Everybody Hurts

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Abuse, no matter who it happens to, is no laughing matter

by Allona Sund

They met in a bar and the attraction was instant. In the days that followed, they spent hours talking on the phone, falling asleep on opposite ends of the line. After a week, Steve Easton was convinced he found his true love. Two months later, he married her.

It was a whirlwind romance. Picture perfect. But once the dust settled, its true colors became more clear.

The behavior of Easton’s wife gradually started to change soon after the wedding. She would throw wild tantrums and indulge in vulgar language whenever she didn’t get her way. She insisted that Easton forsake all his old friends, especially those who were female, and even went so far as to burn his address book. She adored the scent of his aftershave but he couldn’t wear it if he was leaving the house. When they went to the movies, her hands were quick to cover Easton’s eyes whenever a partially undressed woman appeared on the screen.

“Most of the time, I caved in,” Easton, 28, admits. “I wanted to please her; she was my wife. Arguing about aftershave is petty as far as I’m concerned.”

But the situation soon became far more grave. The nature of abuse shifted from emotional control to physical.

“I got pushed through the dining room window, I had the car windshield kicked in on me, and I just took it at that point. I didn’t know what else to do,” he admits.

After four years of emotional and physical suffering, Easton finally decided to end his marriage. “I realized that God didn’t put me on this planet to be abused.”

He now heads a support group for abused husbands at the Easton Alliance of the Prevention of Family Violence, a volunteer organization he established two years ago.

It’s been several decades since the tragic story of domestic violence emerged from the dark secrecy of people’s homes into the light of public attention. Most of us are well aware of the sad statistics relaying the terrible physical and emotional torment which so many battered wives and children endure in the privacy of their own homes.

But there is another dimension to family violence which we so rarely hear about. At the risk of being laughed at, ridiculed, or simply not believed, more and more men are coming forward to tell their own stories of abuse. The trouble is, their voices are barely audible in a society so accustomed to only hearing cries of help from women.

“I think husband abuse is where wife abuse was 25 years ago,” says Reena Sommer, a sociologist and Research Associate for the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy and Evaluation.

“Twenty-five years ago, nobody ever talked about wife abuse. When it was raised in the House of Commons, people laughed. Just because people weren’t talking about it, didn’t mean wife abuse didn’t exist. The same goes for husband abuse.”

Sommer is the author of a four-year-study which suggests that women are just as likely to punch, slap, shove, or throw an object at their partners as are men. In a sample of 450 randomly selected couples, her study revealed that 39 per cent of females and 26 per cent of males admitted to having abused their spouses sometime during the course of their relationship.

Several other Canadian studies support Sommer’s findings. In a 1981 study of 562 couples, the women committed acts of ‘severe violence’ against their partners (kicking, biting, hitting, beating, threatening or using a knife or a gun) at double the rate of men.

These findings correspond with the results of several prominent American studies on spousal abuse. According to national surveys conducted by Richard Gelles and Murray Straus – internationally recognized authorities on family violence – men and women are equally likely to be abusive in the family abode.

These statistics conflict with traditional gender stereotypes of men as strong and aggressive, and women as passive nurturers and care-givers.

“Our whole culture has the belief that women just wouldn’t do this kind of thing,” says Constable Judy Nosworthy, Assistant Coordinator for the Domestic Violence Unit of the Metropolitan Toronto Police.

Lesley Gregorash, a Calgary psychologist, who is writing a book on husband abuse, says society underestimates the power that women do have because the women’s movement has poured so much time and energy into portraying women strictly as victims. This leaves little room to understand or feel compassion for the male victims who suffer at the hands of women.

If husband abuse is pervasive, why haven’t we heard more about it?

Part of the problem is that male victims are scared to come forward. “There’s nothing worse for a guy than being abused by a women in our society,” says Constable Nosworthy. She says social stereotypes make a male victim feel ashamed to admit that his wife beat him. “It’s a macho thing.” 

“Men are socialized to suffer silently,” says Doug Youra, President of Family of Men, a Calgary counselling group for abused men. “So many of us tend to be real good pain blockers, so we ignore some of the stuff that’s going on and just put our noses back to the grindstone and carry on.”

There are also a variety of reasons why a man might stay in an abusive relationship: the fear of being alone, fear of losing his children, economic considerations, or quite simply, love.

“I stayed in the marriage because I believed marriage is for life,” says Easton. 

When these men finally do leave their abusive relationships, they often find themselves trapped in an unresponsive legal system, claims Youra. He says many of the men he counsels have tried to lay charges against their wives, but the police rarely cooperate. When charges are laid, he says men are usually laughed out of court. In the process, their wives often decide to slap them with counter-charges.

“A wife’s lawyer will advise her that her best resources, if she is going to be charged [with assault against her husband], is to counter-charge, and try to prove that [her husband] started the whole thing,” says Youra. “It’s a sorry state of affairs, but that’s the way it is.” 

Constable Nosworthy is not surprised to hear that police on a domestic violence call might mistakenly arrest the husband when in fact, the wife was the one doing all of the abuse. “There is a real perceptual problem among members of the police force,” she says. “Some police officers walk into a situation with certain biases which make it difficult to take men’s claims of abuse seriously.”

While the police and the legal system shows little compassion for these men, social services won’t even acknowledge them. When Easton tried to put his nightmare behind him, he encountered an entirely new one. He lost custody of his child, he lost his job due to all the stress he was going through, and he lost his house.

Easton knew he needed help. But there was none available. “I called the Assaulted Women’s Help-Line and they actually laughed at me.” Easton says he finally resorted to his city councillor for advice, only to be assured that there really were no services for abused men.

“I honestly thought I was isolated and probably a very rare case. But it didn’t minimize the fact that I needed some help.” That’s when Easton decided to help himself and start up his own support group. It turned out that he was not alone after all.

The cornerstone of the Easton Alliance is its Male Survivors of Domestic Violence program. Since its creation, the organization has dealt with over 1000 individuals. Easton says they average about five phone calls a day. 

Despite those numbers, many women’s groups argue that husband abuse is a non-issue. Women who hit their husbands are only acting in self-defence, they say, and the studies which suggest that men and women are equally abusive only look at the end result, ignoring the context in which the violence took place and who initiated it. 

Debbie de Gale is a social worker with the Elizabeth Fry Society in Winnipeg. She is starting up a group called Women for Change to counsel females who abuse their partners. De Gale claims that most of the women charged for assaulting their husbands were only acting in self-defense. 

Research suggests, however, that this is not necessarily the case. Sommer’s study found that male-perpetrated violence was in self-defense 14.8 per cent of the time; female perpetrated violence was in self-defense 9.9 per cent of the time. 

Gregorash says that of the 20 abused men she interviewed for her book, none initiated the violence and most did not hit their wives back. “While there are some men out there who abuse their wives and feel it’s o’kay to do that,” she says, “most men subscribe to the norm that you just don’t hit a woman.”

When is it not in self-defense, why do women hit? Experts suggest many of the same reasons why men do.

“I find this happens because of a lack of power in someone’s life,” says Easton. Feelings of insecurity and powerlessness often cause some people to abuse their partners either physically or emotionally in order to give themselves a sense of control in their own lives.

Sommer says both the men and women in her study who were abusive “lacked the resources to manage conflict in a more appropriate manner.” Her study also revealed that women who had witnessed their mothers strike their fathers were 12.5 times more likely to do the same.

What will it take for society to recognize that men are also victims of spousal abuse?

“The first step is for more men to come forward,” says Sommer.

“People have to realize that it’s not a gender issue,” says Easton. “It’s a human one.”

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