’Are you really going to let a woman beat you up?’
This was the question posed by a Finnish emergency telephone number operator in 2009 to a frightened man who was calling to report that his wife was physically assaulting him (Kaleva, 2010). It is disturbing to think about what was taking place. The man had previously had to escape to a safehouse with his children in order to get away from his abusive wife. When he returned to retrieve clothes for himself and for his children, his wife attacked him again, and when he tried to get help, he was mocked (ibid.). This man’s cry for help over the phone serves as a great j’accuse against our very society, and our common way of thinking: the case received widespread publicity in Finland, and led to temporarily increased discussion about those cases of intimate partner violence (IPV) where men are the victims. Sadly, the topic is still largely ignored, not only in Finland, but in other countries and on the international level as well.
The emergency telephone number operator’s reaction is part of a troubling phenomenon where men’s experiences of violence are belittled. Many men are embarrassed about being victimised by their partners, and they are often afraid of the results of speaking out. It is easy to see why. Indeed, just as vast numbers of female victims of the same brutality remain silent, it is likely that most male victims of IPV do not report the crimes committed against them. As a result, the suffering of men at the hands of their partners is often either ignored or forgotten about. Indeed, sometimes it is even glorified: countless films, TV series, and other culture products use portrayals of IPV committed against men for comic relief. We have all seen this far too many times. Somehow, seeing a man being slapped or kicked by his partner is perceived as being humorous. In reality, there is nothing amusing about domestic violence, no matter who the victim is, and no matter who the perpetrator is. All human beings, without distinction, have the right to safety.
Portraying IPV against men in a humorous way is also problematic from a cultural and social perspective: by constantly showing boys and young men that their minds and bodies are acceptable targets of violence, our society is socialising males into condoning brutality committed against them. The mental and social well-being of males is thus at best delegated to a mere footnote. As a result, many men who face IPV believe everything is, in some perverted way, just as it should be. It is funny when men are attacked, you see. Matters are made worse when a man has children who see their father being assaulted at home, while he continues to pretend that nothing is wrong. Thus, the vicious cycle of abuse is in danger of being strengthened and continued in the next generation. This is a massive failure on the part of our existing social reality.
IPV takes place in all kinds of relationships, in all social classes, ethnic groups, and all over the world. Indeed, IPV is present in both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships. Often women are attacked by men, sometimes women are assaulted by women, in some cases men are attacked by women, and sometimes men are victimised by other men. Since a great deal of IPV experienced by both men and women goes unreported, it is unclear how many relationships are violent. Thus, even the best surveys fail to reveal the whole truth, but they do give some valuable information. In America, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey carried out in 2011 by Matthew J. Breiding et al. (2011), ’severe physical violence by an intimate partner (including acts such as being hit with something hard, being kicked or beaten, or being burned on purpose) [is] experienced by an estimated 22.3% of women and 14.0% of men during their lifetimes’. According to a research by Markku Heiskanen and Elina Ruuskanen (2010), 16 % of Finnish men have experienced IPV. In the United Kingdom, data from Home Office statistics and the British Crime Survey show that between 2004 and 2005, and between 2008 and 2009, approximately 40% of domestic violence victims were male (Campbell, 2010). Thus, while as a whole women seem to face IPV more often than men, the fact remains that a significant number of victims are male. In light of this fact, how little this topic is discussed is truly worrying.
In recent years, awareness about violence against women has laudably been raised. The shameful phenomenon of men brutalising their female partners sexually, physically, or mentally, or even killing them, has become a widely discussed and examined issue, as it should be: there is nothing acceptable, virtuous, or honourable in assaulting one’s partner. Seeing women’s bodies as objects that can be used and abused at will is disgraceful and disgusting. The fact that the President of the United States of America has openly admitted, without showing any remorse, that he has committed sexual assault against women only goes to show that there is still far too much work to be done in teaching humanity about each and every woman’s right to safety. That this is part of our reality in 2017 is truly distressing.
Though much remains to be done with regard to protecting women’s bodies from abuse, similar advances must be made in raising awareness about violence committed against men as well. Our society often thinks men can just ’take it’, no matter what ’it’ might be. If a man faces IPV, it is often thought it is probably his fault, or at the very least, something that does not really, truly matter. He is alive, is he not? While many men are indeed mentally remarkably strong, and capable of withstanding tremendous pressure, this is not a quality shared by all, and even if were a universal ability, IPV is something nobody – without any distinction – should be forced to face, under any circumstances, ever. Therefore, why should we be so eager to disregard the experiences of men who have suffered IPV? If our generation allows this social issue to remain undiscussed, how will we explain this failure to our future children? If we do not condemn the most egregious flaws of our society, our children will, and they, together with history itself, will also condemn us for having failed to address those flaws in the first place.
About the author: Erik Immonen is the Vice-President of the Social Democratic Students of Helsinki and a proud graduate of the second edition of the School of Democracy.
Breiding, M. J.; Smith, S. G.; Basile, K. C.; Walters, M. L.; Chen, J.; Merrick, M. T. (2011). Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization — National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011.
Campbell, D. (2010). More than 40% of domestic violence victims are male, report reveals.
Heiskanen, M. & Ruuskanen, E. (2010). Tuhansien iskujen maa. Miesten kokema väkivalta Suomessa.
Kaleva. (2010). Hätäkeskus perheenisälle: Otat sä naiselta pataan,