Domestic Violence Against Men: Underreported?

Domestic Violence Against Men: Underreported?

A common assumption in discussions of domestic violence is that the victims are wives and ex-wives, girlfriends and former girlfriends. Most of the time that is true. However, researchers at Edith Cowan University released a study in 2010 that explored intimate partner violence against men. The study concluded that men are victims of domestic abuse, but are reluctant to report or discuss their victimization.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, men are substantially more likely than women to be victims of violence perpetrated by strangers, while women are more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence. Yet pinning down the number of male domestic violence victims is difficult because both men and women underreport instances of domestic violence.

Understanding the prevalence of domestic violence against men can be challenging for a couple of reasons. First, different studies gather statistics in different ways, and different methodologies produce different results. Methodologies that attempt to account for underreporting (such as surveys that protect the anonymity of respondents) probably produce the best results, but the inability to verify self-reported statistics always makes it difficult to know whether they are accurate.

Second, there is no uniform definition of domestic violence. It may be that men are more likely to be victims under some definitions of domestic violence than others. Understanding the meaning of “domestic violence” used by any particular study is therefore critical.

Definitions of Domestic Violence

Some definitions of domestic violence are more expansive than others. A broad definition of “domestic” includes dating relationships, while a narrow definition is limited to marital or de facto relationships. A broad definition of violence includes emotional abuse or stalking, while a narrow definition is limited to physical violence.

Even Australian governments have failed to agree on a single definition. For example, the federal Family Law Act 1975 defines “family violence” as “violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family (the family member), or causes the family member to be fearful.” That broad definition of “violence” includes stalking, taunting, damaging property, and other acts that fall short of physical violence. At the same time, “family member” excludes individuals who are in intimate dating relationship but have no familial relationship.

In NSW, the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 defines a “domestic violence offence” as:

  • a “personal violence offence” (one of a long list of crimes that generally involve physical violence), or a similar offence, or an offence that is intended to coerce, control, intimidate, or cause fear in the victim, if
  • the victim has or had a “domestic relationship” with the accused, including marriage, a de facto relationship, an intimate relationship, or living together in the same household.

That definition is much broader than, for instance, Tasmania’s definition of family violence, which applies only to a spouse or domestic partner.

Male Victims of Domestic Violence

Regardless of the difficulty of estimating the scope of the problem, it is clear that significant numbers of men and women are victims of some form of domestic violence. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 23% of Australian women have experienced violence by an intimate partner, while almost 8% of men have been victimized by an intimate partner.

The term “intimate partner” in those statistics includes dating relationships. When the question was narrowed to individuals who are or were married or living together in a de facto relationship, 17% of women and 6% of men reported that their partners had been physically violent toward them.

One review of worldwide literature found that crime studies (which are based on arrests) show that men are much more likely than women to commit domestic violence offences, while family conflict studies (which are not limited to reported crimes) show that men and women assault each other at approximately equal rates. That might mean that the police are more likely to arrest men than women, that women are more likely than men to report a domestic violence crime, or that assaults by men tend to cause more harm (and thus lead to more arrests) than assaults by women.

A common but disputed claim by some advocacy organisations is that one out of three domestic violence victims in Australia is a man. The difficulty with that statistic, as noted above, is that domestic violence can be defined broadly or narrowly, and the kind of violence that commonly affects male and female victims may be different. In some studies, a woman shoving a man might be taken as an act of violence that is equivalent to a man punching a woman. It may be that male violence causes more physical harm than female violence, but again, studies do not generally make those distinctions clear.

In addition, the “one-in-three” calculation is based on combining data from the Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey. The Bureau cautions that the data loses its statistical validity when it is combined in that way. In addition, the Bureau suggests that its data regarding male victims is subject to a much larger error rate than data for female victims.

Underreporting of Male Victim Violence

One reason for a potentially high error rate in data collection is that men may be less likely to report domestic violence than women. Explanations for underreporting include:

  • Fear that reporting abuse by a female will cause the male victim be perceived as weak or effeminate.
  • A sense of shame at allowing abuse by a female.
  • Fear that the report of abuse will not be believed.
  • Fear that no action will be taken if the abuse is reported.
  • A desire to protect the abuser from the consequences of her actions.
  • The victim blames himself for provoking the abuse.
  • Fear of being blamed by others for provoking the abuse.
  • A refusal to define what happened as abuse.
  • Men may be less likely than women to perceive physical conflict as abuse.

A final question that studies rarely address is whether accusations of violence are truthful. A false accusation of domestic violence may be used as a weapon to conceal an affair, to force a partner to leave the home, or to gain an advantage in a child custody dispute. Studies of reporting statistics assume that all reports are truthful, but criminal defence lawyers know that is not true. It may be that women are more likely than men to lodge a false accusation of domestic violence, but in the absence of scholarly research into that question, nobody knows for sure.