Violence is neither a women’s problem nor a men’s problem. According to Professor Tove Ingebjørg Fjell at the University of Bergen, it is a human problem. She conducts research on men who are physically abused by their intimate partners.
“The worst episode was when I was sitting in the living room on a spindle back chair reading the newspaper. The children were there. Then she said to me that I had to do the dishes right away. Then I said I was just going to finish reading the newspaper first. And then she came into the living room and grabbed my hair and pulled me backwards so that I fell on the floor, and she sat on top of me and hit me in the face. The children were watching and started to cry.”
This is a statement from one of the 10 men interviewed by Tove Ingebjørg Fjell about their life with a violent intimate partner. Fjell, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Bergen, participated in the conference Historier som ikke finnes (“Stories that never happened”) held in Oslo in November. The event focused on violence against men in intimate relationships. Fjell gave a presentation on her research project Å gå på nåler hele tiden (“Always walking on eggshells”), which she plans to complete this spring.
“It was extremely difficult to find someone who would talk to me. Many of the men were afraid. They feared that their wives would find out and do something, like leave with the children. When they first came to the interview, they talked incessantly, in a positive sense. I almost didn’t need to ask any questions at all. The stories just poured out of them,” says Fjell.
“The men’s stories about violence by their partners show how important it is to downplay the focus on the gender dimension that we have today. We have a biased view of the man as the perpetrator on the one hand and the woman as the victim on the other. We need to understand that violence involves human beings,” says Fjell.
“I don’t remember the first time. It’s a little strange. It’s as if you lived in a place where it was very dangerous to walk in the streets and every day someone came and beat you up. But you survived and it became a part of your daily life. You go and buy vegetables at the store, but you don’t remember what vegetables you used and bought two years ago. It’s like that with violence too. You just accept it and hope that it passes.”
This is how one of the men Fjell spoke with described the experience of being the victim of violence. It is a common, gender-neutral description. This similarity between men’s and women’s stories about intimate partner violence is one of the main findings in Fjell’s study.
“Men’s stories are reminiscent of what we read in the traditional literature on wife abuse. Men are also beaten, hit on the head with an ashtray or threatened with a knife by their partners. Most of them tell about episodes of psychological violence, such as a wife calling on the phone constantly to control what her husband is doing. Or the partner makes threats. She might threaten to file for divorce if her husband has contact with his family. Some women threaten to murder the children,” says Fjell.
Common features of men’s stories
During the interviews Fjell found some common features that she believes are typical for men who are victims of intimate partner violence.
“There’s something about the way men tell their stories. I would call it understatement. Men are able to give concrete descriptions of violent situations, but they don’t call it violence. They often say that they could have thrown her to the ground; they just didn’t do it,” says Fjell, who puts this tendency in the men’s stories in a historical perspective:
“The concept of violence is changing all the time. If the men had told the same stories 60 or 40 years ago, it would not have been called violence, but today we recognize it as violence. Quite simply, it takes time to acquire a language that describes the same action in the same way for men and women,” says Fjell.
“In addition, the men I interviewed have fewer stories of gross violence than we find from female victims of violence. They also have less fear of being killed. Men might be afraid of being seriously injured, but they are not afraid of being murdered by their partners, like some women are,” explains Fjell.
Men at crisis centres
A common feature of the men Fjell interviewed was that they were very reluctant to seek out help. None of them had contacted a crisis centre, but they did not necessarily rule out the possibility. One of the men put it this way:
“If I had had someone to turn to, who I could go to anonymously, who wasn’t friends with both me and my partner or who didn’t have contact with both of us in another way, then I think I would have gone there. It should probably be a gender-neutral centre because I think very many women who are abused would benefit from seeing that it is not just women who get hit. We could help each other.”
Shame and invisibility
“I sat there with bruises on my face from the beating and didn’t dare say anything about it and…then she told me that it wasn’t really so bad. There were other things she didn’t believe me about. She said straight out that she didn’t believe me. That was the worst thing of all.”
This statement was made by one of Fjell’s informants. He was disappointed that when he told his regular therapist about the violence he experienced at home, she responded by mistrusting him and downplaying his experience. Many of the men Fjell interviewed refrained from telling others about the violence because they were afraid of not being believed. Shame was also part of the picture.
“Men help to keep their stories a secret by not talking about them. And the public system of services helps to maintain this secrecy by not acknowledging that men can be victims of violence. These two groups actually work together to keep the stories from coming to light. The title of this conference on violence against men is illustrative of this: Stories that never happened. But these stories do happen. The question is whether there is sufficient interest in the problem within the health service. There are very few places where we can acquire knowledge about male victims of violence and insufficient language for capturing what they experience. As a result, men often believe they are completely alone with their experiences. Many years can pass before they develop an awareness of what they have been subjected to,” says Fjell, who would like to see a discussion that brings violence against men out into the open.