The Trap of Masculinity

Publication date: 08/2015

“You are not allowed to be a victim, and if you are no one will believe you.”

"In the beginning there were feelings and then fear and then shame. It is hard for a man to admit he is being beaten by a woman." Maxime Gaget breaks down during a court hearing in Paris, France on May 25th, where his ex-wife is accused of torturing him for six consecutive years.

Zakia Medkour was forcing her husband to eat sponges and beating him brutally to the degree that he had to undergo eight surgeries to fix parts of his face. She also denied him access to the toilet and forced him to sleep on the floor.

To put it bluntly, 34-year-old Maxime Gaget is a victim of domestic violence. Yes, he is a man abused by his wife. And if that comes as a surprise, imagine how shocking it would be if you discovered that this is neither a new phenomenon nor a rare one, even if men don’t usually report their abuse. And that’s because behind people’s closed doors, stereotypes disappear, regardless of region or culture.

According to the latest national survey of CDC in the United States in 2010, the difference between men and women who experience any form of violence from their intimate partners is less than 10%.

In other words, according to the survey 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men in the United States were victims of domestic violence during a 12 month period in 2010.

In Europe statistics are quite the same. However, it is worth noting that in Europe, NGO’s and scholars are the ones who have tried to publish any information on domestic violence against men, since public institutes and ministries are focused only on female victims.

That said, a recent study, published in 2015 by DOVE Institute, featuring six European countries – UK, Greece, Hungary, Portugal, Sweden, and Germany - has concluded that men have equal chances of being a victim. Moreover, the aspects of violence (verbal, psychological, physical, etc.) are not necessarily discerned by gender, meaning that any form of abuse can be practiced, whether the victim is a male or female.

The phenomenon is on the rise in many countries of Latin America, where psychologists and gender scholars have already warned that specific actions must be taken by states and authorities since many more men are comfortable in reporting their abuse by their partners. In Mexico, for example, even though there is no national survey of any kind, authorities claim that reports from battered men had increased dramatically in 2013, with police stations receiving an average of 250 complaints per month, according to a human rights organization, called Equidad.

Esther Pineda, a Venezuelan sociologist and founder of the Esther Pineda G Consultora de Género y Equidad Institution explains:

"Violence against women is a social problem of major proportions; the figures are alarming and seem to increase rather than decrease. However, violence against men is an issue that has to be addressed, and even though victim rates are not as big as women’s, it is impressive how high they are. We’ re facing changing times on how we perceive domestic violence since it seems that nowadays it goes in both directions and we must take action."

The most impressive research, however, was published in Australia. A men’s right group called One in Three found that 1 in 3 victims of domestic violence within one year are men. Furthermore, research from the 2012 ABS Personal Safety Survey and Australian Institute of Criminology showed that both men and women in Australia experience substantial levels of violence.

"They don't believe I can be a victim"

However, this research wasn’t very well accepted by feminist groups. Jane Gilmore, author and feminist activist, responding to the findings wrote, among others, on April 30, on the Australian website 'Daily Life': "The One in Three claim could be described more accurately as a campaign against efforts to address men's violence against women."

"All I can say is that it is a pity that some people avert their glances to violence," answered Greg Millan, member of the 'One in Three' campaign.

It seems, though, that Australia is not the only place where male victims are being put into question as non-existent, or at best as an insignificant minority. In Ireland, for example, when the volunteer organization AMEN releases their annual reports, they always receive criticism and doubt.

"When I present the results to official organizations and the government, I always have to prove everything. They scrutinize every detail; I have to persuade them that what I am showing is a 100% verified. In similar reports for female victims, organizations never have to prove a thing. Even in the funding that we get, we have to justify every penny that we spend, because they think that violence against men is not such a big thing to work for. Well, it is," says Niamh Farrel, manager of AMEN.

From an academic point of view, Tove Ingebjørg Fjell, professor in Department of Archeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion in the University of Bergen, Norway explains: "I do not know if there is any way of addressing this issue, without getting reactions from different groups. It is important that there is more research done on the topic, especially quantitative studies so that we learn more about the extent of the phenomenon on a global level."

"They think I am a joke"

Maxime Gaget’s case provoked various reactions, which demonstrate how societies, regardless of scientific research that indicate otherwise, perceive males in today’s culture. Media would use Gaget’s story as a way to generate the interest of the audiences who generally received the news as the 'weird story of the day.'

"We have cultural expectations as to how women and men act. A quite ordinary expectation of a man is that he is stronger than a woman, he is in charge, and if there is a violence problem, he is the violent partner. When the topic of partner violence against men comes up, we do not get what we expect: we get surprised, or we get mad, or we even laugh and joke about it. The idea of a violent woman does not fit in, there is no place for such a notion," explains professor Fjell.

Indeed, these gender stereotypes, where women are by definition the victims and men the perpetrators are well presented in a recent experiment of the British ManKind Institute.

The organization released in 2014 a video in which a couple fights in the middle of a park in London. In the first part, the man shouts and pushes his girlfriend against a fence, and people’s reflexes work simultaneously, trying to protect the woman. In the second part, the roles are reversed. Guess what. Passers-by either laugh or don’t even bother to take a look at the violence that unfolded right in front of their eyes.

"I have nowhere to turn to"

During the trial, Maxime Gaget heard his ex-wife blaming her non-proven "bipolar disorder" for her behavior and the past hard years as an abused infant. "I am sensitive, I have a heart and children to nurture," she cried during her hearing. Eventually, the court imposed an 18-month suspended sentence and a fine of 200,000 euros. It was a soft decision compared to the brutality of the crimes she had committed that shocked both Gaget and his advocates.

Well, at least this was a form of justice. In most cases, there is none.

"It’s a common story. One of the many that we regularly hear in AMEN from abused men who try to find some consolation," says Mrs. Farrel.

"He was physically abused for many years. It all began on their honeymoon, where she punched him several times. Thinking that it was just an isolated incident, he didn’t react. Then, few months after that honeymoon she gave birth to their first child, but she started beating him again. Then they had a second child, while the abuse continued. He couldn’t react because he already felt that he had to be strong to keep his family united.

She burned his hands with the iron box several times, but he didn’t scream, nor did he hit her back, as the kids were in the next room. He eventually called the guards, and the guards came, and they arrested him. They brought him to the hospital, and the police said to him 'we don’t believe that your wife did this. It looks like you did this to yourself'. So, his wife was never charged.

He ended up moving out of the house because he couldn’t put up with the abuse anymore. In the meantime, his children completely turned against him, because mommy never tells lies, so the court apart from charging him for leaving his family, decided to forbid him from seeing his children."

Apparently being a man is a disadvantage in cases of domestic violence. A gender-biased attitude is a common ground in all countries, whether we are referring to authorities or the judicial system. In Greece, the legislator casually refers to the victim as a "she," without even considering that a male could actually need legal protection in such a case!

But the nightmare is not over yet. Seeking for help and support is not an easy task for abused men. Apart from rare cases, males are excluded from shelters destined to host victims of violence. Such shelters can be hardly found mainly in Scandinavia or the United Kingdom, while the first official state shelter for men opened its door in the late 2000’s in The Netherlands.

On the other hand, in the whole of Australia, there is only one support program for battered men, an initiative run by an individual who put time and effort to establish a safe zone for the victims.

"Well, there was no such thing available in Australia to support male victims of DV [domestic violence, ed]. I still run the only training program in the country. There are probably 500 or more domestic violence programs running every year for victims, and none of them mention male victims of DV only women as victims and males as perpetrators," says Greg Millan, who struggles through donations to keep the shelter going on.

"I am not a man if I am a victim"

However, the biggest enemy that male victims have to face is their own masculinity. It is widely accepted by the psychiatric community that the males’ mentality usually functions under certain norms and rules, orders mainly by societies’ demands.

Men have learned all along that they have to have concrete characteristics, from which every action should be in accordance with their masculine nature.

According to scholars Michael Addis and James Mahalik of Boston University, it is often hard for a man to admit facing difficulties of whatever nature, let alone if he is beaten by his partner. Especially heterosexual males tend to hide under the rug most of their true emotions, in fear of being judged as "coward" or "helpless."

Furthermore, that stereotype prevents most male victims of identifying their situation as domestic violence, at least in the early stages, as their perception of violence is in direct line with society’s norms.

"There are three stages that men usually undergo during their suffering of abuse.

At first, they can’t recognize the problem as such, because the still follow the norms of society, meaning that a woman can never be an abuser.

The second stage is the recognition one, where a man eventually understands that he is being abused, but denies doing anything, thinking he might be deserving it.

And then, shame comes. They blame themselves for not being 'men enough,' as, apart from the suffering, their ego diminishes and they feel humiliated, believing they have disgraced their nature.

All of these may sound identical with female victims and in a way they are. But in case of men, their perception of masculinity is the driving force behind all of these stages," explains sociologist Esther Pinera.

The silent sufferer

After all of these, there’s no wonder why men hesitate reporting their abuse. Maxime Gaget has heard every single stereotyped word that he could hear. As he describes in his autobiographical book he published on April:

"I’ve heard I am not a real man. That a man would have defended himself or stop her in time. But I have a different view on masculinity. A man is not a plain package of testosterone. He is a human being who can make mistakes. A man has weaknesses, fears, and doubts. Just like a woman."