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Domestic Violence against Men: Historical Overview

Toronto Domestic Violence Symposium, June 5, 6 and 7th, 2015.  Get your tickets here.

By: Karen (Woudstra) Stephenson – TorontoDV

For hundreds of years women were considered chattel, and in some cultures it was acceptable to beat your wife. Although there are some cultures today that still mistreat women it’s safe to say that as a society we have made some incredible gains. The reality is that we have not reached the goal of eliminating wife abuse and chances are, we won’t get there. Human beings as a whole can be outright foul at times and there is the element of not being able to keep anger under control. Women are not the only ones who have struggled in making positive changes, men have as well.

Battered husbands have historically been ignored or worse, they have been subjected to ridicule. In France, battered men in the seventeen hundreds were forced to wear “an outlandish outfit and ride backwards around the village on a donkey” (Steinmetz & Lucca 1988).

Throughout the centuries this topic has been largely ignored for obvious reasons; a man who was abused by his female partner was considered either a liar or he was laughed at. This contributed greatly to why researchers and authorities steered away from this topic as it was thought to be an exceedingly rare occurrence. Another reason this was typically ignored was that women were viewed as being the weaker of the two genders; the predominant attitude was that a diminutive woman could never have the ability to physically assault her 200 pound husband. (This view has somewhat changed over the years.)

The Men’s Movement
In the early 1970’s there were many cultural changes happening including the growth of the feminist movement. Most men’s movement historians date the men’s movement back to the early seventies. In 1970, according to Anthony Astrachan (author of “How Men Feel”), the first men’s centre opened in California and the magazine “Liberation” published an article by Jack Sawyer entitled “On Male Liberation.” In that article Sawyer discussed the negative effects of stereotypes of male sex roles.

Men’s discussion groups started popping up across the United States in 1971 as well as the formation of the National Task Force on the Masculine Mystique by Warren Farrell. Many of these discussion groups included men supporting women’s rights but there were groups that were created strictly for men to have their concerns heard. However, Warren Farrell is the one person who could be labeled as the individual who started the men’s movement. He supported the women’s movement in the late 1960’s and this led to the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter asking Farrell to form a men’s group.

Farrell became a sought-after public speaker as he was known for creating audience participation role-reversal experiences. This enabled the audience to see life through a clear glass from the opposite gender’s perspective.

It wasn’t until about the mid 1970’s that Farrell had a change of heart. The National Organization for Women spoke out against the presumption of joint custody in divorce cases. In a 1997 interview with Steven Svoboda, Farrell stated: “I couldn’t believe the people I thought were pioneers in equality were saying that women should have the first option to have children or not to have children–that children should not have equal rights to their dad.”

Suzanne Steinmetz
The seventies saw an increase of university researchers noticing that there may be some validity to the claim that men were being abused by their wives. Perhaps one of the most recognized of these researchers was Suzanne Steinmetz (1941-2009). She earned a B.S. in education from the University of Delaware in 1969 and after returning to school as a divorced mother of three children she earned her PhD in sociology in 1975.

Steinmetz was recognized world-wide as an expert in domestic violence making a plethora of important contributions to the field of family studies. She published almost twenty books and over 60 research articles. She established herself as a pioneer in the academic study of family violence with the publication of her co-edited volume, Violence in the Family (1974). That book marked the beginning of a remarkable career that paved the way for many scholars who sought recognition for the academic legitimacy for the study of family violence. She was credited with opening a field of research that established family violence as one of the major areas of study throughout the world.

Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family, is a book she co-authored and this book was one of the first to explore the entire range of family violence. This book received accolades and it was used as support for women’s groups opening shelters for battered women. Her later article “The Battered Husband Syndrome” in Victimology raised plenty of controversy.

In 1977, Steinmetz released results from several studies showing that the percentage of wives who have used physical violence is higher than the percentage of husbands, and that the wives’ average violence score tended to be higher, although men were more likely to cause greater injury. She also found that women were as likely as men to initiate physical violence. She concluded that “the most unreported crime is not wife beating – it’s husband beating”.

Other Researchers
Around this time there were many university researchers who became recognized as seeing husband abuse as a societal problem and there were countless studies showing that indeed, husband abuse exists.

In 1980, Steinmetz along with Murray Straus and Richard Gelles created a nationally representative study of family violence and found that the total violence scores seemed to be about even between husbands and wives, and that wives tended to be more abusive in almost all categories except pushing and shoving.

Other notable researchers in the late 1900’s include: Erin Pizzey, Russell Dobash & Emerson Dobash, Malcolm J. George, Eugen Lupri, Elaine Grandin, Roger Bland, Merlin Brinkerhoff, Reena Sommer, Jeff Archer, and so many others. Thanks to the work they completed, many writers and family violence researchers were able to get a better understanding of what was happening in homes across Canada and the U.S.

1990’s Movement in Canada
The 1990’s saw a flood of support groups for men popping up across Canada and the United States. It wasn’t just the issue of husband abuse that was making headlines but also men who were falsely accused of abusing either their wife or their children. Another issued that surfaced was the inequality in the family court system when it came to child custody.

Many men and women were at the forefront of trying to get these issues into the mainstream news. Canadian Senator Anne C. Cools was paramount in helping to get domestic violence being recognized as a human issue. In 1994 Senator Cools connected with Karen Woudstra (author of Under Attack Toronto Sun Sunday Magazine; June 19,1994) and asked Woudstra to help organize the first Canadian consultation addressing violence against men. Dr. Murray Straus was keynote speaker for this two-day conference in June 1995. Notable speakers for this event included Professor Ferrel Christiansen (founder of MERGE), Dr. Hazel MacBride, Alan Gold (Solicitor), Eric Nagler (children’s entertainer) and many others professionals. Due to the success of this event Senator Cools held three additional consultations across Canada.

There are many men and women who stepped forward to help this movement gain momentum. Don Theroux of Sudbury was the first person in Canada to open a shelter for men. Chuck Ferrauto in Hamilton was the second. Both these individuals spent a lot of their own resources to make this happen as there was no public funding to be had. Unfortunately both these shelters (that had clients) had to close their doors before their first anniversary.

Ferrel Christiansen, PhD., founded Balance Magazine and this hardcopy publication ran almost two years. This publication was a part of MERGE (Movement for the Establishment of Real Gender Equality)

Two Canadian men are noteworthy as being an integral part of the men’s movement. Earl Silverman, founder of Family of Men, struggled for years in Calgary to keep M.A.S.H. (a men’s shelter) afloat. A victim of domestic violence, Silverman was interviewed in various media and spent decades fighting an uphill battle helping men have a voice. Sadly, in August 2013, Earl Silverman took his life.
Greg Kershaw, founder of F.A.C.T. in Toronto, was very active in helping men and women have a voice in what he called “a broken system.” He spent countless hours counseling men in his spare time and he engaged in public speaking. In 1997, Kershaw, his wife Nardina Grande and Karen Woudstra created the Men’s Television Network on Roger’s Cable. The pilot episode featured Senator Anne Cools as their special guest. This was as far as they got due to the content being considered too controversial. Sadly, Greg Kershaw passed away in 2008 due to a massive heart attack leaving behind his wife and child.

After the turn of the century this movement went into auto pilot because those who were very active in the 90’s suffered burn out, or they felt there was no more they could contribute, and some moved forward in their lives.

During this time there were many efforts happening in the United States as well. Perhaps the largest men’s group today was formed in 1990; however, the Promise Keepers have a different focus being a men’s ministry.

Today the battle continues. There have been some gains by the men’s movement but not enough. There is not a doubt that women still have an uphill battle to gain true equality and fairness; but so do men. As Senator Anne Cools was always noted as saying, “Domestic violence is not a gender issue, it is a human issue.”

The Future
There is not a doubt that over the years there were hundreds of men and women who unselfishly gave their time to help bring this topic to the media. What needs to happen now is a domestic violence symposium to help raise a stronger awareness that domestic violence is equal between men and women. Domestic violence can be attributed to men committing suicide and this must stop. A domestic violence symposium needs to target those who can make a difference, our lawmakers, police, medical doctors and those in the judicial system.

J. Steven Svoboda (1997). “Interview with Warren Farrell” MenWeb.com