One in seven Australian men have experienced emotional abuse within a relationship, while one in 19 have experienced physical or sexual abuse from a current or former partner (both in straight and gay relationships).
All violence matters, and where men are the victims of domestic abuse, they should be heard and supported. This section explores how church communities can help.
Men’s experience of partner violence
Domestic abuse against men by either male or female partners is quite hidden, and this kind of abuse can be particularly hard for male victims for a number of reasons:
We are not used to thinking of men as victims
Statistically, domestic abuse of male victims is less common than of female victims, particularly where the abuser is a woman. This lack of recognition that relationship abuse can be committed against a man might make male victims less able to understand their experience as abuse.
Men are socialised not to see themselves as victims
From a young age, men are taught to ‘tough it out’ and not to express their emotions. Mainstream masculinity tells us that a man who needs help to deal with issues or problems is weak, vulnerable and incompetent. So when a man finds himself in an abusive relationship and in need of help, he may think his needs are wrong and somehow ‘unmanly’. He may also feel afraid to talk about what’s going on in his personal life, or that no one will believe him.
Men may feel ashamed about being victims
A male victim may feel that he has failed as a lover and partner, particularly if he has tried everything to improve the relationship. As a result, men who are abused by their partners are often reluctant to admit it, or will cover up what is happening.
Resources and support for male victims are often less visible
Men often have fewer friendships and smaller social networks than women, and need other support structures and services to help them escape an abusive relationship. However, it can seem like the majority of refuges and services for domestic violence victims are women-focused. This can make it hard for male victims to speak out about their experiences and seek help.
The truth is, abuse in any situation between any two people can cause significant trauma. All male victims deserve support and resources to help them feel safe.
Male abuse victims in the Bible
In the Bible we find several stories of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of men. In Sodom and Gomorrah the Angels (who were perceived to be men) were sexually harassed by the men of the city who wished to violently gang-rape them (Genesis 19). Joseph was sexually harassed and attempted sexually assault by Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39 - 40). And in the early Roman Empire, boys and male slaves could be sexually abused by their owner, master or benefactor without legal repercussion (1 Corinthians 6:9).
Jesus himself was an abuse victim. He was tortured, degraded and publicly executed; his chief abusers the religious leaders of his day. Given the Mediterranean worldview of the time, his forced stripping and public nakedness may also have been regarded as sexual abuse. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isa 53:3)
By having these stories recorded, scripture shows male abuse victims that they are not alone, that Jesus himself suffered abuse too, and that this kind of violence is very harmful and ought to be taken seriously.
Why male victims don’t leave
It can be hard to understand why anyone who is being abused by their partner doesn't leave. Of course, ending an abusive relationship is rarely easy, particularly if you are part of a church.
A man may stay in an abusive situation because:
- He is not entirely sure what he is experiencing is abuse
- He feels afraid or guilty
- He feels ashamed to admit he is being abused
- He worries about the financial implications of leaving
- He feels a sense of obligation to the relationship
- He feels strongly about staying due to Christian convictions
- He still has hope for the relationship and hopes his partner will change
- He believes he can help the abuser reform
- His partner has promised to stop the abuse
- He is afraid he will be removed from the family home
- He doesn’t want to lose access to his children
- He worries about the safety of his children
- He has not been taken seriously by police in the past
- He does not trust the courts to handle child custody fairly
- He doesn’t want to be the one that ‘breaks up’ the family
- He is in a same sex relationship and has not ‘come out’ to family or friends, and is afraid their partner will ‘out’ them.
What does abuse of men look like?
Much of the abuse that men are subjected to within abusive relationships are the same as they are for women. Read more about types of abuse here.
While there are some forms of violence that male victims are unlikely to experience, there are some types of abuse that can be predominantly targeted at them. These include:
Instilling fear by smashing objects or destroying things. Damaging or selling things the victim values.
Any use of pressure to have sex in a way the victim does not want. When it comes to male victims, this can include ridiculing or criticising sexual performance, and withholding affection and sex as a form of punishment.
This can involve threats to commit suicide, or to harm or kill the victim or the children, or using child custody to punish, threaten or control. The abusive partner might threaten to lie to government authorities and slander the victim to his friends and his community.
An abusive partner following a victim after they have separated, showing up at his workplace, or parking outside his home. The abuser may phone or text the victim obsessively, and/or repeatedly contact his family, friends or colleagues despite requests to stop.
Signs a man may be in an abusive relationship
As signs of abuse can vary, we have listed a range of unhealthy and potentially dangerous behaviours here.
If you suspect a man you know is being abused by his spouse, consider:
- Has he stopped coming to events he used to attend regularly?
- Is he withdrawing from friends and family?
- Do you notice changes in his personality (for example, is he quieter, grouchier, more distracted, or less energetic than usual)?
- Is he depressed?
- Are there any bruises or other physical injuries that do not match up with the story he tells about how he got the injuries?
If you suspect the presence of abuse, note that he that he may not realise it is abuse, or he may not want to talk about it. The best thing you can do is be alert to opportunities to create space for him to open up to you, particularly before the abuse escalates to a severe crisis.
Read more about how to have a helpful conversations here.
How to help a male victim of abuse
The first and most important step for a male victim is to reach out and talk to someone safe about their abuse (this could be a friend, a family member, a domestic violence hotline, MensLine). If you are that friend, he may need help recognising the abuse. Ask questions like:
“Things at work and now at home sound really bad, how are you handling the stress of all that’s going on?”
“Are you being physically hurt?”
“Are you being verbally berated?”
“Do you feel unsafe or scared at times?”
Reassure him that admitting the problem and seeking help doesn't mean he has failed as a man or as a husband. Reassure him that he is not to blame. You might say:
“I know it’s hard to ask for help, but feel free to call me anytime you feel you need to.”
“You don’t get medals for putting up with pain or abuse. This is not love - this is abuse and you need to be able to get support”
“You are not alone. You are not the only man this has happened to.”
“The abuse was not your fault.”
Offer encouragement. You might say:
“The real strength you show is wanting to protect yourself and your family from this.”
“Even though you’ve been down a bit by having to deal with so much, look at all the great things you’ve been doing for the kids lately.”
Make a plan
Encourage him to be aware of any signs that may trigger a violent response from their partner and be ready to leave quickly. Make a safety plan with him and gather resources. Ask questions like:
“What’s a good way to work on leaving this situation?”
“Let’s work out a safety plan for you and the kids that you can use next time.”
“You’ve always helped out lots of people. Perhaps if some safe people in your life knew what was going on they would be happy to help you out as well?”
“What friends do you feel comfortable to tell about what’s been happening, who you trust to help you and keep your confidentiality?”
Encourage him to report all incidents to the police and keep a journal of all abuse with a clear record of dates, times, and any witnesses. If he feels he needs to remain in the family home to protect his children, encourage him to call the police during a violent episode as the police have an obligation to protect a male victim and their children, just as they do a female victim.
Get expert advice
If your male friend has recently experienced domestic violence, ring a domestic violence hotline (see our Resources section) and go with them to the nearest hospital or police station, or help them find a local crisis service.
Advise him to never retaliate
A male victim may feel compelled to retaliate to escape the situation. However, if a male victim does retaliate, it is important they are made aware that it is likely that they will be the one who is arrested and removed from the family home. Suggest better ways to escape the abuse.
A thorny issue
The issue of domestic violence against men can be a thorny one. Men's rights groups have used it to derail much-needed advocacy and create confusion around the prevalence and severity of partner violence, while male victims complain that their experience isn't taken seriously enough.
At a population level, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of acts of domestic violence and sexual assault are perpetrated by men against women, and this violence is likely to be more severe against female victims. Debunking claims around inflated rates of male victimisation is important to ensure that resources are not taken from the critically underfunded service system that saves women's lives.
Recognising the gendered patterns of violence overall should not diminish the experiences of male victims or encourage people to be bystanders to male suffering. SAFER has taken the approach that looks honestly at what the research is telling us about the vast majority of victims and perpetrators as being critical to addressing the gendered dynamics of violence.
Help for male victims
MensLine Australia (24 hours)
Phone: 1300 78 99 78 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
Phone: 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) 24hr Australia-wide