Male Victims of Female-Perpetrated Intimate Partner Violence, Help-Seeking, and Reporting Behaviors: A Qualitative Study
Arlene Walker, Kimina Lyall, Dilkie Silva, Georgia Craigie, Richelle Mayshak, Beth Costa, Shannon
Hyder, and Ashley Bentley
Online First Publication, July 18, 2019. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/men0000222
Walker, A., Lyall, K., Silva, D., Craigie, G., Mayshak, R., Costa, B., Hyder, S., & Bentley, A. (2019, July
18). Male Victims of Female-Perpetrated Intimate Partner Violence, Help-Seeking, and Reporting
Behaviors: A Qualitative Study. Psychology of Men & Masculinities. Advance online publication.
We generously thank the men who participated in this study. We also thank the online platforms that supported and helped recruit participants for this study. There are no conflicting interests with respect to the research or authorship of the article from any of the authors. The authors received no financial support for this study. Some data have previously been analyzed and written up as part of student theses.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Arlene Walker, School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University, Locked Bag 20001, Geelong, VIC 3220, Australia. E-mail: arlene.walker@ deakin.edu.au
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a global social health problem. Societal perceptions of IPV as a predominantly female issue have led to the development of research perspectives, frameworks, measures, and methodologies unable to capture the full scope of male victimization. Research has also been hampered by a reluctance from men to identify as victims, and many do not relate to commonly used terminology of IPV, such as domestic violence. The current study used qualitative methods to explore men’s experiences of female-perpetrated IPV in Australia, defined as “boundary crossings.” The sample comprised 258 men recruited using a snowball approach through social media platforms and via a monthly newsletter of an online men’s health support site. The online survey containing open-ended questions focused on three areas: type of IPV experienced, help-seeking, and reporting behaviour. Men reported experience of a range of physical, sexual, verbal, coercive controlling, and manipulative behaviours. Male victims noted how disclosure of abuse to family and friends was variously met with shock, support, and minimisation. Participants also reported secondary abusive experiences, with police and other support services responding with ridicule, doubt, indifference, and victim arrest. The use of the term boundary crossing rather than IPV, which is commonly associated with male-against-female violence, appeared to be a useful tool for eliciting information from men who have experienced abuse.
Public Significance Statement
Research indicates male victims do not relate to common gendered terminology of IPV such as
“domestic violence.” Following consultation with support workers of male IPV victims in Australia, a novel approach was adopted. The term “boundary crossings” (defined as behavior that violates or restricts a person’s rights) was used to explore men’s experiences of female-perpetrated IPV using an online, anonymous survey with open-ended questions. Almost 50% of the respondents disclosed experiences of IPV, covering a range of physical, social, psychological, financial, and legal abuses.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a significant social problem characterized by patterns of violence within an intimate relation- ship across a range of physical, verbal, psychological, sexual, financial, and spiritual domains (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2016; Brown, 2008; World Health Organization [WHO], 2012). Despite evidence indicating that within some contexts IPV is perpetrated equally by men and women (Dutton, 2007; Graham- Kevan & Archer, 2005; Hines & Saudino, 2003), societal narra- tives typically portray male perpetrators and female victims and regard female-perpetrated IPV as less serious and as occurring less frequently (Hammock, Richardson, Lamm, Taylor, & Verlaque, 2017).
The evidence of the prevalence of male victimization has been the subject of an ongoing and largely unresolved debate. Issues of contention include typology, or the categorization of violence, which is said to be responsible for differing reports of male and female perpetration (Ali, Dhingra, & McGarry, 2016; Johnson, 2008), sample selections that are said to distort prevalence toward a higher rate of male perpetrated violence (Dutton & Nicholls, 2005), and survey instruments that are critiqued for their ability to accurately capture male victimization (Hines & Malley-Morrison, 2001). Ideological views concerning the impact of gendered roles in intimate relationships are also accused of affecting research perspectives (Dutton & Nicholls, 2005). The perception that IPV is largely perpetrated by men against women has been thought to contribute to secondary abuse, or “second wave abuse” initiated by the perpetrator but enacted by someone else, usually social, judicial, and/or law enforcement systems (Corbally, 2015, p. 3120; Laing, 2017). One consequence of this ongoing debate is that research into male experience of female violence continues to be subsumed into this theoretical and ideological discussion, and there remains a lack of evidence, and associated targeted assis- tance, into the lived experiences of male victims of IPV.
Within this environment, male victims of female-perpetrated IPV typically demonstrate difficulty in articulating their abusive experiences, and many of them do not identify with the language of IPV, “domestic” or “family” violence (Corbally, 2015; Morgan & Wells, 2016; Tsui, 2014). A Portuguese study that used online questionnaires of 89 male IPV victims found that 76% of them did not seek help, with “I did not notice that I was a victim” as the most commonly selected reason (Machado, Hines, & Matos, 2016). A qualitative study with seven participants found that men tend to describe the events that took place, rather than the emo- tional impact (Morgan & Wells, 2016). A complicating factor in the experience of IPV for men is the impact on their perceived masculinity, given the convergence of the construct of masculinity with power, control, and dominance (Anderson & Umberson, 2001). Although male-on-male violence also exists, and also has an impact on perceptions of masculinity (McLean, 2013), these dynamics are likely to be felt by men in particular ways, given that masculinity is often socially defined as that which is not feminine (Migliaccio, 2001) As such, becoming a victim of IPV leads to “marginalized masculinity . . . To be labeled as abused is to be labeled as a female, which disavows any form of masculinity a man may attempt to claim” (Migliaccio, 2001, p. 208). A study of the language used by 28 men to describe abuse from their intimate partner observed that male victims strived to retain their mascu- linity through complicit masculinity such as expressing a desire to “fight back” against the system (Eckstein, 2010). A narrative analysis of 48 domestic violence protective order cases filed by men revealed that they described their abuse in ways that are consistent with hegemonic masculinity, by focusing on their power and resistance rather than their victimization (Durfee, 2011). In sum, terminologies such as “victim” and “abuser,” which for so long have been associated with the discourse around female victimization, are likely to be heard or responded to differently by male research participants.
A further consideration regarding the experiences of male vic- tims is the type of abuse they experience, with some studies reporting that psychological abuse is the most common form of abuse men experience. For example, an analysis of a sample of 372 adult male victims recruited online in the Netherlands, Drijber, Reijnders, and Ceelen (2013) found that only 9% experienced solely physical violence, with a combination of emotional and physical violence (67%) or solely emotional violence (25%) more common. Similarly, Tsui (2014) reported that 67.5% of a sample of 80 male victims reported experiencing psychological abuse, whereas 55% experienced physical abuse. However, an analysis of a data set involving 8,000 male and 8,000 female abuse victims found no gender differences between the experience of emotional abuse, suggesting that these patterns might be more attributable to the nature of IPV than the experiences of the two genders (Outlaw, 2009). In a similar vein, a study of college students by Bates, Graham-Kevan, and Archer (2014) found that women reported being more aggressive to their partners than men were and that women reported higher levels of self-reported controlling behavior than men.
Research analysis is complicated by a lack of measures that are known to capture male experiences of IPV. The Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory (Tolman, 1989), a scale de- signed to measure psychological abuse, was tested and validated with female victims only, even though the scale has also been adapted for use with male victims (McHugh, Rakowski, & Swid- erski, 2013). Similarly, the validity of the Measure of Psycholog- ically Abusive Behaviors (Follingstad, 2011) used a criterion group of women in distressed or conflicted relationships (Folling- stad et al., 2015). This bias toward female victims afflicts other scales designed to capture nonphysical violence. The Coercive Control Scale (Johnson, Leone, & Xu, 2014) was tested only on female victims, whereas the Controlling Behaviors Scale (Graham- Kevan & Archer, 2003) was derived from the Pence and Paymar (1986) research, which identified the “power and control” tactics identified by female victims as being used by their male perpetra- tors. The scale development involved testing hypotheses about common couple violence in a mixed-sex student sample and elim- inated some of the power and control tactics that were gender- specific (Graham-Kevan, 2004). The lack of a specific measure relevant to male psychological victimization has led some re- searchers to combine parts of existing measures. Hines and Doug- las (2010) used the psychological subscale of the Revised Conflict Tactics Scales (Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy, & Sugarman, 1996) along with some items from Tolman (1989) to study male victims. Only recently has a gender-inclusive scale been designed and tested on samples of identified male and female perpetrators, with the Controlling and Abusive Tactics questionnaire found to be valid and reliable for both research and clinical purposes (Hamel, Jones, Dutton, & Graham-Kevan, 2015). Thus, the social context regarding male experiences of IPV has impacted the ability of researchers to accurately collect and analyze data.
Others’ perceptions of men as victims of IPV further affects reporting and help-seeking behaviors. The reactions of others are often imbued with societal assumptions about the likelihood of men being victims of female abuse and perceptions of masculinity that conflict with the inherent vulnerability of help-seeking (Tsui, Cheung, & Leung, 2012). Quasi-experimental studies have shown that IPV committed by women against male partners is considered less serious, with small-to-medium effect sizes for that finding (Taylor & Sorenson, 2005). Perceptions of injury severity varies according to gender of both the perceiver and the victim: in one study, both men and women judged male-on-female violence as significantly more severe than female-on-male violence, with ef- fect sizes of small-to-medium for the female participants and large for the male observers (Allen & Bradley, 2018). Within this context, it is not surprising that men are less likely to report abuse to police or seek help, compared with women (Choi et al., 2015; McCarrick, Davis-McCabe, & Hirst-Winthrop, 2016).
Evidence suggests male underreporting is related to a lack of trust in police (Tsui, 2014) and fear of losing their relationships with their children (Hines & Douglas, 2010). There is evidence that some female perpetrators capitalize on secondary abuse by threatening to report their victims as perpetrators of violence (Corbally, 2015; Machado, Santos, Graham-Kevan, & Matos, 2017; Morgan & Wells, 2016). This tactic relies on the inherent assumptions by many social service and justice workers that women are usually victims of violence and has been described as legal and administrative abuse (Tilbrook, Allan, & Dear, 2010). This type of abuse, in which legitimate services, such as family courts, are mobilized against the victim’s interests, was common enough in a small Australian study to be identified as a distinct category of abuse (Tilbrook et al., 2010). Subsequently, a study of 611 help-seeking male victims using a newly developed legal and administrative aggression scale found the experience of such ag- gression predicted mental health issues in victims, as well as the likelihood of symptoms of oppositional defiance disorder in their eldest offspring (Hines, Douglas, & Berger, 2015; Berger, Doug- las, & Hines, 2016). Research on men’s experience of IPV vic- timization must consider the impact of these wider social contexts across research methodology, associated reporting barriers, and data analysis.
One common response to the methodological challenges inher- ent in research into male victimization is to rely on qualitative data. Although this approach has the advantage of eliciting in-depth information from participants (DiCicco-Bloom & Crabtree, 2006), men are often reluctant to disclose personal information (Oliffe, 2010; Affleck, Glass, & Macdonald, 2012). Qualitative studies are often also limited by small sample sizes (Corbally, 2015; Morgan & Wells, 2016).
In sum, issues for researchers interested in the experiences of male victimization are hampered by the reluctance of men to identify as IPV victims and the limitations of quantitative ap- proaches (such as violence scales) and qualitative methodological approaches (such as small sample sizes) that have been applied to previous research. This study aimed to explore men’s experience of IPV, help-seeking, and reporting behaviors, utilizing a novel approach within this area. First, the study aimed to better under- stand male experiences as victims of IPV while avoiding the commonly used IPV terminology, due to its strong gendered associations and potential impact on perceived masculinity, as has been discussed earlier. In taking this approach, we adopted the use of general questions, rather than questions framed with IPV ter- minology, such as is recommended by Kimberg (2008) in pilot guidelines for addressing IPV with male patients and in line with recent research in the United Kingdom by Bates (2019). Consul- tation with support workers of male IPV victims in Australia led to a decision by the research team to adopt the term “boundary crossings” instead of “intimate partner violence” because these support workers identified this as descriptive term that contained none of the gender associations of the common IPV terminology. The use of the term “boundary” evokes the marking of an area; therefore, the term is a useful heuristic to enable participants to identify times they experienced a transgression of personal auton- omy. Although to the authors’ knowledge, this term has not been used before in either a research or clinical context, increasingly, boundary awareness and boundary renegotiation are considered to be important components in recovery from IPV experiences (Da- vis, 2002; Czerny, Lassiter, & Lim, 2018). In selecting the term “boundary crossing,” we did not intend to expand the definition of IPV, nor do we suggest we were interested in innocuous boundary violations. Instead, our intention was to test a nongendered syn- onym for IPV. Male participants in this study were asked to describe their experiences of boundary crossings, which were defined as behavior that violates or restricts a person’s rights (see the Method section for full wording). Second, and similar to Bates (2019), the study aimed to increase the sample size using an anonymous online survey that included open-ended questions to collect qualitative data. Open-ended surveys are commonly used to explore participant experiences in their “own words” (Jackson & Trochim, 2002). The use of anonymous open-ended surveys can also elicit more honest responses (Erickson & Kaplan, 2000).
This study was part of a mixed-methods study investigating men’s experiences of IPV in the Australian context and the impli- cations for policy in terms of male support services and societal perceptions. The qualitative aspects of this study are the focus of this article. The sample consisted of 258 men aged from 18 to 77 years (M 40.14, SD 13.90). Almost two thirds (60.9%) reported being in a current intimate relationship; a third (32.2%) had never been married, and a third 32.2% were married or in a current de facto relationship (living with a partner but not formally married). More than half (60.5%) of the sample had obtained a university degree qualification. Almost all the respondents (91.9%) were living in an Australian state or territory at the time of completing the survey (identified via postcode). The greatest number of respondents were from the more populous states in Australia (Victoria, 47.3%; New South Wales, 16.7%; Queens- land, 10.9%; and Western Australia, 9.7%), and a small number of respondents (1.6%) identified as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (Australia’s indigenous peoples).
Procedure and Materials
Following ethics approval, the sample was obtained through advertisement within a monthly newsletter of an Australian online men’s health support site and through social media platforms (e.g., Facebook and LinkedIn) using a snowballing approach. The ad- vertisement specified that the aim of the study was to explore men’s experiences of intimate relationships, relationship disagree- ments, and boundary crossings, with a definition of boundary crossings being provided (see the Experience of IPV section for full wording). The aim was to recruit men living in Australia, but given the online snowballing approach, the survey was shared with a small proportion of men (8.1%) living in the United States or Canada. The online survey consisted of demographics questions and a number of open-ended questions pertaining to experiences of intimate relationships, including partner violence (referred to as “boundary crossings”).
Experience of IPV. “Boundary crossings” were defined as “a boundary crossing refers to any behavior that violates or restricts a person’s right to safety, self-determination, self-esteem, privacy, reputation, or self-expression. Boundary crossings can be verbal, emotional, or physical.” Participants were asked about experiences of boundary crossings from an intimate partner. Questions in- cluded the following: “Has your partner ever crossed your bound- aries? [If yes] can you please provide a short description?”; “Have you ever seriously considered leaving your partner because of boundary crossings you have experienced? [If yes] please ex- plain.”
Help-seeking and reporting behaviors. Participants were asked three open-ended questions relating to partner boundary crossings that included disclosing a partner boundary crossing to friends or family, reporting a boundary crossing to police, and seeking help from support services for partner boundary crossings. Participants were also asked to detail reactions to the disclosure/ reporting or provide a reason for not disclosing/reporting a bound- ary crossing.
Responses were initially grouped according to the five open- ended partner boundary-crossing questions relating to (experience of IPV, help-seeking, and reporting). A thematic analysis was then conducted to identify patterns within the data. An inductive ap- proach was used to establish emergent themes, rather than themes established a priori. Data were analyzed and coded into themes and subthemes using the thematic analysis approach recommended by Braun & Clarke (2006), which involves: familiarization with the data, generating initial codes, searching for themes, reviewing of themes, defining and naming of themes and write up of the report. Once initial themes/subthemes were identified, consultation with a second researcher resulted in refinement of the themes and sub- themes. A third researcher familiar with the aims and objectives of the study but not involved in the initial coding of data subsequently coded 30% of the data to establish interrater reliability at 80%. The final themes and subthemes related to the three areas of investigation are shown in Tables 1 to 4.
Results are presented separately according to the three areas of investigation: experience of IPV (boundary crossings), help- seeking behavior, and reporting behavior. To ensure balanced participant representation, participant numbers are shown in pa- rentheses after each quote.
Experience of IPV
Of the 258 male participants who had female partners, 143 (55.4%) reported an experience of IPV by responding to the question “Has your partner ever crossed your boundaries?” Of those reporting a partner boundary crossing, 126 participants (48.8%) provided detailed descriptions of these incidents. Thematic analysis of the 126 descriptions identified two broad categories: primary abuse and secondary abuse. Several themes and subthemes were identified within each broad category.
Primary abuse. Primary abuse refers to the perpetrator abusing the victim using actual or threatened physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional violence. The underlying themes and subthemes identi- fied within primary abuse are described in the following text, along with relevant quotes reflecting participants’ experiences (Table 1).
Physical violence. Participants described experiencing threats of physical violence as well as physical assaults. For example,
[My] wife threatened to kill me and my family. (P66)
[She] punched me in the face, kicked me [and] drove a car toward me. (P99)
Male victims provided examples of sexual assaults, such as,
[I] had my genitals grabbed and told that they do not work. (P61)
Some victims also described accounts of sexual coercion from their partners as noted in the following comment:
My partner has pressured me into having sex when I didn’t want to by threatening to leave me if I didn’t. (P238)
Controlling behavior. Victims described experiencing various forms of controlling behavior. One method of control was to deny contact with children or threaten to do so:
My partner denied all access (custody and communication) with my son despite parenting orders. (P86)
[She screamed at me] I’ll take the children and you will never see them again you piece of sht! (P243)
Another method of control was to restrict access to money. For example,
She would severely limit my contact with friends to being only through phone or Facebook messaging. (P126)
I have little control over our income. (P238)
Female partners also exerted control over male victims by limiting their contact with family and friends:
The final method of control involved interfering with personal space or personal items:
Moving my personal possessions around the house after I have on many, many occasions and with great emphasis stressed to her that I find it incredibly frustrating to the point where I feel heightened anxiety when I cannot locate my items (such as my keys or wallet). (P208)
Manipulation. Male victims also experienced manipulation by their partners, for example, through verbal threats:
My wife demanded I change my place of employment under threat of ending the marriage. (P253)
Another method of manipulation involved emotional blackmail, including the withdrawal of intimacy by their partners:
She emotionally manipulated me into feeling guilty all the time, especially if I didn’t do what she asked of me. (P105)
She told me the abuse would stop if I not only said that she was the most beautiful woman ever, which I often had, but if I also said that I was the most hideous man ever. (P144)
My ex-wife used emotional blackmail and withholding sex to ensure compliance. (P231)
Domination. Male victims described being dominated by their partners. One form of domination was through passive aggressive behavior. For example,
She would play “no talkies” for four or five days at a time when she got the shits with me; and that was regular. (P28)
Some victims described their partners as dismissive toward them and treating them as subordinate, as noted in the following comment:
[She] makes me feel inferior and useless. (P77)
Domination was also experienced through partners’ expectations of obedience:
She regularly insists that I drop what I’m doing and follow her instructions immediately. (P18)
Verbal abuse. Various forms of verbal abuse were described. Participants stated that they were often screamed at, as in the following example:
[Being] screamed [at for] more than 3 days every week for no good reason, wears you down into depression. (P60)
Name-calling was another type of verbal abuse described by victims. One participant noted,
[She] called me a dirty old man whenever she was upset. (P152)
Victims were also criticised or belittled by their partners. For example,
My ex-wife used to run me down and belittle me to the point I would hate myself. (P192)
Secondary abuse. Secondary abuse involved the perpetrator utilizing individuals (known or unknown to the victim) or law enforcement agencies to inflict explicit or implicit harm on the victim. The underlying categories and themes related to secondary abuse are shown in Table 2 and further described in the following, with relevant quotes to reflect participants’ voice.
Using children for personal gain. Participants described their partners using their children against them for personal gain. One tactic used by the perpetrator was lying to children to alienate the victim from children.
[She was] telling my children lies about me, making them fear me for no reason. (P96)
Another tactic was to undermine victims in the presence of children, to diminish the children’s respect for their father. As one victim noted,
My ex pushed me and belittled me by calling me names in front of our son. (P80)
Victims also provided descriptions of the perpetrator emotionally abusing the children as an indirect avenue for inflicting abuse on the victim. For example,
If I do not toe the line then my sons are subjected to emotional abuse that affects me as well. (P75)
Social and legal manipulation. Participants reported that they had been the victim of false accusations made by the partner in order to gain custody of children:
Making false claims of domestic violence in order to cheat the family court process. (P96)
False accusations also involved instigating arrests of victims, and/or restraining orders:
My ex-partner would continually call the police to arrest me for things that I had not done. (P117)
Victims also described accounts of public humiliation. For example,
[She was] abusing me verbally in front of my 11-year-old son, his peers and other parents when collecting him from his school. (84)
She would make up lies and spread them through her family and the small town I live in. (P117)
Of the 143 participants who reported experience of IPV (via a boundary crossing), 131 (91.6%) reported disclosing to family and friends and provided detailed descriptions of their disclosure, or reasons for not disclosing (n 12). A thematic analysis of the descriptions identified two main categories: family and friends’ reactions and victims’ reasons for not disclosing. Several themes were identified within these categories and are shown in Table 3 along with a quote illustrating each theme.
Family/friends’ reactions. Victims reported a variety of re- actions from family and friends when they disclosed their abusive relationship. One such reaction was shock and surprise. For ex- ample,
[They were] shocked and horrified. My ex would always put up a facade that everything was fine. No one was aware of the extent of her rages and assaults toward me. (P51)
Some victims also reported family and friends either not believing them or downplaying the seriousness of the abuse:
Friends do not believe me that my ex-partner could behave as she does. (P247)
[They] told me women have suffered abuse and violation a lot worse than [you] or any other man. (P142)
Friends and family implying the victim was at fault for provoking the attack was mentioned by participants:
I was bashed over the head with an iron by a partner. My male friends laughed at me and the few women I told asked what I did to provoke such an action. (P238)
Some victims noted that they received support in the form of understanding and sympathy from family and friends. For example,
[They were] Surprised but were very understanding. (P77)
They said that’s incredible and that I should never have tolerated that. (P206)
Other victims stated that family and friends’ initial support even- tually changed to indifference. For example,
They were supportive initially but became tired of hearing about the ongoing drama. (P14)
Victim’s reasons for not disclosing. Participants noted sev- eral reasons for not disclosing their experience of abuse to family and friends. One reason was because it was important to some victims to protect their partner, despite the abuse they were expe- riencing:
Because it would be detrimental to the image of [the children’s] mother. (P175)
Some victims were embarrassed and ashamed about the situation and noted this as a reason for not disclosing:
[I was] too embarrassed to discuss [this] with family. [I felt] shame, guilt [and was] scared of losing my children. (P193)
Victims sometimes failed to recognize their experience as IPV, which precluded disclosure:
It took me many years to be able to speak up, partially because of not understanding the dynamics. (P56)
Finally, victims reported a fear of being disbelieved or of being thought of as a wimp:
We live in a gynocentric society, where the world revolves around the needs and desires/demands of women only. So men have to tough it out in silence or be accused of being a wimp or a cry baby. (P60)
Of the 143 participants who reported experience of IPV (via boundary crossing), 73 (51.0%) had reported the abuse to police and provided descriptions of police reactions to the report. In addition, 39 (27.3%) participants provided descriptions of why they chose not to make a report to the police. A thematic analysis yielded three categories for nonreporting, including police reactions, police gender stereotyping, and victim reasons for not re- porting, and revealed several themes within each category. The results are presented in Table 4 along with a quote to illustrate each theme.
Police reactions. A range of reactions by police were de- scribed. These included not believing the victim, as stated by one participant:
[They] didn’t believe me, [and] mocked me. (P13)
Victims also described being ridiculed by police and/or indiffer- ence from the police:
They laughed [because] the courts do not take violence against men by women seriously and didn’t want to waste everyone’s time. (P93)
[They] laughed, ridiculed [me] and told me to man up and deal with my own problems that they had more important things to deal with and left. (P246)
Police gender stereotyping. Police appeared to have a gender-stereotypical perception of IPV, which seemed to lead to inadequate support of male victims:
[The police said] we get a hundred cases of DV a week and they are mostly women, that’s our priority. (P36)
Police sometimes accused the victim of being the perpetrator or threatened them with arrest:
I was not only not listened to, I was threatened with arrest if I continued to make these allegations, because women just do not do those sorts of things. (P60)
Victim reasons for not reporting. Participants described sev- eral reasons for not reporting their abusive experience to the police. Some victims felt that their experience of abuse was not significant enough to make a report:
I never felt there was a significant threat to my or anyone else’s safety during or after the incident. (P213)
Victims also feared not being believed due to a lack of witnesses. For example,
[I] did not press charges for assault because there were no witnesses. (P10)
Finally, victims believed that police held a gender bias that would
most likely result in a lack of support for male victims:
Didn’t think police would take it seriously that I was assaulted by a woman smaller than me. (P88)
The police do not take male victims of domestic violence and abuse seriously. I’d likely wind up being the one in trouble. (P243)
The aim of the current study was to qualitatively examine male experiences of female-perpetrated IPV in a large sample in an Australian context, using nonstigmatized language (boundary crossings). The study focused on three main areas: experience of IPV, help-seeking, and reporting behavior. Key findings and their implications are discussed in the following text.
Experience of IPV
Male victims experienced a variety of direct abusive behaviors including physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, coercive control, domination, and manipulation. These experiences are similar to the IPV experienced by female victims (Johnson et al., 2014; Outlaw, 2009; WHO, 2012). Participants reported that their female partners also perpetrated IPV indirectly through manipulation of others.
In this study, the abuse experienced by male victims was de- scribed as a pattern of abusive behaviors, rather than isolated incidents, which adds to the growing body of literature describing male victims as experiencing extensive, ongoing abuse spanning psychological, physical, and legal aggression (Hines & Douglas, 2010; Migliaccio, 2001). The IPV victims in the current study
frequently experienced coercive controlling behaviors, including death threats, false allegations to authorities, sexual coercion to ensure compliance, and prohibited access to children. However, it is difficult to compare these results with previous literature on gendered patterns of IPV types that include quantitative analyses of low and high coercive control (Ansara & Hindin, 2010; Bates et al., 2014; Johnson et al., 2014).
The proportion of participants reporting boundary crossings (48.6%) is high, compared with previous literature on men’s and women’s experience of IPV both separately and combined (ABS, 2016; Johnson et al., 2014). This may be due to part of the sample being drawn from an online men’s health support site, a population that might be more likely to have experienced abuse. It is also possible that the term “boundary crossing” may have elicited reports of a broader range of undesirable partner behaviors than previous research using traditional terms or scales that primarily aim to measure specific violent behaviors (e.g., the Conflict Tac- tics Scale; Straus, 1979). Although it was not the researchers’ intention to capture nonviolent instances of boundary crossings, it is possible that the novel term led to an expansion of examples that may not otherwise have been captured by the use of a term such as violence. Research into IPV is sometimes criticized for methods that fail to elicit the context of specific reported events (Dobash, Dobash, Wilson, & Daly, 1992) or for failing to consider that the violence might be bidirectional rather than unidirectional (Bates, 2016). Asking individuals to identify instances of violence, with or without the use of terms such as boundary crossings, does create the possibility that important aspects of the event are lost (e.g., the dynamic that preceded or followed it, including whether the inci- dent was part of an ongoing, reciprocated conflict, self-defense, or an act of intimate partner terrorism—in other words the interper- sonal and historical context). Given that most IPV research is unable, for practical reasons, to study partners in situ, or even to research both partners in the dyad, this remains an ongoing chal- lenge. However, the nature of the written responses in this study do capture responses typical of IPV victimization, and such chal- lenges are unlikely to have been exaggerated in this study.
Male victims described their experiences of disclosing abuse to close family and/or friends or else provided explanations for not disclosing the abuse. Male victims described a variety of family and friend reactions to disclosure, including support, surprise, disbelief, victim-blaming, and gradual indifference. Previous lit- erature has yielded similar findings, with support networks often found to endorse gendered stereotypes of IPV victimization and provide unhelpful reactions to male victims (Douglas, Hines, & McCarthy, 2012).
Male victims appeared to be heavily influenced by societal perceptions of IPV as something that happens to women and not men, resulting in reluctance to disclose any abuse victimization. Men have commonly been found to have difficulty articulating abusive experiences (Corbally, 2015; Morgan & Wells, 2016) and have been observed to intentionally downplay the gender of the perpetrator (Douglas et al., 2012). There was evidence in our study that the men experienced fears that their victimization would result in challenges to their masculinity, with fears that they would be seen as weak. Male IPV victimization seems incongruent with masculine gender norms of physical and emotional strength, which is likely to contribute to male victims’ feelings of shame and embarrassment (Migliaccio, 2001; Seelau, Seelau, & Poorman, 2003). It appears that in addition to the challenges of experiencing IPV, victims also struggled with the stigma associated with being a male victim of IPV. In addition, some victims avoided disclosing to family and friends to protect their partner. Corbally (2015) also noted that men’s acquiescence to IPV in marriage appeared to be a function of commitment to masculine gender roles of being a loyal, loving husband.
Male victims of IPV described their experiences of reporting the abuse to police. Victims felt that the police and legal system failed to respond adequately to their reports, describing police reactions as doubtful, disbelieving, and ridiculing. These findings are con- sistent with previous literature finding that health-care services, police, and courts frequently perpetrate secondary abuse against both male and female victims of IPV and sexual assault (Corbally, 2015; Douglas & Hines, 2011; Douglas et al., 2012; Laing, 2017; Machado et al., 2017; Morgan & Wells, 2016; Tsui, 2014). It appeared from the current study that unhelpful police reactions to reports of male IPV victimization were primarily underpinned by the incongruence of IPV victimization with masculine gender norms, and the attendant societal understanding of IPV as exclu- sively perpetrated by men victimizing women (Corbally, 2015). Some researchers argue that this is a byproduct of a gender paradigm surrounding IPV (Dutton, Hamel, & Aaronson, 2010; Tilbrook et al., 2010).
Participants also provided explanations of why they did not formally report the abuse to police, commonly citing fear of being disbelieved, fear of being arrested themselves, and concern over a lack of witnesses. These fears closely reflected what actually occurred when men did report IPV to police. It appears that participants in this study understood the gendered societal and legal narrative that surrounds IPV, and they, given this knowledge, were able to predict the likely outcome of formally reporting their victimization (Cook, 2009; Douglas & Hines, 2011; Hines, Brown, & Dunning, 2007). Tsui (2014) also observed this two-way dis- trustful relationship, in which police were often doubtful of the genuineness of men’s reports, and male victims were skeptical of police reactions. In addition, male victims reported that female perpetrators capitalized on these female-biased societal percep- tions, to facilitate secondary abuse. For example, female perpetra- tors were reported to threaten male victims that they would never see their children again. These experiences echo other research into legal and administrative abuse (Berger et al., 2016; Hines & Douglas, 2010) and support the need for further research into this area. These findings resonate with previous literature demonstrat- ing that female perpetrators sometimes manipulate the legal sys- tem to gain child custody and press for restraining orders and the arrest of male victims through false allegations (Corbally, 2015; Morgan & Wells, 2016). Secondary abuse via child custody rul- ings may represent a particularly harmful form of IPV: Corbally (2015) found that preventing fathers from fatherhood experiences was the most powerful and enduring form of IPV, whereas Berger et al. (2016) found legal and administrative aggression predicted mental health consequences for the child as well as the father.
Parental alienation, or behaviors by one parent to harm the rela- tionship of a child to the other parent, has been proposed as a form of family violence; yet, to date, there has been little research into this area (see Harman, Kruk, & Hines, 2018 for a review) and could be considered in future research.
Limitations and Future Research
The current study has provided important insights into the experiences of male victims of female-perpetrated IPV; however this research has limitations. First, the term “boundary crossings” was chosen as a result of consultation with support workers in men’s services in Australia. It aimed to reduce stigma of male IPV victimization and therefore facilitate disclosures of abuse. The findings suggested that the use of this term was understood by participants and that such a term has the potential to reveal fruitful information about violence by helping to bypass reluctance of male victims to disclose their abuse. However, given the study involved an anonymous online survey, it was not possible to ascertain how useful that term was to participants. It is also possible that this term may not apply in other cultural contexts. Exploring the perception of “boundary crossing” and potentially comparing it with alternatives could form a useful future qualita- tive study in Australia and elsewhere. Future studies could also further test the relationship between masculinity and male IPV victimhood. Second, the use of an anonymous online survey was designed to counter issues with men being unwilling to disclose that they have experienced abuse. This format was unable to capture the full scope of experiences by nature of the limited questioning and inability to prompt participants. Although around 50% of participants provided descriptions of boundary crossings that were sufficiently detailed for analysis, future research could supplement larger scale anonymous surveys with smaller samples of in-depth interviews to yield richer, more detailed responses. Third, the sample may have been biased toward self-identified victims, as some participants were recruited through an Australian online men’s health support site. It is possible that these partici- pants may reflect a help-seeking subset of male IPV victims. However, this limitation was partially overcome by also recruiting participants from the general population via social media adver- tisements, using a snowballing method. Finally, the research did not seek to explore cultural differences in the experiences of IPV, and data were not obtained regarding ethnicity, other than whether the participants identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island- ers. Although previous research has not identified an increased prevalence of violence in particular cultural communities, the experience of help-seeking is likely to be influenced by the nature of cultural considerations and the sensitivity of the service provid- ers to these issues (Weidel, Provencio-Vasquez, Watson, & Gonzalez-Guarda, 2008).
Implications, Recommendations and Conclusion
Findings from the current study suggest that, when given an opportunity to disclose anonymously and with the use of language that is not associated with perceptions of male-against-female violence, men reveal extensive experiences of IPV, covering a range of physical, social, psychological, financial, and legal abuses. This is an important new finding that could be extended upon in future research. In addition, men report the experience of unintended secondary abuse by authorities, including police. Male victims in this study were reluctant to seek help from police mainly due to fears of ridicule, indifference, and being accused them- selves. These fears, for some participants, were realized. Although disclosures of abuse made to family and friends were more fre- quent than reports to police, gendered stereotypes of IPV also seemed to affect family and friends’ attitudes toward victims. These results highlight the power of societal perceptions to affect individual experiences of IPV and to bias the attitudes and behav- iors of support services. This study underscores the need to continue to equip social and justice services to identify IPV and in particular to dispel unconscious bias when considering accusations of violence. Specifically, we recommend that social and justice service employees be provided with education that recognizes the prevalence of female-perpetrated IPV to enable appropriate, unbi- ased response to male victims reporting IPV. In addition, we recommend that policy and funding of IPV at a societal level be nongendered to ensure that men have the same opportunity as women to access help and support. This is a difficult area, and there are no straightforward solutions; however, one thing is cer- tain: Continued ignorance about the impact of IPV on male victims will lead to further perpetration of secondary abuse. It is important that policymakers explore methods of providing information and support to male victims, including through the use of language and training for police and other agencies, that avoids the assumption that IPV is largely inflicted by men against their female partners.
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