domestic violence?

DVdegenderingIs there space for men in domestic violence programs? Yes, and this is just the beginning. More organizations are opening their doors to men – and finding enormous success, writes Joseph Caputo.

15 May 2011

The domestic violence field is difficult work. A person who is routinely terrorized by his or her partner needs help readjusting to life after abuse. Shelters may have limited funds to stock their cupboards and more demand for counseling than available staff.

Thirty-five years after states began passing domestic violence laws, it’s still a struggle to support survivors – a struggle from which men are all but absent, both as participants in the movement against domestic violence and as victims of abuse themselves.

Today, the majority of programs continue to be run by women for women and their children. One consequence of the decades-long focus on female victims of male violence is a gap in services for men who seek help for abuse.

According to an online survey conducted by Clark University psychologist Denise Hines and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, of 132 men who approached a domestic violence agency for help, “over three-quarters of them were told, ‘We only help women.’”

This gap is being interpreted as sex discrimination by men’s rights activists. It does, in fact, have legal consequences: in 2008, a California court of appeal ruled 3-0 that domestic violence programs that offer services to only women and their children, but not to men, violate the state constitution.

“These men … are similarly situated to women as to the need for domestic violence services,” wrote Justice Fred K. Morrison. The court acknowledged that women are affected by domestic violence more than men, so programs do not need to provide equal kinds of services, but must help anyone who comes to their doorstep.

This is legal precedent has national implications and is sparking an emotionally-charged debate over whether domestic violence programs should be gender neutral. Advocates who work with women’s organizations argue that the gender disparity is still significant, and that social change to protect women, who represent the majority of domestic violence homicide cases, will lead to better care for male victims.

While those who argue for gender neutrality say that it’s time to rethink the traditional rhetoric about domestic violence, which pits males versus females, and focus on supporting all victims.

Craig Norberg-Bohm has 30 years of experience building support systems for men. He has worked with men who perpetrate domestic violence as well as male survivors of sexual assault. As coordinator of the Boston-based Men’s Initiative for Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, he now promotes men’s role in ending violence, abuse, and oppression.

Norberg-Bohm acknowledged his position heading what are historically women’s organizations. “My watershed change is to convince the women’s leadership that the men I network with are here to stay, are helpful, can be depended upon, are accountable to their point of view and will survive this,” he said. One of Norberg-Bohm’s community-building strategies is to recruit men and boys to be White Ribbon Ambassadors, who pledge to “never commit, excuse, or be silent about violence against women.”

Jane Doe Inc. held its fourth annual White Ribbon Day rally in Boston in March. The international White Ribbon movement, which was created in 1991 to remember the murders of 14 women in Montreal, aims to include men in the conversation about violence against women. Paulo Pinto, one of the event’s founders and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers, made a public pledge to continue his work with immigrant families, bringing awareness to domestic violence and sexual assault in the Portuguese-American community.

”Domestic violence is a tabooed topic,” Pinto said. “In conservative macho culture, the understanding is that women are the property of men. Being a good man means you don’t have power over anybody. We can’t give our macho men an excuse for their behavior.”

The Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers has offered gender-neutral domestic violence services for the past 15 years. Their program primarily works with immigrant victims of domestic violence as well as batterers. According to Pinto, about 4 percent of victims who seek help are men.

One Massachusetts-based organization was notably absent from the White Ribbon Day rally. The Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project does not support the event. According to Education Director Iain Gill, domestic violence agencies like Jane Doe Inc. blur the lines between violence against women and domestic violence.

They day also perpetuates the idea that domestic violence only affects women, rending the GLBT community invisible, and may limit funding for resources around GLBT domestic violence. “We should all be allies on this issue,” Gill said. “The same kind of abuse happens; it’s one person trying to control another.”

Paulo Pinto, who is a gay man and works closely with Jane Doe Inc., doesn’t agree that the White Ribbon Campaign takes anything from the gay community or men who are victims of violence. He argues that the campaign focuses on one specific reality, engaging men with an issue that has largely been driven by women. “I don’t have a wife I’m saying I will protect,” Pinto said. “I have a mother and sister and female friends I want to create a safer world for.”

The gender-specific tones of the White Ribbon Campaign are also a controversial topic for men’s rights activists. For MRAs, the oath that male ambassadors take to never commit violence against women reinforces the cultural myth that women don’t commit violence against men. “Police and society will always assume that the man is the abuser and not the one being abused,” said Pelle Billing, blogger and founder of the Swedish Men’s Network. “When a woman starts hitting a man, he doesn’t feel he can hit back and is scared to contact police or social services, which might lead him to end up in prison.”

“It’s not about gender, it’s about control; I agree with that, but it doesn’t change the problem of social conditions,” said Norberg-Bohm. “My purpose is to make domestic violence visible to the male public. My political platform is to lead men to care for other men, grow up well, and be positive, safe and powerful contributors to their community.”

John Dias, Web developer and editor of the Misandry Review, has an encyclopedic knowledge of domestic violence policy. He has spent many hours on the subject since attending a 52-week program for batterers following what he considers an unjust accusation. He uses his expertise and plenty of data to address injustice concerning male victims. Dias believes that if a domestic violence program receives public money, it should be gender neutral, but if his research is correct, that’s the exception to the rule.

Dias believes that domestic violence programs are not transparent about their lack of services to men. When he scanned a directory of service providers, last published in 2008 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, he found that many programs don’t provide services for males past their teens.

“What [domestic violence programs] don’t tell you is that [the male victims they’re providing for] are 16 years old and there because their mom is taken to the shelter,” he said. “Because of the policy, not the demand, [men] are not going to get any help from any service provider. Your only solace will be a park bench or a friend’s couch. That’s the domestic violence safety net for male victims.”

The Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project was founded in 1994 by a gay male survivor who, while fleeing an attempted murder, was turned away from mainstream shelters because of his identity. The organization represents Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut and is open to anyone seeking refuge.

According to Education Director Iain Gill, a lot of domestic violence programs are contractually obligated to have open services for everybody, including straight men and GLBT people, but many don’t do it. “We get a high number of heterosexual men calling for support, and the only access to services they have is through a GLBT program because there are no straight male organizations or services,” Gill said. “They’re the bottom of the barrel.”

Jacob T. compares male victims to toy soldiers, easy to dispose of by society. He uses his blog to raise awareness and show that boys and men can be victims and usually don’t get the help they need. Jacob does not consider himself a men’s rights activist, but he does believe it is important to challenge feminist views.

He agrees that only a handful of organizations provide equal services to men and their children. Most existing shelters offer a grab bag that may or may not include hotel vouchers, attorney information, or counseling services.

“When there are organizations claiming to want to reach out to men, it does not help for those organizations to downplay female-perpetrated domestic violence or treat male victims as if they are abusers,” Jacob wrote in an email. “It does not help the discussion [when it] turns to who has it worse. If asked, few of the organizations would admit to any biases. Yet when asked, those same organizations will not provide outreach for male victims.”

Jane Doe Inc.’s Craig Norberg-Bohm will admit to the service gap. “Male survivors have a hard time getting good services. The members are working to fill that gap. It’s hard to do because they’re women’s centers and women’s environments and men don’t fit that easily,” he said.

A few historically women’s organizations are beginning the complex transformation toward gender neutrality. Gill cites REACH Beyond Domestic Violence in Waltham, Massachusetts; Healing Abuse Working for Change in Salem, Massachusetts; and Transition House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as just a few organizations that now provide services to everyone, including heterosexual men and GLBT populations. “It’s not easy to do and it took a lot of courage to do it,” Gill said. “But they’ve found that it added to the level of work they do.”

Pelle Billing doesn’t think the men’s rights movement may have to exist for as long as the women’s movement did. “If we just become aware of men’s issues we could integrate them much more quickly,” he said. “It does not need to take 200 years; it can happen in 10.”

The future of domestic violence programs will probably be gender neutral. According to Paulo Pinto, the U.S. Department of Justice is beginning to ask organizations that receive public grants to think about where men fit in their budgets. The transition will take time, but fast-forward 35 years and domestic violence programs, hopefully adequately funded, will be on course to serve all victims equally.

Joseph Caputo is a graduate of Boston University's Center for Science and Medical Journalism. He writes about science and pop culture from his man cave in Salem, Massachusetts.

This article was first published on the Good Men Project and is reproduced here with permission.

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