Domestic and family violence – What about men?

Man holding a card saying Love is not abuse

(Photo: Herald Post )

This week I’m helping to facilitate a three day workshop on domestic and family violence for students in the Master of Family Studies. I’m looking forward to it, but must admit I’m also a bit apprehensive because domestic and family violence can be a challenging topic for males.

Gender plays a major role in domestic and family violence, and so it is easy to get caught up in debates about gender. In particular it is easy to get lost in debates about men (not just women) as victims and women (not just men) as perpetrators.

In the workshop, we recognise that men can be victims but most of our focus is on male perpetrators and female survivors because this is what most of our students face in their work. I’ve had to reconcile this focus on men as perpetrators with my commitment to strengths-based approaches and engaging fathers.

Definitions of domestic and family violence

Domestic and family violence is a term that can be used in many different ways to cover a wide range of behaviours. Some definitions of domestic and family violence are quite broad.

Domestic violence refers to acts of violence that occur within intimate relationships and take place in domestic settings. It includes physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse. [1, p. 1]

Other definitions are much stronger. I understand domestic and family violence to be,

the patterned and repeated use of coercive and controlling behavior to limit, direct, and shape a partner’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. An array of power and control tactics is used along a continuum in concert with one another. These tactics include: physical abuse, emotional abuse, economic abuse, threats and intimidation, isolation and entrapment, sexual abuse and exploitation, control and abuse of children, and isolation through job relocation and language barriers. [2, p. 313]

If broad definitions of domestic and family violence are used, you can argue the level of violence by women is the same as by men. In a meta-analytic review, John Archer [3] found that,

When measures were based on specific acts, women were significantly more likely than men to have used physical aggression toward their partners and to have used it more frequently… When measures were based on the physical consequences of aggression (visible injuries or injuries requiring medical treatment), men were more likely than women to have injured their partners. (p. 664)

In thinking about violence between intimate partners, it’s important to recognise that there are different types of violence. Kelly and Johnson [4] suggest four types:

  1. Coercive controlling violence– “emotionally abusive intimidation, coercion, and control coupled with physical violence against partners” (p. 478). This is similar to the definition of domestic violence above.
  2. Violent resistance – the use of violence in response to coercive controlling violence.
  3. Situational couple violence – violence between partners “that does not have its basis in the dynamic of power and control” (p. 478).
  4. Separation instigated violence – “violence that first occurs in the relationship at separation” (p. 478, emphasis added). It does not include other forms of violence that continue after separation.

Although it is hard to get reliable figures of the extent of the different types of violence, it is clear that coercive controlling violence predominantly involves male perpetrators and female victims [5]. It is also the violence that has the longest lasting, and most serious, impacts on victims including children who witness domestic or family violence [4].

Sometimes discussion gets confused when stats are given that draw on different definitions of domestic and family violence. For example Hurt suggests that

95% of the victims of domestic and family violence are female and over 90% of the perpetrators are male.

A few paragraphs later, when discussing how many women experience domestic or family violence, they refer to stats from the Australian Bureau of Statics (ABS) personal safety survey:

1 in 5 women in Australia are abused in an intimate relationship at some point in their adult life. In addition, 1 in 5 women also experience some kind of sexual violence/assault.

It seems to me that they are relying on two different definitions of domestic and family violence. The first quote is referring to coercive controlling violence which is mostly violence perpetrated by men against women. The second quote, however, is based on a much broader definition of domestic and family violence where the number of male and female victims is much closer. In 2012, the latest ABS personal safety data, 35.6% of women had experienced violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15 as had 31.2% of the men. This does not support the argument that 95% of the victims and female and 90% of the perpetrators are male, but it also does not weaken the argument that most coercive controlling violence is men against women.

Male victims of domestic and family violence

I have no doubt that men can be the victims of domestic and family violence, that this is not OK and that it has profound effects on the men who experience this form of violence. The following video captures some of the impact on a man from growing up in a violent household.

While all violence can have negative consequences, generally speaking coercive controlling violence has the biggest impact and longest lasting impacts on survivors.

Robinson and Rowlands [6] identify four broad groups of men who are victims of domestic abuse:

  1. Gay men experiencing domestic abuse
  2. Heterosexual men experiencing domestic abuse
  3. Heterosexual men experiencing domestic abuse in the context of counter-allegations (e.g., situational couple violence)
  4. Heterosexual men who are perpetrators of coercive controlling violence but are alleging to be experiencing domestic abuse

These groups of men will have quite different experiences of violence and our responses to the individuals involved need to vary. One of the problems is that when women make allegations of domestic or family violence, a perpetrator will often make counter claims – but the violence they are each talking about is very different. In particular the emotional and psychological impact of coercive controlling violence is very different to the impact of violent resistance or situational couple violence.

Robinson and Rowlands [6] outline some of the differences in how men who had experienced domestic or family violence presented to a service for male victims of domestic abuse in Wales, compared to men who presented as victims while actually being perpetrators (p. 35).

Male survivor Perpetrator presenting as a victim
Minimises severity of incidents, although is likely to provide details and chronology Minimises events, and it vague and unable to provide details
Takes responsibility, or excuses the actions of perpetrator Blames their partner for the incident
Shows empathy for partner, including difficulty circumstances or childhood experiences Focuses on their experiences, little or no empathy for their partner
Feels remorse for fighting back or defending themselves Feels aggrieved
Can identify a very specific reason why they called, often abusive Less likely to identify a specific incident, instead focuses on general grievances
Ashamed of victimisation Assertively claims victim status
Fearful Does not appear to be in any immediate risk, nor fearful
Confused Overly confident
Has tried unsuccessfully to leave or repair relationship Claims not to be able to understand why previous relationships ended
Feels a sense of obligation to abusive partner May emphasise their role as a provider, or ‘saviour’
Focuses on own responsibilities Stereotyped view of roles in relationships

It is interesting to note that very few of the male survivors actually accepted services. Laing, Humphreys and Cavanagh [7] speculate that this could perhaps be because,

The form of service delivery developed out of practice with women victims does not meet the specific needs of this population; or perhaps that domestic violence against heterosexual men does not result in the same constellations of physical and mental health impacts that lead many women victims to seek help. (p. 114)

While domestic and family violence is often seen, and treated, as a private matter between two individuals [8] it needs to be considered in the social context of patriarchy. There are a range of factors that can help promote or allow domestic and family violence, and male violence against women more generally, including [9-11]:

  • Sexual inequality and discrimination
  • Sexual harassment
  • Social constructions of masculinity suggesting that men should be physically strong, emotionally detached and in control
  • Beliefs that men have the right to discipline their partners or that women provoke violence
  • Easily accessible images of sexual violence against women.

The social contexts for men and women are very different and so the context of domestic and family violence is also very different for men and women. A strengths-based approach does not deny nor minimise problems. It does suggest that, despite accepting the reality of men being the main perpetrators of domestic and family violence, we do not demonise all men and when working with men who are perpetrators we also identify their strengths while encouraging them to accept responsibility for their actions.

Yes, women can perpetrate domestic and family violence and men can be the victims, and this is not OK. But in our course, while we need to recognise that men can be victims, we also recognise that our students will mostly have to deal with male perpetrators and female survivors. It is thus appropriate that most of our focus will be on violence against women.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Domestic violence, family, friends and neighbours
  2. What can you do when someone you know is experiencing domestic violence?
  3. White Ribbon Day
  4. What is the Strengths Perspective?
  5. Principles of nonviolence
  6. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?


  1. Morgan, A. and H. Chadwick, Key issues in domestic violence. Research in Practice, 2009(7): p. 1-11.
  2. Almeida, R.V. and T. Durkin, The cultural context model: Therapy for couples with domestic violence. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 1999. 25(3): p. 313-24.
  3. Archer, J., Sex Differences in Aggression Between Heterosexual Partners: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin, 2000. 126(5): p. 651-680.
  4. Kelly, J.B. and M.P. Johnson, Differentiation among types of intimate partner violence: Research update and implications for interventions. Family Court Review, 2008. 46(3): p. 476-499.
  5. Johnson, M.P., Domestic Violence: It’s Not About Gender-Or Is It? Journal of Marriage and Family, 2005. 67(5): p. 1126.
  6. Robinson, A.L. and J. Rowlands, The Dyn Project: Supporting men experiencing domestic abuse. Final Evaluation Report. 2006.
  7. Laing, L., C. Humphreys, and K. Cavanagh, Social work & domestic violence : developing critical & reflective practice. 2013, London: Sage Publications. ix, 173 pages.
  8. Goodman, L.A. and K.F. Smyth, A call for a social network-oriented approach to services for survivors of intimate partner violence. Psychology of Violence, 2011. 1(2): p. 79-92.
  9. Heward-Belle, S., Varieties of harm: The experiences of men who are domestically violent, in Inaugural Asia-Pacific Conference on Gendered Violence and Violations. 2015: Sydney.
  10. Flood, M., Secrets and lies: responding to attacks on domestic violence campaigns. Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse Newsletter, 2006(27): p. 3-6.
  11. Flood, M. and B. Pease, Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence Against Women. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2009. 10(2): p. 125-142.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Families & parenting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Domestic and family violence – What about men?

  1. Sarah Best says:

    A very interesting read Graeme, I discuss various sociological topics on my blog also, although I have not, as yet, touched on domestic violence.
    I look forward to reading more of your work :)

    Liked by 1 person

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