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The Invisible Victims of Domestic Violence
October 20, 2004
by Tom James

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time for communities to unite to mourn the loss of every individual who has fallen victim to domestic violence, and to raise awareness of the prevalence of the problem throughout the world. A time to remember and mourn the deaths of people like Phil Hartman, George Whitley, Sincere Understanding Allah, Dilip Bhosale, Adam Munn, Joseph Wallace and Yovany Tellez Jr.

Or is it?

The executive proclamation setting aside the month of October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month declares that it is part of the federal government's commitment to "make it possible for women to seek relief from abuse and reclaim their dignity and their lives." Children and men are not mentioned.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services describes the month as a time to "mourn the women who lost their lives to domestic violence, as well as celebrate the strength of women who have survived." Evidently, dead men and children are not to be mourned, and the survival of a male victim is not something to be celebrated.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence boasts that every year the organization "collect[s] information on incidents of women who have been killed by an intimate partner and produces a poster each year for Domestic Violence Awareness Month listing the names."

Dead men not only tell no tales; they also don't show up in posters.

When the Battered Women's Act was under consideration in Minnesota, a lone legislator sought an amendment that would have made its protections available to all victims, regardless of gender. That proposal was vehemently opposed by others in our legislature. The Act passed without the proposed amendment, and to this day the law continues to contain provisions discriminating against--and encouraging others to discriminate against--male victims of domestic abuse.

Similarly, when the Violence Against Women Act was introduced in Congress, men were not permitted to testify. Congress did not want to hear about male victims.

In fact, it appears that none of us really wants to hear about male victims. Male victims are an embarrassment. Worse, their existence threatens the validity of the one stereotype that the vast majority of us seem to need to believe--the stereotype that says men are violent and aggressive, while women are gentle and submissive. Or, to put it another way, the idea that violence is a male phenomenon. As a culture, we prefer to make male victims the subject of levity and jest, not offer them help. Mostly, though, we would prefer to believe that they simply do not exist. .

Do male victims of domestic abuse exist? According to a United States Department of Justice study, there are approximately 835,000 domestic assaults against men annually. A more recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study reports that the number of male victims 12 years of age and older is nearly 1.6 million per year. And it has been estimated that as many as 4,000 children, mostly male, are killed or maimed every year, mostly by women.

It is often asserted that gender-exclusionary laws and policies are justified in this area because male victims supposedly comprise only 5 or 15% of the total. Yet, even if the percentage really were that low (and it isn't), would that justify ignoring male victims altogether? Black people comprise less than 5% of the population of Minnesota. Does that mean that we therefore need only concern ourselves with crimes against white people?

The truth is that male abuse victims exist, and their existence is not anything new. In fact, policy-makers have known about them for many years. They have been marginalized for the same reason that lesbian abuse victims are marginalized: their existence runs counter to our fundamental cultural desire to believe that violence is a male phenomenon. Sadly, the principal victims of our stubborn adherence to sexist ideology are neither women nor men. They are Sincere Understanding Allah, Dilip Bhosale, Adam Munn, Joseph Wallace, Yovany Tellez, and thousands of other children like them--children that some among us have made invisible while the rest of us work very hard, in one way or another, to keep them that way.

Tom James is an attorney who works with both male and female abuse victims, and is the author of the book, Domestic Violence: The 12 Things You Aren't Supposed To Know (Aventine Press, 2003).

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