Ingeborg van Teeseling recounts the personal story of a friend and his battle to be taken seriously as a victim of sexual abuse, and the path his story put her on to learn more about male victims of abuse.
The first time I realised that men can be victims of sexual violence, I was sitting in a bar. My friend, let’s call him David, was very drunk, and out of the blue, started crying. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me. He was the oldest of six children, born in a family with little money but big ambitions. His mother was a towering figure, who worked three jobs and was clearly much stronger than his father. When David was four years old, his mother called him into the marital bed, after his dad had gone to work. She fondled him and told him to touch her vagina. At some stage, when she was clearly aroused, she put her finger in the boy’s anus, while directing him on what to do with her clitoris. This was the start of years of sexual abuse that went on until he was eleven years old, when he told his father. The repercussions were immediate and devastating. The next day, his mother called the local children’s home and told the brothers there that she couldn’t cope with her son anymore.
A week later, David had to pack his bags and was suddenly surrounded by men in cassocks. On the day he was admitted, the monk in charge of the children called him and three other young boys that had just arrived into his office. He made them undress and inspected their genitals. David and one other boy were then sent to another monk, who would become their regular abuser over the next six years. By the time David told me this story, he was in his early thirties and in love with one of my female friends. They had been going out for a year or so and she had started talking about having children. David was petrified.
He was well aware of the statistics, which tell us that the victims of abuse often go on become perpetrators later in life. He had tried to get help, but most medical professionals did not believe him, and the others did not know what to do. I tried to say something useful but I’m afraid I failed him as well.
A few months after our conversation, David went to the hardware shop and bought a rope. Another friend of ours, who worked as a postie at the time, found him hanging from a beam the next day.
Our current conversations about domestic and family violence centre on female victims and male abusers. That is understandable because mostly this is the way violence works. Mostly, but not all the time. According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2013, roughly one in three victims of partner violence, emotional abuse and stalking, is male. Almost one in three (29.6 percent) of victims of sexual assault is male as well. Only in six percent of the cases the perpetrator is another male; in all other cases, it is a female.
In 2015, the Australian Institute of Criminology and SBS looked at the figures for domestic or family homicide between 1989 and 2012 and counted 408 males who were killed by their female partners (24.8 percent), against 1,237 females (75.2 percent). Between 2010 and 2012, 75 males died at the hands of their female partners. Also, the Victorian Victims Support Agency brought out a report in 2012, which stated that over 30 percent of people admitted to Victorian hospitals for family violence injuries were male.
A few years after David’s death, I decided to use my job as a journalist to find out more. The research process was one of the most difficult I have ever had to go through. This was the end of the 1990s and there were hardly any statistics available. I tried to find men who wanted to talk about it but most of them opted out at the last minute. Police and healthcare professionals told me they had never heard of male victims of anything, and were dismissive of both my quest and David’s story.
Most of all, they had serious doubts about the “mechanics” of it all. “How can men be forced into sex?”, people often objected, and, “Women are weaker than men, so how can they hurt, let alone kill them?”
A lot of the professionals also thought that male victims were either whinging about nothing or should be real men, the strong and silent type, accepting of a bit of “biffo” because that was all part and parcel of a relationship, right?
Because I felt I owed David, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the story and finally had a bit of luck when somebody told me that the first men’s refuge had just opened in the UK. Still living in Holland, I got on a plane and spent almost a week in a five-bedroom home in a rather sad looking suburb of one of Britain’s big cities. Four men had just moved in, two with their young children. One of them, let’s call him John, was sporting large bandages on both his left thigh and his left arm, where his wife had stabbed him with a knife. His eldest son was missing some of his hair, because his mother had grabbed him by the head when he attempted to intervene. Two days before, John had walked into his local police station, bleeding profusely and with his distraught children in tow, wanting to make a statement. The men at the desk had laughed at him and made jokes, shaming him in front of his offspring, telling them that their father was a “big wuss who needed to get his act together.” Then they asked John what he had done to make his wife this angry. For John, this was the worst part. Not only had they not taken him seriously or accepted his claim, they had made him feel like he was to blame, not his wife.
When my article was published, I got hundreds of responses. Most of them were from women, and most were furious. How dare I, they said, write about male victims when there were so many females in need of help? A lot of them also agreed with the professionals mentioned in my story: no woman, they thought, would ever hit or kill a man for no reason. Women were peaceful beings; if they lashed out, surely they were provoked. A lot of the letters called me a traitor of my gender and said my piece had set back women’s liberation, considerably.
It is more than 25 years since David died and I am hoping that the response to this article will be different. I am not holding my breath, though. Most of the campaigns against domestic violence and most of the legislation and support is geared toward female victims and male perpetrators. Regardless of the statistics, our ideas of masculinity and femininity are hindering our understanding of the crux of the problem: violence, any violence, is about power, not about gender.
It is humans suffering from it and humans inflicting it. It is as simple as that.