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> Columns > Boston Globe > Family violence strikes men, too

Family violence strikes men, too

By Cathy Young | January 9, 2006

LAST MONTH, in a little-noticed end-of-the-year action, Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. The final version includes text that, for the first time, recognizes male victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is a step in the right direction of a balanced approach to family violence -- but only the first step.

The new language, included due to lobbying by men's advocacy groups, states that authorized federal grants can be given to programs that ''provide assistance to female victims, male victims, or both." There has been confusion over this issue in the past, and the clarification is most welcome.

No less important, the bill directs the General Accounting Office to ''conduct a study to establish the extent to which men, women, youth, and children are victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and the availability to all victims of shelter, counseling, legal representation, and other services commonly provided to victims of domestic violence." The text of this provision specifies that the study should rely not only on crime statistics but on public health and academic studies and should investigate whether services are available to male as well as female victims.

Whether men as well as women are victims of domestic violence has been the subject of many arguments and dueling statistics. Men's rights activists cite numerous family violence surveys showing that women are just as likely to be aggressors in the home as men, but often downplay the fact that women are at greater risk of injury. Battered women's groups point to Justice Department statistics from crime victimization surveys showing that 85 percent of intimate partner violence victims are women, but fail to mention that these surveys miss many violent acts that the victim does not regard as a crime. The 1996 National Violence Against Women Survey, cosponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Justice, found that 38 percent of the approximately 2.3 million Americans who experience partner violence every year are men.

Too often, abused men have to fight an uphill battle to be taken seriously. Men are presumed to be able to take care of themselves because they are generally bigger and stronger; but that advantage can be neutralized by a weapon, a surprise attack, or a man's reluctance to use force against a woman even to fend off her assault. (The most reliable research shows that up to 35 percent of victims injured by violent partners are men.) Yet many domestic violence programs offer minimal or no services to men, and male victims often have to deal with attitudes that are considered Neanderthal if expressed toward women -- for instance, that they must have done something to provoke the assault.

Bias against male victims is harmful not only to men. It hurts children whose fathers are unable to remove them from abusive households and women whose brothers or sons are victims of abuse. Actually, it's bad for all women, who will never be truly equal unless they are held equally accountable for their actions.

The recognition of violence toward men in the new law is an important achievement. But some major problems with the legislation remain.

First, the law has created a symbiotic relationship between the federal government and the battered women's advocacy movement. State coalitions against domestic violence play a vital role in the implementation of programs and policies based on the law. Unfortunately, most of these groups espouse a radical feminist ideology that reduces the complex issues of abuse to ''women good, men bad" -- a secular religion with the patriarchy as the devil. Take this tidbit from the website of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence: ''All men benefit from the violence of batterers. There is no man who has not enjoyed the male privilege resulting from male domination reinforced by the use of physical violence. . . . Battering by individual men keeps all women in line." This is hateful stuff.

Congress should have directed each state to create a domestic violence board to oversee the implementation of Violence Against Women Act programs, with no more than a quarter or a third of the seats going to members of battered women's groups and the rest to scholars, mental health professionals, and community activists.

In addition, the gender-specific title of the legislation still perpetuates the notion that violence against women deserves special concern. A gender-neutral title such as ''The Family Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention Act" would have sent a much better message.

Still, the bill creates new opportunities to ensure fairness in domestic violence services, and that counts for a great deal. These opportunities should not be missed.

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