Men in domestic violence shelters

Grøvdal, Y., & Jonassen, W. (2015). Menn på krisesenter [Men in domestic violence shelters] Norwegian only. (Rapport 5/2015).

We know relatively little about women’s violence against men in Norway. The focus for research and government policy, as well as for intervention by the relevant authorities, has been the situation of women and children as victims of violence in close relations. Men, on the other hand, have been described as the perpetrators of such violence.

A more nuanced picture has, however, resulted from research during the last decade or so. Violence surveys as well as qualitative research with men subjected to partner violence by women, have contributed to bringing the lives of men impacted by intimate partner violence onto the Norwegian political agenda. Indeed, the research done shows that men are first and foremost subject to episodic, conflict- based violence with mostly minor or no injuries. A relatively high number of men are also subject to psychological violence, challenging their self-esteem and integrity. Several prevalence studies show that women are more frequently subjected to serious, repeated, control based and potentially dangerous physical (and psychological) violence, what Michael Johnson calls patriarchal- or intimate terrorism (Johnson, 1995, 2008). This is not to say that men too are not exposed to such violence. Studies show that men also experience potentially dangerous physical violence from female partners, and that violent relationships take a hard toll on men as well.

Women’s shelters becoming refuges for men

In January 2010 the Norwegian shelters were officially opened for men subject to violence in close relations. This was a big leap for the shelters and their employees: For more than 30 years they had concentrated on helping women who had been battered and their children. However, the fact that the authorities had decided to establish the shelters by law, made it near impossible to continue excluding men from the services of the shelters. Doing so would have been considered discriminatory and at odds with laws on gender-based discrimination. This is not to say that the process to the passing of the law was an easy one. Feminists and researchers alike argued that letting men into the shelters would constitute discrimination against battered women. Among other things, the hearing of the proposed law led to the physical separation of men and women within the shelters. Men may be housed at the same geographical location as women as long as there is no contact between the sexes, or they may be placed in totally different locations in houses, apartments and sometimes even in hotels. Nevertheless the authorities have taken responsibility for the security and wellbeing of all citizens, regardless of their sex.

This study, based on qualitative interviews with 16 men who had sought help at three different shelters, is a contribution to our knowledge about men’s experiences with shelters. More or less implicitly, it also sheds light on how it feels to be a man who is subjected to violence by a (female) partner, both personally and facing “society” understood as health- and social institutions, the general surroundings etc. The men we interviewed were exposed to a wide array of violent acts by women and – in a few cases – by other men. We are talking about psychological violence, milder forms of physical violence resulting from conflicts and quarrels, as well as repeated, potentially dangerous and/or lethal physical violence. Research about men in shelters is scarce and probably for a good reason. It would be fair to say that Norway is a pioneering country when it comes to letting men into the former women’s shelters. The research on women’s violence against men is more comprehensive, especially in the USA. In this project we primarily apply research from Norway and other Nordic countries. The bulk of this research exists in the form of Master theses, a not uncommon situation when we deal with ”new” themes on the research agenda.

Men’s experiences with violence and their encounters with the health- and social services and the police

The findings from our interviews largely tie in with the results of existing Research when it comes to how men react to being exposed to violence from a female partner. To put it simply, many men find it very challenging to live with a partner who perpetrates violence, not least when this partner is a woman. We know that being exposed to violence may influence a person’s view of him- or herself. However, research shows that men tend to talk about the violence in a more ”gendered” way than women who are subject to violence in close relations. Existing masculine stereotypes or ideals are tested: A man is not supposed to be subject to violence by a woman, and fighting back collides with the ideal of a ”real man”, although some do it from time to time. When the damage is done many men are met with the expectation that they must sort out the problems themselves. In some cases this is in accordance with the man’s own views of being a ”real man”. Although the idea of what is masculine is changing, stereotypes seem to persist and even to be ”nourished” in men’s contact with the police, health care institutions and the social welfare system.

Women who are subject to violence in close relations very often keep quiet about it. Many do not seek help, they frequently do not tell a doctor or social worker that their partner uses violence when they do so, and quite a large number of women stay in violent relationships for a long time.

The men we interviewed reacted in a very similar way. Like women, many men try their best to cope with the situation on their own. Like women, men assume responsibility and guilt for the violence. Like women, many men feel sorry for the person who commits the violence: She (and sometimes he) may have been through traumatic life experiences, and handle complicated emotions by attacking the partner verbally or physically. There are often children in the relationship and men too wish to protect and keep contact with their children. Staying in the relationship may sometimes feel like the right strategy when it comes to keeping check on the children’s situation, regardless of the ”costs”. Like women, many men feel ashamed about being exposed to violence by someone who should presumably be their ”safe haven”. Men’s reasons for feeling shameful may also not differ very much from those of women. Most of us want to be considered independent, rational and reflective, yet staying with someone who beats and/or harasses you can easily lead others to regard you as being quite the opposite of these things.

Regardless of all these similarities men’s reactions seem to differ from most women’s on one point. Many men fear other people’s reactions if they should choose to tell their stories about the violence they endure. Quite a few have not been taken seriously or have been met with efforts to minimize the seriousness of their experiences. Others have experienced not being believed at all, and in addition many have been told to deal with the situation themselves. Quite a few of our interviewees also talk about how the women who have perpetrated the violence have been believed at the expense of the men, and about how being a man just seems to make one less credible when it comes to violence in close relations. One consequence for the men is the fear of losing contact with their children.

While many of the men we talked to waited a long time before seeking assistance at the shelters, they eventually broke the barriers holding them back. For many it meant putting aside their understanding of themselves as men, as well as their perceptions of the shelters as places solely «for women». Hardly any of the men had considered the shelters as a refuge for them. Even those men who knew about the shelters thought of them as enterprises for women, and not for any women: The shelters were regarded as refuges for the most threatened and vulnerable women, women in serious trouble. Some of the men, on the other hand, did not view their situation in such a way. However, in some cases the men were told about the shelters by family, friends or colleagues who knew something about their predicament and encouraged, or even persuaded, them to seek assistance. Some men learned about the shelters from the police, the child welfare service or the social services.

Few, if any, of the men in our study contacted the shelters in great haste, in acute situations the way it seems that many women subjected to intimate partner violence do. Not all of those we interviewed had stayed at a shelter either. Instead they had received advice and engaged in dialogues with the shelter workers on the phone, or visited the shelters in the daytime. Shelter workers we talked with expressed the view that most men who seek aid from the shelters seem to have taken time to reflect upon their total situation before they make contact. According to the shelter workers, more often than in the case of women, men have thought about what they want to make of the future. As we do not know much about what happened just prior to the men seeking assistance at the shelters, we are not in a position to say whether these observations are relevant for the men we interviewed. Nor do we know the context of the statistics from the shelters that show that a slightly smaller percentage of men than women, return to the person who committed the violence. Some allege that men have access to better resources than women when it comes to income and housing. Consequently they can make more choices than women when being subject to violence by a partner. However, we have very little factual evidence in support of such a conclusion, and even if we had, we could probably not make a general statement about this. On the contrary, some of the men in our study, not least some with a minority ethnic background, were in a precarious situation both socially and economically and hardly had any choices. According to experience of the shelter workers, men who are subject to violence do not necessarily insist on the right to remain in their home even when it is formally their property, and will therefore need to find a place to stay when leaving the violent relationship permanently or temporarily.

Even if men in some cases may seem more reluctant to seek help than women, some aspects of life with a partner using violence did speed up the help seeking process. Fear for the security of children, their own or the children of their partner from an earlier relationship seemed to be a very important incentive to find assistance and refuge.

Experiences with the shelters

Men who had been subject to violence found long sought-after peace and a feeling of safety at the shelters. Feeling safe was also about more than physically having left a partner and about the technical safety measures at the shelters. The men first and foremost praised the way they had been welcomed and taken care of by the shelter workers, and included this into their reflections on what it is to feel secure. The critical, and even negative, attitude that many of the shelter workers demonstrated in the process of making a law that would give men the right to make use of the shelters, seemed not to have influenced their work. The men we interviewed were generally very satisfied with the way they had been received and we have no cause to assume that the shelter workers treated the men differently from their women clients. The fear that no one would believe them to have been subjected to partner violence disappeared in the encounter with the shelters. For many of the men this was the first time they felt they were taken seriously by service providers in the social welfare system. Several of them were quite explicit about what it meant to them finally to be able to talk about the violence with someone who really listened. The general view of many of the shelter workers, that men only need to  talk about their predicament once, was greatly modified in our interviews with the men. Many told us about repeated conversations with shelter workers on the subject of their lives coping with violence and underscored how important these conversations had been to them.

The shelter workers were overall praised for the job they did. Among other things the men talked about the invaluable help they got to obtain legal assistance and finding a home after the stay at the shelters. Their satisfaction with the shelters may partly be due to the low expectations most of them had to begin with. On the other hand practically all of the men we interviewed found that the assistance provided by the shelter workers made a real difference in some way or another.

Any criticism of the shelters was mainly directed at financial or structural conditions, and the shelter workers were hardly ever included when the men made negative remarks about the shelters. The shelter workers were for the most part commended for the excellent job they did with modest resources and limited premises. The critical remarks made in a recent evaluation of the shelters by Norwegian Social Research (NOVA) were absent in our conversations with the men. The researchers from NOVA found the shelter service for men unsatisfactory when it came to security measures, community with others in the same situation and indoor and outdoor activities (Bakketeig, Stang, Madsen, Smette & Stefansen, 2014). Some of the men did however find it difficult to share a residence with other men and had expected a somewhat better standard of the apartments or houses. A few expressed some surprise when they discovered that the shelter they stayed at did not have any men employed as shelter workers, but most were still very satisfied with the women workers. Some men said they actually preferred to talk to women about their lifesituation. All in all our material consists of quite a few statements supporting stereotypical views of women as good care givers and dialogue partners, both by the men and by the shelter workers.

Challenges and need for Research

The problem of women’s violence against men in close relations is slowly, but definitely, making its entry on the political agenda in Norway. It has become a subject in the media as well as in research. However, the change away from a sole focus on women subjected to violence has been slow, and it is likely to take even longer before women’s use of violence against their partners will be seen as anything but a “detail” or a “curiosity” that must not draw our attention from men’s violence against women. It must of course be said, that the risk for women of being exposed to potentially dangerous intimate partner violence is greater than the risk for men. Still, men too experience potentially harmful physical and psychological violence. We probably also face the challenge of removing existing obstacles that prevent men from seeking help and from getting help. Decades after men’s violence against women was put on the political agenda obstacles both in the criminal justice system and in the social welfare system still make trouble, not least for the women subjected to battering themselves. Research also shows that many find it very difficult to talk to others about the violence they have experienced. The work that is being done in the social services and in the police seems rather influenced by stereotypical notions of women and men, and the experiences of the service providers themselves also play a role. Even though the needs of people who are exposed to violence in close relations do not seem to be specific in a gendered way, sex and/or gender still appear to influence the work of the service providers, either consciously or unconsciously. From what we know so far, this may result in men ending off worse than women and not getting the help they need. In order to better the situation we may need to initiate a process of increasing awareness, and for that reason we believe there is a need for more research into the attitudes of employees both in the criminal justice system and in the health- and social welfare system when it comes to women’s violence against men in close relations.