An abused spouse is arrested when police arrive on the scene. Another abused spouse sees charges dropped against the abuser because of “insufficient evidence,” even though the abuser admitted guilt to cops and the court. These situations are real, but the victims of these abusive relationships weren’t women—they were men, men who now have a support group created by a therapist trying to expand the discussion about what constitutes domestic violence and who its victims are.
“Abuse is not gender-specific,” says therapist Hilary Madsen, who runs the Real Relationships support group from her Sugar House office. “It has to do with one person trying to have power and control over another person.” Madsen says that, clinically speaking, abuse doesn’t only entail punching and hitting but also includes verbal abuse, “emotional terrorism” or one parent using children against the other. Given these factors, Madsen says, men are abused as often as women—and often without the same support from friends, family or even the law.
Since June, Madsen’s support group has provided men who have faced abuse with an outlet to share their experiences, review current research and literature on domestic violence and helped them learn ways to avoid the cycle of abuse so they can have healthier relationships.
Allen Malstrom felt almost as much abuse from the legal system as he did from his wife. On numerous occasions, Malstrom says, his wife struck him and then immediately called the police. Despite the fact that Malstrom was bleeding and injured by the time the police showed up and despite his wife having no injuries, he was arrested every time as the perpetrator.
“It was terrible,” Malstrom says. “Not only did I have to deal with this domestic situation and getting hit, but then going to jail for it.” Eventually, Malstrom decided to take out a protective-custody order against her. At the hearing, the judge reversed the order and gave his wife a protective order against him. In the ruling, the judge cited that he “was obviously bigger than her.”
Shortly after that court ruling, Malstrom lost custody of his children. The last time he saw them was 10 years ago, when they were taken out of the courtroom, kicking and screaming. “It’s been hard to bear. It’s a cross I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Madsen says that current domestic-violence laws nationally—while hard-fought accomplishments of the women’s movement—have also unfortunately reinforced the notion that men are only abusers and never the abused. This, she believes, is based on the Duluth model of domestic-violence treatment, which contends that domestic violence is caused by male privilege. Madsen, however, points to research conclusions made by California State University professor Martin Fiebert, who surveyed research arguing that women initiate domestic violence as much as men do, oftentimes using weapons to compensate for their smaller size, and with 38 percent of injured victims being men.
Other studies, however, indicate women initiated intimate-partner violence in self-defense. A study in the 2010 treatment journal Trauma Violence Abuse studied 23 surveys of female domestic violence and found in all surveys, women cited self-defense as motivation for their violence, although the authors of the study also pointed out that retaliation and self-defense were often conflated in surveys and that two-thirds of surveyed women did cite coercive control as a motivating factor for their violence.
For Alissa Black, a crime-victims advocate with the Murray Police Department, male privilege still causes domestic violence—just not for men. “If they’re trying to be gender neutral and take out the paradigm of male privilege, that’s good for [male victims’] situation,” Black says. “But it doesn’t work for female victims of domestic violence, where male privilege [causes abuse] on a daily basis.” Black also says that there are as many resources—including victim restitution and access to shelters, for example—for male victims of domestic violence as there are for female victims. Whether or not male victims are ready to seek help is another issue. Madsen says many male victims meet resistance—not just with the legal system but also with family and friends when it comes to seeking help.
“There’s a lot of compassion for women and children in these situations,” Madsen says. “For men, there’s not compassion. If anything, there’s mockery.”
“Brandon,” a member of the group who asked that his name be withheld, succeeded in at least getting a charge of domestic violence to stick against his then live-in girlfriend, but it cost him a close friendship in the process.
“This girlfriend living with me earlier this year was abusing alcohol and painkillers, and she would get violent,” Brandon says. “She was verbally abusive, too, swearing at me and calling me all sorts of names; she accused me of being with other women, smacked me … she also bit me on several occasions.” Brandon says the final encounter happened when he was taking his girlfriend home from a concert and refused to let her drive because she’d had too much to drink. As they struggled over the keys, Brandon says, he was struck repeatedly and his girlfriend leaned over from the passenger seat and bit him on the back, hard enough to break skin.
“It was really crazy,” Brandon says, adding that she bit him several other times at his apartment, but the difference here was that a nearby paramedic witnessed the attack and could vouch that Brandon was the victim of the attack. While the charge stuck, he still had to take the protective order himself down to the jail to serve it on his girlfriend. A mutual friend of Brandon’s and his girlfriend told Brandon that his ex was sorry about the assault and they should just reconcile, calling Brandon’s protective order “chicken shit.”
“Terry,” another member of the group who asked that his real name not be used because he still has pending legal actions in his case, took out a protective order against his wife in July, hoping to gain court-ordered therapy for her in order to save their marriage. Terry says she had often verbally abused him in front of their 4-year-old daughter, struck him on multiple occasions and once threw a plate against his face, an injury resulting in a scar above his lip.
Instead of the court ordering anger management, the court “supported” the couple’s existing marriage counseling, with the only change being that he had lost his parenting rights. While his wife had admitted to abusing him to the police as well as in court, Terry was told by local prosecutors that there was insufficient evidence to charge domestic violence.
Without a set schedule, Terry only sees his daughter a few hours a week.
“When I go to pick up my daughter at her grandparents place, my daughter tells me, ‘You can come inside, Daddy. I’ll make sure Mommy doesn’t yell at you or hurt you,’ ” Terry says.
For Madsen, it’s hard not to notice the disparities in the treatment. In many situations, she says, court-ordered domestic--violence treatment for men is automatic and under no circumstance would a court simply shrug its shoulders and say two admissions of guilt are “insufficient” evidence of domestic violence if it happened to a woman.
“People get it when you switch gender roles,” Madsen says. “People pick up that it’s not a gender issue—it’s abuse.”
For more information about the Real Relationship support group contact Hilary Madsen, 801-696-3166, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org