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Editorial / Opinion

In abuse, men are victims, too

Boston Globe - By Cathy Young, June 16, 2003 on page A15

THE FAMILY Violence Prevention Fund is marking Father's Day with a campaign to honor men who have pledged themselves to an effort to stop violence against women and children. It sounds like a positive and inspirational effort. Yet on second thought, one can see why some fathers' activists are rankled. Imagine a Mother's Day campaign that focused on stopping women's abuse of children.

On the campaign's website, the organizers congratulate themselves on seeing men as not just ''the problem'' in domestic violence but a part of the solution. So far, so good. But the underlying approach is still one that assumes the perpetrators are men and the victims are women, ignoring the complex picture of family violence that emerges from nearly three decades of research.

Aside from child abuse (which is more often committed by women) and violence in same-sex relationships, study after study shows that anywhere from one-third to half of spousal or partner assaults are female-on-male. While men are less likely to be injured because of gender differences in size and strength and less likely to be murdered by their partners, violence by women against men is no laughing matter - as it is often treated in popular culture. Earlier this month, a New York woman was charged with beating her former boyfriend to death with her high-heeled shoe.

The domestic violence establishment still clings to an ideology that denies or minimizes violence against men. Some advocates are vehemently hostile to any attempt to even raise the issue. Last month in Cecil County, Md., several staffers of the Domestic Violence Rape Crisis Center walked out of a meeting of the county Family Violence Council to protest the showing of a videotaped segment of the ABC News show ''20/20'' focusing on battered men and abusive women. (Their statement complained about ''sensationalist materials, often based on misleading statistics, myths, and nonscientific research'' - which is rather ironic, since domestic violence groups have relied widely on sensationalism, shoddy research, and bogus statistics such as ''battering is the leading cause of injury to women.'')

Other attempts to dismiss violence against men are subtle. The May issue of the National Bulletin on Domestic Violence Prevention features a column by Andrew Klein, domestic violence consultant and former chief probation officer of the Quincy District Court, titled ''Recognizing abused men.'' A more appropriate title would have been ''Refusing to recognize abused men.'' Klein offers a ''test'': ''How many men do you know who fall into the following categories?'' and then rattles off a list of questions that clearly presuppose the answer, ''Few if any.''

Some of Klein's criteria seem deliberately designed to fit mainly women. For instance: ''How many men ... have had to give up their careers, education, leisure activities'' to devote themselves to pleasing their female partners? Not many; but then, giving up work to ''please'' a spouse is a traditionally female role. Men, on the other hand, may be physically and emotionally abused for failing to live up to the traditional male role of breadwinner - not making enough money or for being out of work.

Or: ''How many men are accused of `parental alienation' because they seek to limit their female partner's access to their children?'' Here, Klein seems to assume that the victim in such a case is the parent being accused of parental alienation, not the one denied access to the children. One may turn his question around and ask how many women are falsely accused of sexually abusing their children.

Other questions imply that, in Klein's view, men hardly ever end up in emergency rooms because of assaults by women and women don't exhibit pathological jealousy or poison their partners' friends and relatives against them. In fact literature such as the 1994 book ''The Violent Couple,'' by William Stacey, Lonnie Hazlewood, and Anson Shupe suggests that women are about as likely as men to engage in various controlling behaviors.

The myths and realities of domestic violence have a special relevance to fathers. While it is widely assumed that a man can easily leave an abusive relationship, many men are trapped because of their children, knowing the abuser is likely to get custody. Meanwhile, some feminists use the specter of male violence as a scare tactic to deny equal rights to fathers - for instance, vehemently opposing joint custody on the grounds that abusive men will use their access to the children to terrorize their ex-wives.

These are some of the issues a Father's Day campaign focusing on domestic violence could address. Maybe next year?

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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