Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 14

Male Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence: A SummaryFootnote 20

Summarized and updated by Cherami Wichmann

This article provides a summary of Male Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence in Canada, a report commissioned by the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, and prepared by Dr. Benjamin Roebuck and his colleagues from Algonquin College’s Victimology Research Centre. Where more recent data are available, statistics from the original report have been updated, and text boxes relating to self-reported and police-reported intimate partner violence (IPV) have been added.

1.0 Introduction

Significant numbers of men in Canada experience intimate partner violence (IPV), though it is rarely discussed. In research, policy and service delivery, more emphasis tends to be placed on violence against women (VAW) — and rightly so. Women are much more likely than men to be murdered by their intimate partners, to seek medical care for injuries resulting from physical or sexual assaults, and to lose access to housing as a result of IPV (Conroy, Burczycka and Savage 2019). However, the emphasis on VAW often overshadows the experiences of male survivors, many of whom report difficulty accessing help or navigating the legal system (Moreau 2019).

The report by Roebuck and colleagues examines the extent to which men who experience IPV are able to exercise their rights under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights and how well they are supported by victim assistance services. To achieve this goal, Roebuck and colleagues conducted a review of Canadian academic research published from 2010 to 2020.Footnote 21 In addition, they summarized findings from a research sample with 45 male survivors of IPV, part of a larger study of survivors of violent crime and resilience. The larger study was conducted in partnership with Algonquin College and the Victim Justice Network, and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Roebuck et al. 2020).

Police-reported Intimate Partner Violence

Men comprise about 20% of all IPV cases reported to police in Canada and about 20% of IPV homicide victims (Burczycka and Conroy 2018; Conroy 2021).

  • In 2019, this amounted to 23,146 men (Conroy 2021).
  • The rate of IPV reported to police by men and boys has increased over the past five years; between 2018 and 2019 the number of cases reported by men increased by 10%, while the number reported by women decreased by 5% (Conroy 2021Footnote 22). Between 2009 and 2019, the number of reported cases of IPV decreased less than the number of reported cases of non-IPV (-6% versus -14%; Conroy, 2021).
  • Men are less likely than women to report IPV to police, and when they do, it is less likely to result in an arrest or police record (Dutton 2012). In one Canadian study, 64% of male survivors of IPV who called police reported being treated as the abuser (Dutton 2012).
  • While Indigenous women represent 21% of female victims of intimate partner homicide, Indigenous males represent a much larger proportion (44%) of male victims of intimate partner homicide (Conroy 2021).
  • According to police-reported data, an annual average of more than 2,300 incidents of IPV involving same-sex partners occurred in Canada between 2009 and 2017. Of these incidents, 55% involved a male victim and a male accused (Ibrahim 2019).
Self-reported Intimate Partner Violence
  • About one third (36%) or 4.9 million men reported experiencing IPV in their lifetime (compared to 44% or 6.2 million women) (Cotter 2021).
  • When asked about the previous 12 months, 12% of women and 11% of men indicated experiencing some form of IPV (Cotter 2021).
  • The most common type of IPV reported by men was psychological (35%), followed by physical (17%) and then sexual (2%). This pattern was similar to that found for women (43%, 23%, and 12% respectively) (Cotter 2021).
  • In the previous 12 months, men were more likely than women to have experienced their partner being jealous and preventing them from talking to others (7% versus 5%); demanding to know where they were and who they were with at all times (4% versus 3%); slapping them (1.7% versus 0.8%); and hitting them with a fist or object, biting, or kicking them (1.3% versus 0.7%). Women were more likely to report measures of sexual assault, being choked, threats to harm or kill them or someone close to them, being harassed, and being followed or having their partner hang around their home or workplace (Cotter 2021).
  • Data from 2018 indicated that 48% of gay men and 66% of bisexual men had been psychologically, physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner at least once since the age of 15 (Jaffray 2021).
  • Gay and bisexual men are much more likely to have experienced physical or sexual assault by an intimate partner than heterosexual men (31% vs. 17%), and more likely to have experienced most types of IPV behaviours including the most severe violent behaviours (e.g., those that can result in serious physical harm and criminal charges; Jaffray 2021).
  • Nearly 17% of men and 18% of women said they were concerned about rising violence in the home during the COVID-19 pandemic (Statistics Canada 2020).

2.0 Findings

2.1 Literature review on male survivors of IPV

The literature review focused on definitions and descriptions of IPV, measuring IPV, interactions of male survivors with the justice system and service providers, and societal responses to male survivors.

2.1.1 Definitions and descriptions of IPV, and measuring prevalence

As would be expected, much of the broader literature used the terms violence against women (VAW) or gender-based violence to describe IPV. While these terms help acknowledge the disproportionate impact of IPV on women and the roles that gender, misogyny and patriarchy play in the dynamics of violence, defining IPV in these ways excludes male, transgender and gender non-conforming survivors.

As noted in Text Box 1 and 2, sources of data on IPV experienced by men include police reports and self-reports. However, there are challenges with each of those sources for determining prevalence of IPV for men. Dutton (2012) compared how frequently men and women who experience IPV call police: women who experience IPV are ten times more likely than men to call police. This may lead to an underrepresentation of police-reported IPV rates for men. Previous findings based on self-reported data that men and women report similar rates of IPV is referred to as “gender symmetry,” a topic of vigorous debate (Hamberger et al. 2016). On one side are critiques of the methodology used to measure and report violence; on the other, various victimization surveys of the general populations conducted in different countries at different times by government or academic sources have found that men and women report similar rates of IPV (Chan 2012; Chen and Chan, 2019). The actual prevalence is likely somewhere between the two. Regardless, a significant number of men experience IPV in Canada each year.

There was little research on the risk factors for male victims of IPV; however, two factors identified were alcohol use and mental health issues (Woodin et al. 2014; Zamorski and Wiens-Kinkaid 2013). Also, Indigenous men are more likely to experience IPV because of systemic risk factors related to colonization and cultural genocide (Boyce 2016; TRC 2015), but there was limited information on men from other ethnocultural groups.

With respect to recognition of the IPV they experience, men are less likely to identify non-physical controlling behaviours directed towards them as a form of abuse, while physical or sexual violence are likely to be identified as abuse regardless of gender (O’Campo et al. 2017).

Certain types of IPV are unique to same-sex couples, such as “outing” or threatening to “out” a partner (Gillis and Diamond 2011). Additionally, some gay men who are HIV+ have reported that their partners threaten to disclose that information to coerce behaviour (Gillis and Diamond 2011). Also, men reporting a minority sexual identity (those who stated they were gay, bisexual, or another sexual orientation other than heterosexual) have been found to be at considerably higher risk of all forms of violence when compared to heterosexual men (Jaffray 2021). There has been little research involving trans or gender non-conforming experiences of IPV.

Indigenous people were found to be more likely than non-Indigenous people to have experienced spousal violence (9% and 4%, respectively), and Indigenous men who experienced IPV were twice as likely as non-Indigenous men to report to police (8% and 4%, respectively; Boyce 2016). Brownridge (2010) reviewed data from Indigenous male survivors of IPV in Canada and noted that Indigenous males’ elevated risk for IPV could be attributed to the fact that they tend to be overrepresented in several risk categories for IPV including being younger, having lower levels of education and employment, living in a rural location, using alcohol, having a larger number of children in the family, colonization, cultural genocide, and intergenerational trauma.

Some research has explored differences in the impact of IPV on men and women. Ansara and Hindin (2011) used data from Canada’s 2004 General Social Survey on Victimization to compare the psychosocial consequences of IPV on female and male victims. While their findings suggest that women experience greater mental health consequences across all subtypes of IPV, they also highlight the limitations of their analysis, particularly that the terms men and women may use to describe mental health may differ (e.g., men are more likely to use the term “stress” and less likely to use “shame,” and “guilt”).

2.1.2 Interactions with the justice system and service providers

Many of the studies reviewed highlighted discrepancies between: how police respond to male and female survivors of IPV; the reduced likelihood of charges being laid when the victim is a man; the increased likelihood that survivors will be arrested when the survivors are men; and how risk assessment tools are poorly calibrated to men’s experiences of IPV.

Dutton (2012) found that police tend to perceive female perpetrators as being less abusive and requiring less intervention than male perpetrators, even when levels of IPV were matched across cases. Dutton also reported that police mistakenly assumed that the male victim was the abuser in 64% of cases when a man had called the police for help. Several researchers highlighted that a woman’s partner is more likely to be arrested for IPV than a man’s partner (Dawson and Hotton 2014; Mahony 2010; Millar and Brown 2010).

Gender bias also affects police responses. A discrepancy was noted in police perceptions of severity when the victim of IPV is a man, and some of the risk assessment tools used by police contain a gender-bias in their language and scoring based on the assumption that the victim is a woman (e.g., Hilton et al. 2014). For example, the Ontario Domestic Assault Risk Assessment (ODARA), used to assess risk of recidivism, features definitions of violence with feminine pronouns to describe actions taken against victims, and scoring instructions that refer to perpetrators as “wife assaulters” (Mental Health Centre Penetanguishene 2005).

Men who experience IPV in Canada often have difficulty knowing where to turn for help. There are few resources available to male survivors and men have reported being further traumatized by failed attempts to get help (Fortin et al. 2012). Until the April 2021 opening of a family shelter for fathers and children in Toronto, there were no IPV shelters in Canada dedicated to men, though a small number of IPV shelters did accept men and their children (Moreau 2019). Further, when men do seek help, they may be treated with suspicion and service providers may not be equipped with tools to address men’s trauma (Brend et al. 2020; Dutton 2012). Roebuck’s report highlights a number of emerging resources to improve responses.

Legislation, policy and service delivery options often focus on violence against women and there is little space to provide remedies for male survivors of IPV. The research reviewed in this study suggests that help-seeking by male victims of IPV can lead to greater distress. This is due not only to the lack of resources, such as shelters (Dutton 2012), but also to the poor quality of care that male victims tend to receive.

2.1.3 Societal responses to male survivors

Gender is important to understanding the impact of IPV. Men who are victimized by their partner can experience stigma for their perceived failure to live up to societal standards of masculinity (Arnocky and Vaillancourt 2014). The belief that only women can be victims of IPV contributes to further stigmatization and suppression of men’s experiences (Martin and Panteloudakis 2019). This stigma not only discourages disclosure and help-seeking, but also affects conceptualization of the violence that male victims experience. Many men either minimize the experience of IPV or lack awareness of non-physical violence. This combination decreases help-seeking behaviour among male victims and can lead to them assuming that seeking help for non-physical violence, such as stalking, is less important for them than it is for women (O’Campo et al. 2017).

IPV experienced by men is often underestimated and downplayed. This can make those who witness it less likely to intervene or to consider it dangerous. When men are not represented in public awareness campaigns about IPV, it can be more difficult for bystanders to recognize the warning signs. Increasing awareness of IPV experienced by men might make more people sympathize with all victims of IPV (Cismaru, Jensen, and Lavack 2010, 72).

The everyday language used to speak about victimization can reinforce gender inequality through biases that are either overt or subconscious. For example, Liu et al. (2018) found that gender-based languages (including French) tend to feminize words associated with victimhood (victim, injury) and masculinize words associated with perpetration (predator, perpetrator, assailant, aggressor), reflecting a gendered worldview that negatively predisposes society to perceive women as “victims” and men as “perpetrators.”

2.2 Research sample of male survivors of IPV for primary research undertaken by Roebuck and colleagues

A group of 45 male survivors of IPV in Canada completed surveys and two follow-up interviews. This research focused on: types of IPV experienced; barriers encountered when seeking help; interactions with police; level of satisfaction with the justice system; and whether their rights under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights were respected. The participants were also asked what had been helpful or unhelpful following their experiences of violence, and to share feedback on the criminal justice system, victim assistance services, and informal support received from family and friends.

Most participating male survivors were heterosexual (98%), Caucasian (89%), reported abuse by a female partner (98%), and resided in either Ontario (55%), British Columbia (25%) or Alberta (11%). All respondents were over 20 years old, and most were living with their partner full-time (78%), or part-time (11%) at the time of the violence. While this was a convenience sample and not representative of male survivors across Canada, the men who participated provided valuable insights.

The findings from the research sample were similar to that from the literature review (e.g., most commonly reported form of violence was psychological), but extended the understanding of certain areas (e.g., more information about how men experience coercive and/or controlling behaviours from their partners).

2.2.1 Types of IPV

The most common types of IPV reported by participants included psychological violence (86%), physical violence (84%), financial abuse (59%) and threats of violence to themselves, their children, or their pets (55%).

A common form of psychological violence reported by participants was the threat of false accusations by female partners. Participants said that their female partners believed they could file false charges to gain the upper hand in the justice system or family court. Participants reported being threatened with false accusations of abusing their children, and of physically or sexually assaulting their partners. Threats of this nature were used as a form of coercive control.Footnote 23 The participants reported that these false accusations affected not only them directly, but also their children.

Participants reported physical (e.g., broken bones, eye damage, and scarring from bite marks and stab wounds) and psychological harm (e.g., diagnosed and undiagnosed symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder , depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorder, agoraphobia, sleep disorders, and substance use disorders). Other reported health impacts included weight loss, chronic pain, memory loss and sexual arousal disorders.

2.2.2 Interactions with police and satisfaction with the justice system

About half of all participants (n=24; 52%) had contact with police, and about two-thirds had contact with either criminal court (n=17; 36%) or family court (n=14; 32%). Many participants reported negative experiences with the justice system, specifically with police; several had been arrested after calling police for help. Other participants stated that they did not call police because of the risk it posed to them or to maintaining custody of their children. A few participants reported positive interactions with police, explaining how police had taken the time needed to understand what was happening without making assumptions.

Overall, participants were dissatisfied with the justice system; only five percent reported satisfaction with the outcome and none reported satisfaction with the justice process. In the authors’ larger study on survivors of violent crime (N=435), male survivors of IPV reported lower satisfaction scores than any other group (i.e., males or females who experienced sexual violence, females who experienced IPV, and those who experienced forms of violence or violent death of someone close to them), including women who experienced IPV (Roebuck et al. 2020).

2.2.3 Accessing support

About half of participants sought support from friends (n=23; 53%) and/or family (n=20; 47%). Participants access a wide range of services including mental health services (n=12; 28%), child protection (n=8; 19%), domestic violence counsellors (n=7; 16%), virtual support services (n=6; 14%), a workplace employee assistance program (n=5; 12%), and/or healthcare workers (n=3; 7%). Some sought spiritual support (n=5; 12%) and/or participated in a peer support group (n=5; 12%). Finally, a quarter of participants (n=11; 26%) indicated that they did not interact with any services or supports.

The participants who received the help they sought provided the most positive feedback about interactions (in-person and/or virtual) with individual and family counsellors, and social workers. Some who accessed services, however, reported that support providers did not believe their accounts of IPV and lacked adequate knowledge of the impacts of IPV on male survivors. As with those who reported unsatisfactory interactions with the justice system, participants who were not believed by service providers were often frightened that their attempts to seek help could result in them facing criminal charges or losing custody of their children. Many participants reported that it was difficult to find help. Several stated that resources for survivors of IPV tend to be set up for women and children, and that it is unclear where men can access support.

2.2.4 Conclusions from the research sample

Men’s experiences with the justice system and with service providers occur within the broader context of men’s roles in society. Participants shared the pressure they felt to be strong, to be leaders in their homes, to be problem-solvers and to not appear weak. Many said it was difficult to disclose their IPV experience(s) to their peers, and upon doing so, reported being teased or receiving glib responses such as: “that doesn’t happen to men,” or “man up.” Those who received supportive responses from their peers often acknowledged how fortunate they felt to be believed. Many participants lacked access to the types of support available to women who experience IPV. For some participants, the risks involved in seeking help and the lack of resources were reasons enough to stay in the relationship.

The sample findings provide a basis for comparison with groups of female IPV survivors. The authors concluded that there is significant work to do to ensure that male survivors of IPV are able to access their rights under the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights, most importantly the right to protection.

3.0 Recommendations for change

Male Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence in Canada recommends changes in five areas.

3.1 Awareness, Education and Prevention

While education on violence against women must continue, the framing of education and prevention activities must be broadened to include IPV experienced by people of all genders and sexual orientations. Additionally, proven evidence-based programs that teach healthy relationship skills should be implemented in schools and post-secondary institutions.

3.2 Police, and the Criminal and Family Justice Systems

Risk assessment tools must be designed to respond adequately to IPV experienced by all genders and to the dynamics of coercive control. Additional assistance should be available to all IPV survivors appearing in family court.

In addition, IPV curriculum for police colleges should be updated to include more diverse examples of IPV, along with training on recognizing IPV and coercive control. Police should be directed to request feedback from male IPV survivors on how well the services provided met the survivors’ needs. IPV victims should also be able to request that an investigating officer of a particular gender be assigned to the case.

3.3 Victim Services

Shelter capacity should be increased for all genders. Agencies that currently serve women only should not be required to also serve men. Agencies with a mandate to serve all genders should review their practices to evaluate the how their services and outreach strategies contribute to gender inclusivity. To increase their ability to provide safer, trauma-informed spaces where men can heal, agencies should be encouraged to adopt the best practices and credentialing frameworks used by service providers who work with men. To ensure that the needs of male IPV survivors are met, they should be consulted when developing programming and outreach strategies. Programs that work with male abusers should be trauma-informed, responsive to gender-based power imbalances, address childhood experiences of violence, abuse and neglect, and be informed by feminist perspectives, understanding of queerness and traditional conceptions of masculinity in a way that validates and celebrates healthy masculinities.

3.4 Policy Development

Gender Based Plus (GBA+) analysis should be applied to government responses to IPV. All levels of government in Canada should provide leadership to alleviate the current housing crisis and recognize that access to safe and affordable housing is critical to personal safety.

3.5 Research

Research on male IPV survivors should be expanded to include patterns of IPV across the gender spectrum. Research should consider how men’s IPV experiences intersect with race, socioeconomic and disability status, parenting and long-term outcomes for children. Additionally, research needs to better explain cases of reciprocal violence in relationships and better distinguish violence used in self-defence.