December 6, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Kruti Shotri on the need for a gender-neutral approach to domestic violence

domestic violence shutterstock_144659264

When Erin Pizzey set up the first women’s refuge in 1971, she made the matter of domestic violence a societal one, bringing it out from behind closed doors. But ever since, domestic violence has been treated as a heavily gendered crime, in which men are portrayed as the perpetrators and women as the victims. The result of this is that male victims of domestic violence have been markedly neglected. It is time that this changed.

It is true that more women than men suffer as victims of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) in the UK: the 2011/12 British Crime Survey clocked 1.2 million female victims as opposed to 800,000 male victims. But whereas the number of male victims of DVA is as much as two-thirds the number of female victims, the number of organisations providing refuge for men escaping domestic violence is just 3% that for women. And though the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties all made reference to DVA in their political manifestos earlier this year, it was only in terms of violence against “women and girls”. The lack of acknowledgement of male victims illustrates our society’s gendered approach.

This approach has had a strong foothold in provision of social services. But perhaps more surprisingly, it has influenced the direction of academic research and clinical practice too. Giulia Ferrari, who is a research fellow working in the Centre for Gender and Violence at the University of Bristol, says, “A lot of family violence studies developed within a feminist theory approach. Only recently have researchers started focussing on men.”

Reports of Domestic Violence and Abuse against men (800,000) and women (1,200,000) in the UK in 2011-12

Ms Ferrari is part of a team doing research into the prevalence of DVA against men. Led by Professor Marianne Hester OBE, Head of the Centre for Gender and Violence at the University of Bristol, the team recently published a study that shows a slightly higher than expected prevalence of men experiencing DVA. The study sampled 1368 men sitting in a GP waiting room. Of these, 23% reported that their partners had caused them to experience negative behaviours associated with DVA e.g. being frightened, hurt, forced to have sex or forced to ask permission to do routine activities). Previous estimates that consider a similar sample type are limited in number, but sit at under 20%.

The study also showed that out of 434 men, whilst 32 reported being involved in a DVA relationship, only 2 had it noted on their medical records. This provides an initial estimate that around just 7% of men suffering DVA have it identified by their doctor.  Similar studies estimate this figure to be double for female victims.

This implies that GPs need to be more aware of DVA against men. In fact, programmes to help GPs improve identification of DVA victims do exist: IRIS (Identification and Referral to Improved Safety) is one such programme. Randomised controlled trials have indicated that it could increase the identification rate by seven-fold. However, all trials of its efficacy have focussed solely on female patients, and the programme itself places a strong emphasis on supporting women. For male victims of DVA, the result of the gender bias is poorer clinical support.

David Yarwood is Secretary of Parity, a charity that campaigns for men’s rights and fights for equal treatment for male and female victims of DVA. “Much more needs to be done publicly to get to grips with male domestic victimisation,” he says. “Whilst it is appreciated that more women than men are affected by intimate abuse, this should not bar comparable treatment by public services for those comparably affected.”

And he is right. It is now high time that we let go of the gendered approach to DVA that has influenced us for so long and resulted in poorer care and support for male victims of domestic violence. It is time we adopted a gender-neutral one instead.

Kruti Shotri is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: Domestic Violence and Abuse as a Abstract (Shutterstock); Pie chart (Neil Stoker)

Citation:  Hester, M. et al. (2015) Occurrence and impact of negative behaviour, including domestic violence and abuse, in men attending UK primary care health clinics: a cross-sectional survey. BMJ Open 25(5): e007141. doi:  10.1136/bmjopen-2014-007141