THE BLOG
11/23/2016 12:33 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2017

Challenging Preconceptions: When Men Experience Domestic Violence

For decades dialogue about domestic violence has been dominated by a familiar images of cowering wives and brutish men about to clout them. Not only is this image endlessly reminted by the media, campaigners, charities, politicians and the police, it feels intuitively right too. Most men are physically bigger and stronger than most women and comic books and fairy tales abound in muscly villains and damsels in distress.

There's just one problem with this image: real life is far more complicated. Yes, the majority of domestic violence victims are women - that greater upper body strength does make a difference - but many more men than you may think find themselves trapped in abusive relationships. Estimates of the total percentage of domestic violence victims who are men range between one third and 40 per cent. That's roughly 700,000 a year.

After years of denial and dismissal, awareness of this awkward fact is growing, albeit slowly and grudgingly. The truth is, men being abused doesn't really fit the cultural narrative. In the collective imagination, men are strong, capable, and self-possessed - or its flipside: evil villains worthy of the sternest condemnation. The one thing they are not allowed to be is victims: that role is seemingly reserved for women and children.

One of the commonest reactions to a man being attacked by a woman is awkward laughter. Watch this viral video on YouTube, in which two actors pretend to be a couple. In one scene he apparently becomes physically abusive towards her, and then in another the roles are reversed and she hits him. When he is the aggressor, people rush to intervene. When he is the victim, people laugh.

This disturbing double standard has its roots, I believe, in misconceptions. If men are stronger than women, then how can they be beaten up by their wives and girlfriends? But this assumption, which appears to make sense, ignores two key points. Firstly, most men are strongly socialised by their families and the society around them to never hit women. While this message clearly doesn't always doesn't sink in, it does register deeply with most. We feel a special abhorrence for men who hit women. Some women, I am convinced, get so used to this situation that they end up feeling they can belt their boyfriends or hit their husbands without any worry that he might punch back.

The other crucial factor reflects everything we have already discussed. Men ensnared in abusive relationships may feel, with some justification, that they will not be believed if they report the violence. The Police will look at them askance and suspect them of actually being the perpetrator - or their partners will accuse them of abuse and they will actually be arrested. Some domestic violence openly promote this attitude: that men who complain of violence by their partners are actually covering for their own violence.

Research from Teesside University earlier this year highlighted the extent to which men who report violence are still treated with suspicion by the police and are very vulnerable to false accusations by their abusers.

The result is an odd air of acceptability around female-on-male violence - it's a joke, a laugh, something that needn't be taken seriously. But attitudes are slowly changing. When actress Kelly Brook wrote about punching ex-boyfriends in her autobiography, the result was not universal tittering but anger and condemnation from many quarters (although there was some tittering too).

Meanwhile the number of shelter beds open to male victims is growing, albeit slowly.

Some truly shocking tales of female violence have appeared in the media in recent years. In 2014, Gemma Hollings was found guilty of slashing open her partner's neck with a broken bottle in Darwen, Lancashire, and received eight years in jail. Commenting on the case, DC Jenny Berry admitted that domestic violence against men was "very much under-reported".

More recently there the death of solicitor David Edwards was widely reported. Also from Lancashire, he died of stab wounds inflicted by his "bullying and violent" wife. She got 20 years.

As terrible as they were for the men affected and their families, such reports can only help to raise awareness of male victims and continue to dissolve old stereotypes.