Social stigma makes it difficult for male domestic violence victims to seek help

A Cumbria academic says social stigma is making it more difficult for male domestic victims to ask for help.

Applied psychology lecturer Dr Elizabeth Bates commented as men’s welfare campaigners said that they feared an “unconscious bias” may be causing police to ignore psychological abuse of vulnerable men by a partner and focus only on female victims.

Statistics show that a new law against engaging in controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship is overwhelmingly being used to prosecute men.

The law was introduced in 2015.

Between then and March 2017, there were 4,246 allegations of coercive and controlling behaviour recorded. Prosecutions were brought against 272 people – but only four of these were women

A Cumbrian police chief has insisted that the force’s officers treat all such cases without any gender bias.

But Dr Bates, who lectures at the University of Cumbria, said: “We do see men’s experiences but as a society we don’t take them as seriously because of perceptions about what domestic violence looks like; and because men are supposed to be bigger and stronger we don’t think they can be a victim in the same way.”

Dr Bates does not criticise the agencies involved in battling domestic violence, saying everybody was doing their best. “But men face a lot more barriers in reporting their experiences,” she said.

“There’s an additional layer of stigma, making it incredibly difficult for them to talk about domestic abuse.”

To illustrate that stigma to her students, Dr Bates routinely quotes an account of a man telling his friends that his partner had told him he was not allowed to go out tonight.

“People would laugh when they hear that,” she said.

“They’d say that he was properly under the thumb. Yet if a girlfriend said it about a male partner, that he would not her go out tonight, it would be interpreted in a far more serious way.”

Dr Bates quoted one male victim who contacted her and told of asking a charity for help. “He was told to ‘man up,’” she said, adding that such a response was entirely inappropriate.

She added that her research showed how it was the psychological impact of controlling behaviour that most affected male abuse victims, not the physical violence.

Detective Superintendent Vicki Ellis, Cumbria Constabulary, said: “I can categorically state that officers in Cumbria do not hold any bias when investigating criminal offences committed against men or women.

“The offence for coercive and controlling behaviour was introduced in late 2015 and since then we have seen many people prosecuted for committing this type of offence.

“We are incredibly keen to highlight that we will thoroughly investigate any allegation of domestic abuse, regardless of the gender of the victim.

“Domestic abuse should not be tolerated by any person and I’d encourage both men and women to report what is happening to them.”

But it now fears some enforcers think it is only a problem faced by women.

Last year 82 women were killed by a current or former partner compared with 13 men, yet one in three of reported instances of domestic abuse involve a male complainant.

Earlier this year, Jordan Worth, 22, became the first woman to be convicted of the new offence.

She subjected her partner Alex Skeel, also 22, to a series of vicious assaults, leaving him with major head trauma and serious burns.

Mark Brooks is from the ManKind Initiative, a helpline for male victims of domestic abuse which campaigned for the new coercive and controlling behaviour law.

He Brooks said: “The question is whether there is an unconscious bias in police and prosecutors when they apply or think about coercive control legislation and if their biases are actually stopping them applying the law to male victims in the way they apply the law – rightly – to female victims.”

ManKind is also concerned that cultural stereotypes of the “whipped” boyfriend can mask signs of more serious controlling behaviour and coercion.

Mr Brooks said: “If a woman is going through that situation where she’s being isolated from support networks like friends, family or colleagues, people start to ask questions.”

He said that men who are perceived as being dominated by their partner are often mocked by their friends, who might not recognise how serious the situation can become.

“You would never say to a woman, ‘Are you under the thumb of your boyfriend?’ without being concerned about it,” he said.

Published: 15 August 2018 7:50AM