Our separate, and shared work in the field of domestic violence has highlighted the need to explore experiences of those involved beyond the stereotypical male perpetrator-female victim dyad. This approach has been significant in raising awareness of domestic violence and abuse as a social issue, and also contributed a strong body of work that has informed how we support women as victims.
An unintended outcome of this focus has been the marginalisation of other voices within the narrative including male victims, children, and those within the LGBTQ+ population.
One of the under-explored issues for male victims of domestic violence in particular, has been the impact of their experience, and how they cope with it post-separation. Our most recent study explored this using a method called photo elicitation. As a form of interview, photo elicitation allows visual imagery to be brought into the interview setting prompting emotional connections to memories, but also allows the control of the conversation to lie with the participant.
Our findings revealed a complex array of factors that impacted on men’s experiences both within and after the end of the relationship. Key factors included power imbalances, systemic injustice seen within formal help-seeking services, the stereotypes and assumptions seen within service provision, and the impact of separation and change.
One of the interesting and unintended findings of the study was around the way men used language to construct their experience and narrative. The existing literature documents the difficulties some men have in identifying their abusive experience as ‘domestic violence’; the construction of this as a ‘women’s issue’ has left many men not seeing themselves in the campaigns, awareness raising, and policy or legislation. As a consequence, when we have recruited participants, we have purposefully avoided using this language and instead conceptualise it as a group of men who have ‘experienced aggression and control from a female partner’.
Within some of our previous work we have seen that men steer away from using the term ‘victim’; many men seen this as synonymous with weakness which does not fit with the masculine gender role.
Some men (and women) who have experienced violence and abuse prefer the term ‘survivor’. This term implies something that has been experienced and ‘survived’ and that they have gone through a recovery process.
While the choice of word may not seem significant to some, the connotations of these words are important. While some prefer not to use the term victim due to the stigma and implied passive or helpless meanings associated with it, being labelled as a ‘victim’ carries important implications such as validation of experience, access to services, and the associated social response. We found in our study that where men had sought help and support, there was often the assumption that their victimisation was part of a pattern of bi-directional or mutual abuse. In this scenario, the term ‘victim’ alongside the term ‘perpetrator’ could be powerful to those men in distinguishing the roles of those within the abuse.
‘Survivor’ is seen as less stigmatising than ‘victim’, with those affected ascribed more agency. Agency in this context might imply that the experiencer is no longer being defined by the victimisation and it is something that in time will, at least in part, be relegated to the past. Our study casts doubt on this because the suffering described by our participants was ongoing, sometimes several years after the relationship had ended. Moreover, the ability to ‘move on’ and reclaim a separate identity was hindered by systemic injustices. This was particularly true for fathers who had not only experienced abuse, but had also had their relationship with their children either withheld or manipulated.
Commentators of the debate around these terms promote choice in their use. Choice allows men (and all those who have experienced abuse) to construct their experiences in a way that resonates with them. Some men may wish to construct it as a past experience, one that has impacted upon their life but that is no longer key to their identity. For others, the relationship – while different – is still ongoing and so opportunities for abuse remain. In these cases, the impact on identity remains almost tangible in the language used.
The terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ were rarely used explicitly and when they were alluded to, they were rapidly dismissed as incongruous, for example: ‘How could I a 6ft 3 inch tall ex-squaddie be a victim!’ Their use of size and strength to invalidate their claim to what they perceived to be a legitimate or deserving victim status was common. This appeared to serve as a barrier to their disclosure and support seeking. They were constrained not only by a discourse of masculinity but also a lack of awareness of the nature and scope of intimate partner violence. Having constructed themselves as the family protector when abuse was occurring, several participants blamed themselves and saw their inability to protect themselves and their children as a failure to conform to social expectations.
While the word ‘recovery’ was used in the original proposal of this study and discussions that followed, the narratives of these men and their stories left us wondering whether this was the right choice of words. Many of the men described ongoing post-separation abuse, the persistent impact of their experience, the loneliness and pain they still felt, and many did not describe this conceptualisation of ‘recovery’. In battling with this, Liz tweeted to ask any men that felt able to comment to discuss how they feel about this word; the response to this was both unexpected and moving.
Where some felt ‘recovery’ and ‘survivor’ was appropriate to represent their experience, others felt more comfortable with words that represented the ongoing nature of it. For example, ‘healing’ to represent the ongoing process of recovery; ‘acceptance’ and similarly ‘living with’ to represent the feeling that their experience will always impact on them; ‘coping’, and moving from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’. For some here, the word ‘recovery’ carries the implication that there is a return to a ‘previous state’, something which is seemingly impossible after experiencing the impact of their abuse.
Men’s construction of their experience and the language they use is strongly informed by the nature of how society constructs intimate partner violence and the stereotypes that form through this. The historical focus on women as victims emerged out of the feminist movement of the 1970s; understandably their focus was on preventing violence against women and ensuring the support and provision was brought in for this group where it had previously not.
As the research evolved and other strands of evidence emerged about women’s use of violence, men’s victimisation, violence within LGBTQ+ groups, the impact of exposure of violence on children and so on, the social narrative and stereotypes have not similarly evolved. Domestic violence is still commonly constructed as a women’s issue within policy, within media campaigns, practice, and service provision – see recent advice for social landlords around domestic abuse from Scotland.
Social narratives are then still often reflecting this, despite awareness campaigns, crime surveys, and news stories. These stereotypes impact how the general public discuss these issues, but also importantly perceptions of the issue in service provision. Men in our research have previously described not being believed, being laughed at, being falsely accused of being a perpetrator, and being referred to a perpetrator-based intervention.
Positively, we have seen a shift in the recognition of men’s experiences. Soap story lines (such as those of Coronation Street and Hollyoaks in the UK), news story headlines, and commentaries and documentaries, all contribute to increasing the visibility of men within this area. Until this is fully mirrored within policy and practice though, abused men are likely to suffer from a systemic injustice that risks re-victimising an already vulnerable group.
Dr Liz Bates is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Programme Leader for the BSc (Hons) Applied Psychology at the University of Cumbria.
Dr Julie Taylor is a Principal Lecturer in Psychology and Psychological Therapies at the University of Cumbria.