No, violence against men isn’t a minor issue

A woman shouts at her partner. Most men suffer domestic violence in silence because society has yet to accept that men are equally victims.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • A study found that while most men remain silent, some resort to retaliatory violence.
  • Those who have the courage to speak out do so mainly to family members and clerics rather than administrators or police who were seen to treat such cases casually.

There continues to be silence on violence against men, despite acknowledgement that it is a component of gender-based violence, just like violence against women. This silence is evident in the number of studies on the issue. However, the few that exist provide useful insights.

Gender-based violence against men: A muted reality by Tsoaledi Thobejane and Ntshengedzeni Luthada (2018) affirms that men experience abuse, particularly of sexual or emotional nature, in intimate relationships. Aggravating factors include partners’ superior educational and economic status, intimidation by their powerful progenies, impunity, manipulation of legal loopholes and constant surveillance of men’s movements and activities.

Virtually all respondents in the study were “reluctant to speak out about their ordeal due to fear of being ridiculed by significant others in society”. Sexual violence against men is a particular candidate for silence because it is considered the ultimate emasculation with the affected feeling deprived of their masculinity as sex is considered an expression of power and conquest.

Gender-based domestic violence against African men: A case of the Gusii of Kenya by Javan Zaumambo Mokebo (2018) established that the most significant forms of the violence were verbal abuse, stalking, denial of meals, conjugal deprivation and threats. Women’s increased empowerment contributed to reversed power relations that led to the violence.

While most of the men remained silent, some resorted to retaliatory violence. Those who had the courage to speak out did so mainly to family members and religious/spiritual leaders rather than administrators or police who were seen to treat such cases casually.

Casual attitude towards the matter is exemplified by the June 23, 1993 case of the American lady, Lorena, who severed the penis of her husband, John Bobbit. Notwithstanding that she was retaliating, this act of penicide was treated more as a source of humour than outrage, with sellers of merchandise outside the courtroom where she was being tried displaying T-shirts labelled “A cut above the rest”.

Locally, reports of husband battery in Nyeri County in 2012 were largely treated as entertainment, complete with coinage of the word “Nyerification” to deride such victims.

Likewise, when a past presidential aspirant reported assault by his wife in 2018, the public was more concerned about his ability to lead the nation if he could not even manage the wife! Even law enforcers look upon men reporting abuse as time-wasting jokers who should return and assert their authority. In some cases, they counter-accuse those reporting as the actual perpetrators and re-victimise them.

What about the men? A critical review of men’s experiences of intimate partner violence by Scott-Storey, K et al (2022) observes that ignorance about this subject is primarily because it is dealt with using women as the point of reference.

Feminisation of victimhood

It notes that feminisation of victimhood means that a man accepting to be a sufferer presents a “dual violation of gendered and relational expectations,” which inverts the norm of masculine aggression and the expected pattern of male superiority in heterosexual relationships. In response, men tolerate abuse because they do not even recognise it. Thus, violence is trivialised as just a minor inconvenience from women.

The review emphasises that “psychological violence may be the most common form of violence experienced by men from intimate partners”, as manifested in threats, subtle coercion, intimidation, manipulation, humiliation, ostracisation, degradation, insults, control and doubts about sexual prowess. Such violence is difficult to prove, thus affected men feel it is futile to report them.

One area that has received considerable attention is violence against men in contexts of conflict, where this includes oral and anal rape, and other coerced sexual activity, including with inanimate objects, leading to genital disfigurement.

A survey in Liberia established that 32.6 per cent of former male combatants had been sexually violated. Another in the Democratic Republic of Congo revealed that 23.6 per cent of men in conflict-prone areas had been targeted because of their gender.

Kenyan media has shown that sexual atrocities against men in the Talai and Kipsigis communities were committed by colonial soldiers. Yet it is only in 2016 that the United Nations explicitly acknowledged this problem through the Guidelines for Investigating Conflict-Related Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Men and Boys and later the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Three concerns arise. One, theorisation on violence against men is still rudimentary and perhaps mistakenly relies on parameters used on violence against women. Two, men’s continued silence about the issue excludes it from public discourse.

Three, societal assumption that violence against men is a minor issue is hypocritical. Thus Mokebo’s recommendations that the issue should be declared a public health problem and further research be conducted to establish the exact magnitude of the problem are quite relevant.

The writer is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected]).