Domestic violence victims are often women, but not only women. In Texas, one in three men report facing intimate partner violence in their lifetimes.
This month the Dallas nonprofit The Family Place opened one of the country’s first shelters exclusively for battered men and their families.
For better or worse
There wasn’t time to pack. When Jeff* finally decided to leave with his two daughters, they jumped in the car and sped away.
“I went and got cash out of the ATM [...] as much as I could pull, filled up the gas tank. About the second store I was in, I got a message [saying] that ‘I’m shutting off the debit card' — because by then she figured out we weren’t coming home,” he says.
Now, the problem was where to go next? After two decades of emotional and physical abuse, Jeff, who’s in his early 40s, says he had no friends, wasn’t allowed to go to church or make decisions for himself.
"You love this person,” he says. “You've entered into a marriage covenant. Sickness and health, better or worse. And you are going better or for worse, right? 'Well, I know you threw a cell phone at me. I know you threw your glasses at me, but it’s for better or worse, right? I know you said you didn’t mean to push into me or open the door in my face, or our child’s face, but it’s for better or worse, right?' You keep playing that through your head.”
Jeff and his older daughter created a “safe word,” when it was bad enough that they needed to leave, she’d say the word. One day, it got that bad. He started calling down the list of domestic violence shelters in North Texas. The responses were crushing.
“The thing you [hear] the most is they only serve women. ‘We’re sorry to hear you’re in the position you are, we’re here to support you but we only serve women.’”
Seeing beyond gender
Men and women perpetrate violence at roughly the same rates, yet there are far fewer resources to help men, according to Emily Douglas, an associate professor of social work at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. She’s one of a few academics in the country to study male domestic violence victims.
“As a society we don’t necessarily see that men are capable of being the targets of partner violence,” Douglas says.
Estimates of general partner violence in the U.S. range from about 8 percent to 18 percent, and from 3 percent to 5.5 percent for severe violence — with approximately equal rates of male and female perpetration.
Douglas says men stay in abusive relationships the same reasons women do.
“They love their partner, [they say] that marriage is for life, and if they leave, they’re afraid they'll lose access to their children, which is the same kind of things we’ve been hearing women say for decades.”
In 2014, The National Domestic Violence Hotline recorded about 6,960 interactions from people identifying as male victims. In 2016, that number nearly doubled.
And yet a large-scale study of male victims who called domestic violence hotlines shows only 8 percent found them “very helpful.” Sixteen percent said the people at the hotline dismissed or made fun of them.
“Providers often times aren’t really prepared to deal with anyone other than a straight woman,” Douglas says.
The rise of male-oriented shelters
The day after Jeff and his daughters finally left home, the very first shelter for men opened in Texas. It’s a wooden, two-story house in Dallas with a basketball court in back.
Paige Flink, CEO of The Family Place, shows off the large kitchen and room with security cameras to monitor the premises of the men’s shelter.
“In the past two years, we kept seeing an increase in men seeking shelter. First we thought it was an aberration; we weren’t sure what was going on. But it just got more and more expensive.”
Flink says she was spending around $150,000 a year putting up male victims of partner violence in hotels. She and some other shelters managers across the country say it makes financial and therapeutic sense to provide a safe space specifically for men.
The very first one — called Taylor House for Men — opened in Batesville, Arkansas two years ago. Shelter manager Bill Miller says he got some strange looks when he told people about his new job.
“People tend to think of ‘battered’ only when they think of domestic violence, [but] there’s much more: It can be psychological, it can be financial, it can be father on son, son on father, family members. There’s any number of ways that this manifests itself.”
So far, Miller says more than 30 men have stayed at the Arkansas shelter.
“Clearly there is a need. We get calls from all over the country,” he says.
Researcher Emily Douglas is thrilled more shelters are opening for men. But she wonders if it’s always necessary to separate men from women. The idea is that being exposed to the opposite sex could hinder recovery.
“That is the idea,” Douglas says, “But it is still based on this ideology that partner violence is something that happens to straight people only. If you are a man in a relationship with another man and you are being abused by that individual, maybe it would be helpful to be surrounded by women … I don’t know.”
It’s new territory for researchers, just as it is for folks running shelters. The managers at the Arkansas shelter and The Family Place say they’ll see if this approach works.
First to test it out in Dallas — Jeff and his two girls. Sitting inside a bedroom with bunk beds and a TV, Jeff says it feels like he’s finally pulling his head out of the clouds.
“And even after you pull yourself out of the cloud, it still takes time to say, 'Where am I? Who am I?'” Jeff says. “I know I can do all these things, but who am I anymore?”
Jeff isn’t sure where he’ll go next. But he’s beginning to make decisions for himself and his daughters again. This week, after six years, he’s excited to take them back to church.
*We’re calling him Jeff to protect his identity.
- The Family Place in Dallas offers a 24-hour crisis hotline at 214-941-1991.
- The Family Place provides an online guide to the warning signs of an abusive personality.
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline is also available 24/7 at 800-799-7233. Their website has suggestions for a personal safety plan.