WASHINGTON – A billboard in Baltimore, sponsored by the Maryland House of Ruth, promotes the notion that domestic violence is purely a women’s problem and issue.
It reads: “How many more women have to die before domestic violence becomes a crime?”
While it has long been held that women make up the vast majority of the injured and abused, police reports compiled and analyzed by Maryland’s Central Records Division reveal that men, too, suffer from violence in the home.
Six of the 20 homicides connected to domestic violence in 2009 were men, according to Kenneth Degen, a field liaison at the division.
Other statistics based on Maryland’s 2009 Uniform Crime Report, which has been touted by Gov. Martin O’Malley for showing the lowest rate of violent crime in Maryland since 1975, also appear to show a closer gap between genders and violence than is widely promoted.
In fact, of the 4,317 cases of aggravated assault — cases usually requiring medical treatment — about 25 percent were men, according to Degen.
While few, if any, believe that the UCR figures capture the true extent and nature of abuse behind closed doors, most experts agree that male victims are much more likely to keep the violence against them a secret and not report their female abuser to the police.
Further muddling matters, law enforcement officials are more prone to arrest a man accused of violence than a woman.
This snapshot is at least consistent with what Patricia Tjaden, a well-known women’s advocate and sociologist, found while conducting a federally-funded National Violence Against Women’s Survey of 16,000 men and women between 1995 and 1996.
Through confidential telephone interviews, Tjaden estimated that some 1.3 million women versus 834,732 men are physically assaulted each year by their partners — ranging from slapping and pushing, to the much rarer use of knives and guns.
In her final report, Tjaden noted that police were “significantly more likely” to report and arrest a man accused of physical assault when dealing with a female victim. What’s more, female victims of partner violence were “significantly more likely than their male counterparts to report their victimization to the police.”
In short, you are dealing with the “wimp factor,” said David Fontes, a clinical psychologist who wrote his dissertation on stereotypes and domestic violence.
“Because as hard as it is for women to report violence, it’s twice — if not three — times harder to report for men: They don’t want to be seen as wimps.”
Fontes, who runs a private practice and doubles as an employee assistance program manager for the California Department of Social Services, said he came to this conclusion after a 6-foot-tall man with “family issues” was sent through his doorway in the mid 1990s.
The man claimed his wife was beating their children, whom Fontes later saw bearing bruises on their backs. After contacting child services, Fontes was struck by a question he’d never before thought to ask:
“Did your wife ever hit you?”
“Yes,” the man muttered. “Seven times.”
“It was a light-bulb moment,” Fontes recalled.
“Whenever a female came in, I would always ask her that question: ‘Did he ever hit you?’ But I never reversed the question.”
Since that experience, Fontes said he’s been “surprised” by the number of men who acknowledge physical abuse by their female counterparts.
Yet despite this, many policymakers remain fixated on the premise that domestic violence is mostly a women’s dilemma.
One of the largest federal grants Maryland has received to deal with domestic violence — dubbed the “STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant” — put some $2.5 million dollars in state coffers in 2010.
STOP stands for services, training, officers and prosecutors, but it is aimed at helping women.
Even the application form for the STOP grant indicates that “Funding may only be directed to those entities whose primary focus is combating violence against women.”
While the application also states that “this does not preclude sub-recipients from providing services to a ‘similarly situated’ male victim who is in need and seeks services,” some critics say that’s not enough.
“If a male victim happens to show up at their door they will try to help him, but they have no active outreach program or services specifically set up with the male victim in mind,” said Fontes.
This appears to be true of the Maryland House of Ruth.
Lisa Nitsch, a project manager at the non-profit, said that while the agency would like to offer more services to male victims, the non-profit’s roots and “shoestring budget” prevent it from offering more to men.
“We are an agency that comes with feminist roots,” she said. “But we’re not going to oppose any services that opens services to men. It’s just really hard to do this work on the budgets that we have.”
Fighting the public relations war is the biggest problem in advocating for male victims.
“Male victims of abuse,” said Fontes, “are not going to come forward until you reach out to them.”