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Experience with Support Agencies

  • Marianne Inéz LienEmail author
  • Jørgen Lorentzen
Open Access
Chapter
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Victims and Victimology book series (PSVV)

Abstract

This chapter illuminates men’s experiences with support agencies. First, we investigate men’s help-seeking and their perception of the help they require. We highlight men’s experiences with family counselling services before focusing on men’s experiences of the services offered at crisis centres and at centres against incest and sexual abuse. Several of the men express the feeling that these centres have saved their lives. However, men find it problematic that women and men are kept separate in crisis centres and suggest it detracts from the service offered to them. We conclude the chapter with concrete proposals for action.

Help-Seeking and Needs

It is well documented in a number of surveys that few people who experience violence, regardless of the relationships in which that violence occurs, actually seek help. As mentioned earlier, clinical trials of women (and men) who seek assistance as a result of intimate partner violence show that these victims suffer extensive physical injury and psychological damage. The men we interviewed who had sought help from crisis centres had been exposed to danger and saw no other way out. Several of the other men in our sample needed protection and experienced serious forms of violence.

Harald never approached a doctor or the police when he was physically harmed. He never talked about it with family or friends until after he had got out of the relationship. Tom did not seek medical attention before a friend confronted him about his injuries and asked him to call the doctor. The doctor then persuaded him to call the police. In his conversation with the police, they made it clear that he should report his partner for violence, but Tom did not because he wanted to protect his daughter. He imagined a horrific scene in which the mother would be taken from their home by the police, and he refused to subject his daughter to that.

As previously outlined, men describe abuse that has contributed to anxiety and lack of self-esteem. Feelings of shame and self-loathing are frequent, as are concern for the children, caring for the partner, dependency on the partner and their partner’s psychological control, which have all led to their not having left the relationship sooner. We have also seen that not everyone has experienced equally serious violence. Those men who have experienced milder forms of violence also report detrimental effects. However, an important finding in this section of the study is that the experience of systematic violence among the men in our study bears a marked similarity to that described in interviews with female victims of violence (Gottzén 2016; Coker et al. 2002; Tjaden and Thoennes 2000).

The men who have lived for a long time in violent relationships with women say that the women have had a psychological hold over them through a range of controlling behaviours and emotional abuse. These include ridicule, threats and humiliation. It seems particularly difficult for men to stand up against the latent threat of being deprived of their children and/or being accused of being violent themselves. The men we interviewed who have been subjected to systematic violence by female partners say that they needed, more than anything, to be believed. The relief at being understood and having the violence documented is highlighted by these men as an important and positive aspect of the encounter with crisis centres. Men who have been exposed to severe physical and psychological violence over time express a need for longer-term support from mental health teams, and the chance to talk to reorient themselves after the violence.

It is an ongoing theme in several other studies that men do not want to admit to being victims or that they try to hold on to a form of control linked to masculine values and self-image. This is not as clear in our study. In spite of the fact that it has taken time for these men to acknowledge that they have been exposed to various forms of violence, and that some of them trivialise the physical violence, we do not see any strong resistance to their acknowledging that they have been the victims of serious violent events.

The men we met in Chaps.  4 and  5 have sought help at crisis centres, family protection and other agencies such as the police, a GP, psychiatric organisations and child welfare. We will now see how men describe their encounter with these support agencies. We will look mainly at their experiences with family protection and crisis centres. We ask where and how they have sought help and their evaluation of the help they received. Additionally, in this chapter we look at these men’s individual stories of seeking help, their encounter with the centres against incest and sexual abuse, and their evaluation of the help and support they have received.

At the Family Counselling Office

In Norway, couples therapy is offered by the family counselling service to married and cohabiting couples, as well as to couples who are in a romantic relationship but not living together. This service is available to both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Counselling may be sought because there are problems in the relationship or in connection with a breakup. All those who are married and have joint children under the age of 16 must obtain a valid mediation certificate before the County Governor can grant a separation or divorce. Cohabiting couples with joint children under the age of 16 must also attend mediation if they separate. A mediation certificate is required before the higher rate of child benefit will be granted. Parents who wish to petition the court for parental responsibility, permanent custody or contact rights must obtain a mediation certificate. The family counselling offices conduct statutory mediation. The aim of mediation is for the parents to come to an agreement about parental responsibility, permanent custody and contact. The primary purpose of any agreement relating to children is to safeguard the children’s best interests.

The purpose of the family protection service is to intervene early where families are experiencing conflict and difficulties, offering them treatment and counselling. In Norway, family protection has a mandate to mediate according to the Marriage Act (section 26) and the Children’s Act (section 51). Eight men in this study have had one or more meetings with family protection. Most were either summoned to a family protection office in connection with mediation due to the breakup of their relationship and/or arranged meetings on their own initiative in order to try to resolve conflicts after the breakup.

Albert and his wife attended a joint meeting to help establish future residence and a contact agreement for their two children. He explains that he did not think his ex-wife was a very good care provider and that he believed the children would do as well, if not better, with him after the breakup. He was largely the one who helped the children with their school work and saw to their social and physical activities. Since he contributed at least as much as his ex-wife in caring for the children, he wanted the children to live with him for the greater part or to share no less than 50 per cent of the parental responsibility. When he aired this possibility with his ex-wife and mentioned that he would suggest this to the family therapist, she threatened to take him to court. He said that he then chose to lie low at the meetings with family protection. We asked him how he experienced the talks they had with the family therapist:

I think the meeting with family protection was rather as expected. My wife wanted 60 per cent care. That was fine for family protection, but I didn’t think it was reasonable because I was at least equal to her as a care provider. I just had to give it to her because she threatened me with going to court, and I ended up accepting 60 per cent care.

To avoid problems, Albert signed the 40/60 agreement, despite the fact that he would have liked to have the children more. And in practice he does, but his wife still receives contributions from him as well as the full child benefit. He says that he knew there was no point in fighting for a 50 per cent division, because she “would have got what she wanted anyway”.

As mentioned previously, family therapists have the important task of uncovering violence and power relationships between couples in conflict. After approximately ten years, Harald wanted to break out of his marriage, and he and his wife therefore had to attend mediation with family protection. However, when asked if he mentioned the fact that he had been subjected to violence by his wife, Harald answers:

I didn’t say that I’d been subjected to violence. It wasn’t a subject I touched on, but then, we weren’t asked about it either. There weren’t any one-to-one conversations where they tried to make it possible for the partners to open up.

According to Harald, mediation about contact and residence for the children was the only focus of their joint discussions with the family therapist. He and his wife had agreed that they should try to get shared parental care by moving in and out of the family home and another apartment they rented. We asked him why he could not tell the therapist about the violence.

Researcher: Why couldn’t you say what you’d been subjected to?

My experiences were with me in that room of course, but I remember that when we came out of the mediation talks—my wife—she was smart, she was pretty, she presented as a resourceful woman, she could wind them around the little finger.

Researcher: What did you think about the situation, can you describe it?

Well. There are two women sitting there, my wife and a female family therapist, and then as a 30-year-old man I’m supposed to say: hey, I think my wife is psychologically abusive towards me. I assumed they’d think: oh, he’s trying to get more parental rights now, you see. No. I didn’t have the feeling that this was the right forum. Why would I say anything about it? I wouldn’t have been believed anyway, you see. That’s what I felt, plus the fact that—it’s also about how conscious you are yourself—about what’s going on. Because at that point I was very low. Any reality checks I had were blown out of the water, I thought I was totally and utterly worthless. That was the feeling I was sitting there with. A bit like: thank you for taking the time to mediate in the divorce between me and my crazy wife.

Harald believes that family protection contributed to hiding the violence because they were too concerned about being a neutral mediation body. In addition, he felt that his wife had the psychological upper hand and that she steered the discussions at the meetings. On the one hand, he assumed that no one would believe she subjected him to violence whatever he said. On the other, he felt that the family protection office was not a suitable forum in which to broach the subject of violence:

I think that by being neutral, one always has to listen to both sides of the case and try to reach some common understanding of things. Which means, in a way, that the only common understanding you’ll get to, is that of the person who has the power in the relationship. … But if she’d wanted more [parental] care, I’d have been screwed. I’d have been fucked. No one would believe me.

Several men explain that they resign themselves because they feel powerless, and because they sense that the family therapists will neither understand nor believe their version of events and their experience of the family situation. A sense of powerlessness and fear of being subject to suspicion are also clear in Fredrik’s narrative. As we shall see, it was his wife’s situation and the challenge of controlling her anger towards the children which were the focus in their mediation talks.

Fredrik says that during the first mediation meeting he did not talk to the therapist about the systematic emotional abuse to which his wife subjected the children. Nor were the harassment, threats and physical violence towards him ever raised. In the second mediation meeting, Fredrik mentioned that his wife threw things at him and had threatened him with a knife, but he felt that the family therapist treated him “like a fly on the wall” (his expression). The focus of the discussion went entirely on strengthening the relationship between mother and children, because she was clearly “tired” and unstable. Nor did Fredrik ever mention the psychological violence in later mediation meetings with family protection. When asked why he did not say anything about this, he says: “I felt a lot of guilt and shame and wasn’t going to bare my soul in a shared conversation with my wife and some unknown person.” In addition, the family therapist had already trivialised the physical violence he had mentioned previously. He got the impression that the family therapist did not believe him, and he had therefore decided to avoid any problems by putting the topic to rest in future discussions.

During our interview with Fredrik, he asked if we wanted documentation on his case because he thought: “I’m sure this all sounds pretty weird, and that I’m completely nuts.”

The interviews also show examples where family protection has met men with understanding of difficult relationships between mother and father. When Tor and his wife separated, they went to family protection for mediation. They had three meetings and received help in making a detailed agreement about their daughter’s residence. Tor felt that the family therapist saw his situation and acknowledged that his ex-wife was “difficult to cooperate with”. According to Tor, this meeting was the first time that he had been taken seriously by a support agency, and the therapist contributed to the agreement for the care of their daughter being formalised:

They did what was right at an early phase of a breakup. They explained their task and aim to mediate in the best interests of the child. … I think they saw that she was the difficult party who was not ready to cooperate.

Tor’s problems came later, to which we will return. After the divorce his wife took their daughter and moved a long distance away with no prior warning.

Tom also met understanding at the initial meetings with the family therapist when he contacted them saying that he was in “conflict” with his partner. The meetings showed that his partner had difficulties controlling her temper. The therapist was helpful and solution focused. She suggested that Tom’s partner could attend an anger management course run by family protection, but the partner did not want help with her anger:

We were there about four times. It was very positive. The therapist there was a mature lady. She was very attentive, I remember. Eventually she told my partner that an offer has come through for an anger management course, and that she’d recommend her. Then my partner got up, walked out of the door and never returned.

As previously mentioned, most of the men have experience of family protection in the contexts of mediation. Family protection has the best interests of the child in cases of conflict. Its aim is to help parents find the best solution for the children by making contact orders.

She’s the One Who Needs Help

Erik (52) does not have children with his current wife, but approached family protection for help with their relationship. He primarily wanted her to get help to deal with her aggression and feelings, and did not inform the family therapists that he was being subjected to violence. This is one of several attempts by Erik to get help for his wife. She refuses to accept help, despite the fact that Erik believes she clearly needs support in handling some very difficult childhood experiences. After years of violent episodes and much arguing, Erik contacted the family protection office. For him, outside help was, and still is, a prerequisite to his being able to continue the relationship. His wife preferred not to participate in partner therapy or seek the help of family protection. At the time of the interview, Erik and his wife had had joint sessions with a family therapist about five times. We asked Erik if the violence had been a topic for discussion.

Researcher: Have you talked to the therapist about what she is doing to you?

Erik: It has only been touched on, but we haven’t come so far as to get into these things. It’s still very superficial. We haven’t talked about the violence problem. We can sort of mention that there have been episodes, but we haven’t gone into any detail about what’s happened. There are things that we don’t really talk about at home because, once there’s been an episode like that, you’re completely broken and upset the next day. And then it’s kinda easier not to talk about it, then next time, when you want to bring it up it just turns into an uncomfortable situation and everything just gets pushed under the carpet.

As we can see, Erik speaks in terms of “we”, even though he is the initiator of these discussions and the subject of various sorts of violence. At home he cannot bring up the subject of the violence with his wife, because doing so generally makes it worse. Erik has sometimes had to take sick leave as a result of the conflict and violent episodes at home. However, he has not asked for a one-to-one consultation with the therapist, nor does he want to focus on the violence, since he feels that his wife is the one who needs help. When asked if he believes the therapist suspects that his wife is unstable and violent, Erik answers as follows:

I don’t know, but he [the therapist] is clever in a way at trying to avoid [talking about] some of these situations. When he observes us moving away from each other, we often end [the discussion]. Then we go on to talk about something more pleasant—so we can get closer.

As we see, Erik feels that the therapist tries to bring them together. Since the therapist does not know how difficult things are at home, the focus remains on the positive things in the relationship. Erik says he loves his wife and wants to help her. He says he knows that their relationship will be destroyed if he tells family protection that she hits him and kicks him and is verbally abusive when she is drunk. He says he feels sorry for her and wants to protect her.

Erik has a high level of education. He is the sole provider and has a large professional and personal network. His wife has neither a job nor a social network in Norway. She has repeatedly threatened to call the crisis centre when they have argued. Despite being depressed and angry and feeling that the situation with his wife is often out of control, Erik says he would never consider contacting a crisis centre himself to talk. He is a white man with a good job, the main provider and married to a minority woman. Who would believe that he feared her or needed protection?

Clinical Conversations

Andreas describes a time when he approached family protection to make an appointment in order to come to an agreement with his ex-girlfriend about contact with his son:

I went to family protection just before my son’s mother took him and moved away. My ex-girlfriend came to the meeting very reluctantly. But she was there and doubtless felt she was at war, since she seemed very nervous and on edge. She didn’t agree to anything more than the bare minimum of contact—just to what she had to [agree to] not to have sabotaged it. I’d also sought help from family protection before. Very little came out of the meetings with family protection. My ex was sort of pushed into it and thought it was just bullshit. She felt it as an attack on the control she had.

Researcher: Did she deny that there was any reason for you both being there?

Yes. yes. There wasn’t a problem in her eyes. Nothing in particular came out of those meetings. We were offered more sessions. I don’t remember them having any power or authority to go into anything at all.

Andreas says that he spoke openly with the family therapist about how the mother of his son refused to allow him to participate in the care of the child, and how in many ways she sabotaged the contact between them. The family therapists stated that they could not offer anything more than advice. We asked if he felt that family protection understood his situation:

I don’t really know if they were able to understand my situation because there were two explanations. Mine and hers. What I experienced was that all the agencies that had anything to do with parents and children worked only as advisors and they could try to steer things in a certain direction, but when one party exerts its power, it’s useless. In my case, the mother had all the power.

The latent threat of sabotage of their role as a father and of the switching of the violence relationship is central to the explanation several men give when telling us why they did not raise the subject of the violence with family therapists. The men’s reticence in talking to relevant professionals about the violence must be seen in the light of the social and institutional contexts in which they find themselves. It is important to question whether support professionals have good enough tools to map out the forms of violence that may be perpetrated by women and mothers. There are, of course, limitations in our material when it comes to making generalisations about the various support agencies, but these men’s stories can contribute to our understanding of why men remain silent about their experiences of violence.

The experience men have of meeting family protection is that staff either direct their professional and interpersonal focus to strengthening the mother–child relationship or appear to be so neutral that the problem of violence cannot be brought up.

Our interviews reveal that men have the words with which to describe their experiences and feelings. It is the fear of not being believed, or the perceived risk of being regarded as perpetrators themselves, which is why men do not talk to professionals or networks before they are physically injured or have a breakdown because of emotional abuse over time. Our interviews with men who have been helped by the crisis centres show that when these men encounter an environment where there is professional competence in the field of violence against men and where staff are ready to meet men and listen to their stories, men open up and accept help and support.

The men who have children have various experiences of sabotage of contact. Tor’s ex-wife broke the contact order, took their daughter and moved far away without telling him. Family protection has no mandate to intervene in such a situation, and the couple ended up in a bitter conflict in the courts.

As previously mentioned, Andreas did not live with his ex-girlfriend, making it possible for her to keep him in a marginal position in relationship to their son. The family therapist he spoke to was nice enough and she went some way to acknowledging his frustrations, but, according to Andreas, she could do nothing to help him in the disempowered situation he found himself in as a father. He describes how he experienced his conversations with the family therapist:

For me the whole situation was weird. I didn’t know what to do. You meet a system that’s designed to deal with violent men, bad fathers. They will make sure that the mother and child are protected. They aren’t geared up to help a father who’s a victim. So it’s a pretty raw deal, in my opinion. You don’t have anyone to go to for help.

In particular, those fathers who have lost access rights and/or been subjected to the repeated threat of losing contact with their children have experienced family protection as too passive, as having protected the mother and/or adopted a neutral attitude to the experiences of violence they have been told about.

The findings indicate that family protection has difficulty in uncovering women’s violence.

As part of a preliminary project for this study, we interviewed three family therapists with extensive experience in working with partner violence. We asked them how they worked with cases of family violence and their experiences with couples where the man was the victim. The two offices with whom we were in contact have a rule: if there is any suspicion that violence is involved in the relationship, they arrange a meeting with each partner separately. One of the challenges to have emerged is the reluctance in men to talk about being the victim of violence. It is generally the woman who presents the problems in the relationship, and who largely controls the dialogue with the therapist. It is her understanding of the situation that dominates this dialogue and the man often remains silent, letting her define the relationship.

Our interviews can give some insight into why men and fathers exposed to different forms of violence do not speak about their problems. Their silence should not be solely linked to norms of masculinity and the notion that men lack the language for their experiences (Kimmel 2002; Seidler 1997). Men’s silence can also be related to what is at stake in the family protection office—the risk of losing contact with children and the fear of switching of the violence and the dominating role.

The Wrong Sort of Victim

An experience which may be unique to men is the feeling of being the “wrong” sort of victim in the eyes of the support agencies, and a fear of not being believed when they first talk about their experiences. Men are still regarded as unacceptable victims of violence in intimate relationships (Kimmel 2002; Douglas et al. 2012). We have seen that men have both internal and external barriers to seeking help, and that those men who have been in contact with family protection and child protection find that the system has been set up to support abused women and/or mentally unstable mothers. A similar gender bias in support agencies is found in other interviews of men subjected to intimate partner violence (Machado et al. 2016; Corbally 2015). In a Portuguese survey of men subjected to intimate partner violence, Machado et al. (2016) found that men suffer in silence and that the risk of stigma, gender bias in the relevant agencies, together with strong internalisation of ideals about masculinity prevent them from seeking help. The cultural perception of family violence and masculinity contributes to the self-censorship of feelings and experiences when encountering therapists, but also affects men’s relationships with friends and family. When family therapists have no sense of the “social game” (Bourdieu 2001), they risk becoming the co-creators of symbolic violence, in that they misconstrue cultural beliefs about mothers and the position of power that women occupy in this context as both legitimate and natural (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, pp. 5–6).

Family protection and child welfare are the bearers of hegemonic discourses about violence and parenthood. Fear of switching of the violence and the perpetrator role must be seen in the light of established discourse about family violence both within and outside the institutions the couple find themselves in.

Crisis Centres for Men

In Norway there are 43 crisis centres for men. In 2016 there were 131 men living in Norwegian crisis centres. The numbers of men and nights of stay have remained relatively stable in comparison with the figures for 2014 and 2015, but represent a considerable increase from before 2010, when a law was passed making it mandatory for crisis centres to be made available to men. Prior to 2010 crisis centres were open only to women, just as they usually are across the world. They were organised differently, run by voluntary organisations or by local councils. When the law was passed instituting the right of access to crisis centres, it became gender neutral, as indeed all laws are in Norway, and it was also made mandatory to offer services locally for male victims of violence.

The offer of crisis centres is therefore aimed at all those who are vulnerable to violence in intimate relationships; that is, both women and men, the elderly, children (with their caregivers), young people, disabled people, members of the LGBT community (lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transvestites).

Some crisis centres offer either free and temporary accommodation which is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, while others have a daytime service offering one-to-one counselling and the opportunity to join support groups. No referral is required to get into a crisis centre and users can remain anonymous if they wish.

Experiences of Help from Crisis Centres

Most of the men interviewed express huge satisfaction with the help they have received from crisis centres and the centres against incest and sexual assault. Some, however, are less satisfied and have suggestions for improvement, something to which we will return. Nevertheless, the overall picture is that crisis centres have in many ways been crucial to these men’s view of themselves, and their understanding of what they have been subjected to and how they can move on in life. Both the Norwegian men and those from minority backgrounds are largely pleased with the offer. This generally tallies with the findings of the report Menn på krisesenter (Men at Crisis Centres; Grøvdal and Jonassen 2015, p. 73) and differs from findings in previous studies about men’s experiences with other services (Machado et al. 2016).

Arild says he is “very pleased” with his stay at the centre. Bashir says that “they were really welcoming, and it was safe too”. Deo emphasizes that “they have helped me a lot, and they are very kind”. Ali says that “I was looked after really well, it was good to feel that there was someone who could help you in this difficult situation.”

When we ask Jonas what he thinks about the help he received, he says:

I probably wouldn’t be here today without their help. Actually, the most important thing they did for me was to help me see what kind of life I’d lived. It took a long time before I could admit that there had been something called violence from her side. They also taught me—they spent a lot of time telling me off, unbelievably, they taught me where my responsibility begins and where it ends. I can’t take responsibility for the things she does, least of all the things she does when I’m not there.

Researcher: They really helped you through then?

Yes, I don’t think I’d have managed this without them, looking back that’s what I think—if I’d managed without them, I don’t think I’d have been a very good person today, especially towards women. It was really positive because—as I said I know some men in the same situation, I see some of them around. Many of them are real women-haters. I see abused women who are man-haters, and it’s very easy to fall into that. But despite everything it was women who welcomed me, and it’s women I’ve talked to.

Jonas feels that he has a completely different understanding of himself and of what he went through after his stay at the crisis centre. He is glad he went there because it was touch and go, according to him. First his mother almost forced him to make contact, then she drove him down and left him on the steps outside. He met an acquaintance, who already lived there, but he told her he was not thinking of staying, he just wanted to take a look. But then he told her his story and she started pulling him up the steps. Jonas says:

Then she started to pull me and wanted to drag me up the steps and I held back. I said: you won’t get me in there, not at least—I know you live here, you’re not going to get me in there. Then she rang the doorbell and a member of staff came out, she pulled me up straight and pushed me in through the door. But I was so sure that this place, that it wasn’t for me, I was scared I’d be accused of something and that I’d have to listen to how nice my wife was.

When he entered the therapy room he was shaking so much that he spilled his coffee. He was terrified. Jonas did not want to talk about the violence and with that show his own vulnerability. He was also afraid he would not be believed. Jonas says that he was afraid that they would say that his wife was sweet and nice and that he was the problem. So deeply engrained is the idea of who the perpetrator of violence is in a relationship between a man and woman that men who are exposed to it assume that they will never be believed. It may also have been the notion of a “sisterhood” that many people connect with crisis centres which increased Jonas’s fear.

The crisis centre was also of vital importance to Peter, and he too found it difficult to make the first contact:

Before I came here, it felt very humiliating, it really did. But on the other hand, when I came here for the first time, and rang on the doorbell, and went up to the conversation room, it was like losing 1000 kilos from off my shoulders. It was such a relief to be able to sit there. They said I could sleep there. It was lovely because then I felt so free. To me it was like sitting in heaven.

The combination of uncertainty as to what they are going into, their general lack of knowledge about the crisis centre and the fact that they were met with such professionalism and caring is central to these men’s interpretation of their encounter with the crisis centre. They have low, or even no, expectations, or in Jonas’s case negative expectations. When they are met with support and recognition, it is like arriving in “heaven”. In many ways the men we interviewed from the crisis centre see themselves as the lucky ones who found their way there; they are grateful that someone would talk to them at all and take them seriously.

Problems with Separate Accommodation and Inadequate Help

Carlos (22) is in a slightly unusual situation in that he is an adult, but came to the crisis centre with his mother and brother. The whole family had been subjected to violence by the father and the stepfather. According to the Norwegian Crisis Centre Act, men and women must be accommodated in separate areas of the centre. Carlos’s story illustrates challenges in how crisis centres are organised. Since he was over 18, he had to live on his own in the men’s section, rather than with his mother and younger brother. The men’s section is physically separate from the women’s and there were no other men living at the centre during the weeks he spent there, so Carlos was alone. His mother was allowed to visit him in the men’s section, while Carlos could not visit his mother in the women’s section. This shows how problematic the segregation of men and women can be. Because Carlos was defined as a man, he could not set foot in the women’s section and participate in any family activities that were arranged there. Nonetheless, Carlos is very pleased with the professional help he received:

Researcher: You came to the crisis centre as a young adult. Did they take care of you too, or did they only take care of your mother? That’s an important question for me.

Yes, I really felt that when they talked with me, I was the focus, and of course there was talk about the whole situation, but they wanted to take care of me. They came up with some ideas—that perhaps I could live on my own and be more self-reliant because I was going to take some exams and so forth. That wasn’t what I wanted, but at least they wanted to safeguard my interests separately to my mother. I felt they were thinking like that.

Researcher: Yes, because the situations you’ve been through for years are pretty traumatic?

Yes.

Researcher: So it was important to address that too, to look at it.

I felt they helped me with that. Yes. It was amazingly kind that such an offer exists. What would have happened [without it]? What would we have done? It was absolutely amazing. Really.

The staff at the centre recognised that Carlos had taken a huge amount of responsibility in the situation—for both his mother and his younger siblings—and they encouraged him to take care of his own needs. Their support became extremely important to him. At the same time, gender-divided accommodation meant that he was excluded from his family’s everyday life and he had no other men in the same situation to talk to. Several other interviewees also suggested that separate accommodation could have an unfortunate impact on social relationships and eventual rehabilitation. Peter says that the women had a barbecue one evening, which he was not allowed to attend. Instead, the staff came in with some barbecued food for him. Peter thought this was boring and rather a shame, and he did not understand why he could not join in. “We could actually have had something to talk about. They (the women) come here for similar reasons to me,” he comments. From the men’s perspective—“we’re all in the same boat”—the statutory segregation of the sexes can seem inappropriate and a constructed distinction.

Ali also reflects on this difference. He thinks it would be good if the women and men could meet for some hours in the afternoon and if some mealtimes could be shared. “Why couldn’t we eat our meals together?” he asks. Ali, too, is far from dissatisfied with his stay, but thinks that improvements could be made. He also says that he feels there are differences in the way women and men are treated: “the women here get help quickly and straight away”.

Most of the men who came to the centre lived there alone and had to manage for themselves. The fact that the men are isolated from a larger community at the centre represents a continuation of the loneliness these men experienced before arriving there. Considering the vulnerability of their situation, we consider this to be problematic.

The clearest criticisms of the treatment at the crisis centre come from Zaid and Daniel. When Daniel called the council’s crisis centre and asked for help, he was told that “the only offer they had was for women”. Although Daniel had nowhere to live, he was not allowed to stay at the centre, nor was he informed that the council had a duty to find him a place. The crisis centre asked him to contact the Red Cross or a similar organisation. Daniel is perhaps one of the men in our research who was subjected to the most extensive violence, and he has no explanation as to why he was turned away by the crisis centre.

The centre also promised to call him back, but failed to do so. Daniel was extremely disappointed about this, but he was fortunate enough to be offered excellent help from Skeiv verden1 when he contacted them. Daniel is also the only interviewee who says that he cannot advise other men to contact the crisis centre.

Zaid was very impressed by the “fantastic” help he was getting at the crisis centre, until, when he had been there for four weeks, he was suddenly informed that he would have to move out the following day. This came as a huge shock to him and his situation worsened substantially as a result. He was told by the crisis centre to approach Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV), who would find him a place to stay. The whole experience of being thrown out led him to say in his interview that he is now in a terrible state and “hates everything”. Zaid feels that the centre gave him poor information and he does not understand why he could not live there any longer.

The positive feedback we received from these men about their experiences with crisis centres proved to apply equally to men who sought help from incest centres.

Centres Against Incest and Sexual Abuse

In Norway there are 19 centres against incest and sexual abuse. They are all are open to men. One of the centres only offers its services to men. The statistics have always shown that the majority of the users of centres against incest and sexual abuse are women and girls. By 2016, 82 per cent of users who had suffered sexual abuse (from both family and non-family members) were women and 18 per cent were men. The distribution of genders has been relatively stable over time. The percentage of men varied from 16 per cent to 20 per cent between 2009 and 2016. Among the male users who were victims the average age was 39 years, as opposed to 34 years for women. Of those users who were aged 50 and above, almost 3 out of 10 were men. The figures show that it usually takes longer for men to get to the stage where seeking help becomes a possibility: 54 per cent of men were subjected to abuse for the first time when they were between 7 and 15 years old. Only 16 per cent of men say that they reported the relationship and 11 per cent of the male victims had applied for criminal injuries compensation. Later in this chapter we investigate men’s experience of the help they have received from support centres. We will now turn our focus to the experiences reported by men of talking/conversation therapies and other contact with professionals as well as activities offered by these centres.

Experiences with Conversation Therapies and Other Help

The experiences reported by the men from the two centres against sexual abuse that participated in our study are overwhelmingly and unambiguously positive. The staff at these two centres are highly valued and appreciated by the men we interviewed. It is not rare for the men to describe their encounter with these centres as a crucial turning point, a moment when their lives began to go in a more positive direction.

Bjørn (48) had never spoken to anyone (not even his former partner) about the abuse to which he had been subjected aged 11, before he contacted one of the centres in 2014. This meant that Bjørn had carried his memories inside him for 35 years without talking to anyone about them. In the end, however, the need to talk about the abuse with someone became so strong that it could no longer be ignored: “It was like something gnawing was at my stomach, and it felt like I was going to faint … I felt nauseous.” He searched the internet and found the centre. This was to be a turning point for him: “All honour and glory to those who work here, they are fantastically clever people!” His contact with the support centre has since enabled Bjørn to tell, among other people, his daughter, his doctor and his boss what he went through as a child. He says he was well treated and got various kinds of support, which were all excellent.

Terje claims to have had little or no real help earlier in dealing with the sexual abuse in his childhood. He contacted the centre through his brother and feels he received good treatment there. The continuous contact with the centre has helped Terje to lighten the consequences of his childhood abuse, and even to render his appalling past harmless.

Arne, as mentioned earlier, was subjected to sexual abuse by his football trainer when he was 12. The abuse was discovered and the perpetrator was tried and convicted. Nevertheless, Arne feels that it was only when he came into contact with the centre that he received any real help in dealing with his experiences. Before coming to the centre he was about to give up, since there seemed little chance of getting help anywhere. So this was Arne’s last hope (he was referred by his GP). He is full of praise for the treatment he received at the centre and says that the experience has been nothing but positive. He says his female conversation partner is amazing, that his needs have been “totally” met and that his time with the centre represents a turning point in his life. Erlend is also full of praise for the centre and its staff. He describes his contact with the centre as “completely amazing. It was unbelievably good to come here.”

On a scale of one to ten, Odd gives the centre he visits a ten. Here he meets understanding, is accepted as he is and is given the help he needs to think more clearly and in new ways about himself and his difficult experiences. Odd is emphatic when he says that the help he received there made it possible for him to go on with his life and gave him back a sense of joy.

At first Sølve was sceptical and reticent about the activities and opportunities he was offered, but has become increasingly positive over time: “The centre works for me 100 per cent. Yes.”

Many men mention the importance of talking to another man about their experiences of abuse. For those who have been abused by women, having a male talking partner can be essential. One or two men suggest that the gender of the person they meet to talk about their experiences is irrelevant or, indeed, that they feel more comfortable talking to a woman. Most, however, prefer to talk to a man and also emphasise the importance of this being a man with similar experiences to their own. This contributes to the sense of being heard, seen and understood. In contrast to the formal support available, Odd (63) insists that “the guys here have [hands-on] knowledge, they know [about it] from their own experience”. Joar (28) says that “it’s amazingly good to have someone to talk to as an adult, especially a man who might also have experienced stuff”. Joar says he would have come to the centre earlier if he had known the quality of the help he would get there.

The importance of being received quickly after you have taken the very difficult step of ringing or visiting the centre is also highlighted. It is essential that the men are not left to stand in a queue or made to wait their turn. The unbureaucratic organisation and spirit of these centres appear therefore to be as important as the experience of being really understood and respected. The importance of being seen quickly and easily, and received with open arms without any expectation or judgement, is also crucial to the positive experience offered at these centres.

Given the positive impact these centres have had, and continue to have, on the lives of our interviewees, it is important to identify how they found out about the centres’ activities and how they came into contact with them. Most of them seem to have had only the vaguest knowledge, or no knowledge at all, of the various activities run by the centres. They have quite simply been driven to attend by the overwhelming need to talk about the sexual assaults to which they have been exposed, often in childhood: difficult and/or painful experiences that they have never previously shared with anyone or, for that matter, received any professional help in processing. Often it is a current crisis in life, such as a divorce or other marital problem, which is the trigger. But it can also be the accumulated weight of painful experiences, which eventually becomes impossible to bear. Sometimes it can be a small, yet significant incident that triggers memories and symptoms linked to the abuse.

In three cases, it was someone close (partner, sibling) who tipped the men off about the centres’ existence and the chance of their getting help there. Three were referred by other professional agencies or persons (staff members of other crisis centres, e.g. doctors). Three others found information after looking on the internet, while one found out about it in a short article.

Summary and Recommendations for an Improved Support System

Earlier studies indicate that negative childhood experiences are one of the main causes of ill health in adulthood (Felitti et al. 1998; Felitti 2003). These studies also indicate that various types of difficulties accumulate and increase the risk. Factors that contribute to an increased vulnerability are, among other things, physical and sexual violence, emotional neglect, the divorce of parents, and parents suffering with mental illness and/or alcohol problems. Previous studies have, as mentioned earlier, also shown that people who have experienced violence from others are at increased risk of partner violence (Haaland et al. 2005, p. 54).

In this study we find that many of the men who have been in contact with the centres against incest and sexual abuse because of their childhood experiences of violence and sexual abuse have also experienced violence in adulthood. Those men who have been subjected to sexual assault have generally also been subjected to other forms of physical violence, bullying, psychological violence or neglect. Of the men in our study subjected to partner violence, there are several who say they were also subjected to bullying and other violence as children and/or teenagers; this is particularly true in the case of men from immigrant backgrounds. However, several of the men describe a stable and secure childhood.

The consequences of violence vary in gravity and depend on its extent and duration. But the consequences of sexual abuse and other forms of violence are very often wide reaching and profound: shame, guilt and fear are common, as are low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and alcohol or drug abuse. Other common reactions and symptoms in men, which can more specifically be linked to trauma, are anxiety, panic attacks, depression, sleeping difficulties, phobias, avoidance of situations reminiscent of the abuse, elevated stress levels, hyper-vigilance and dissociation.

For many of the men in our study, abuse and violence have also had social consequences, including lack of confidence, loneliness, tendencies towards isolation and problems with close or intimate relationships. The men who have been subjected to violence and abuse have often taken time before being able to acknowledge and deal with the violence of which they have been a victim. Years have frequently gone by before these men reached out to any support agencies. Interviews we have conducted with staff within family protection, crisis centres and centres against incest and sexual abuse reflect the findings of prevalence studies—that most men wait a long time to approach healthcare services, the police or other professionals when they experience violence. By the time they seek help, the violence has generally been going on for a long time.

Nordic and international studies have found that men who are exposed to physical and mental abuse by a partner suffer similar physical and psychological damage to that experienced by women (Grøvdal and Jonassen 2015; Helweg-Larsen and Frederiksen 2008; Sogn and Hjemdal 2009; Hines and Douglas 2011, 2015; Hines et al. 2001; Coker et al. 2002). The right kind of help from support agencies can help reduce the negative health effects of violence in intimate relationships and contribute to helping both victims and their children. Being believed is essential to receiving help. Our interviews with men who have experienced partner violence perpetrated by women suggest that women/mothers have a privileged position within the system: that they can sabotage contact, threaten court action and/or the switching of the violence and power relationship. Those offering help must understand that men who are the main providers and in full-time employment can live with serious violence from women.

Encounters with various professional bodies—such as the DPS (local psychiatric units), medical profession, psychologists, police or schools—are often described in these interviews as inadequate or negative. Despite examples to the contrary, the men in our sample have often felt that they have not been listened to; they have even been ignored and occasionally misdiagnosed.

A common experience among most of the fathers in our study is that they feel that family protection and other organisations spend more time supporting mentally unstable mothers than assessing the father’s resources and ability to offer care. The men find that parts of the government support system, such as family protection, have a gender bias and that staff subject them to indirect abuse by taking the side of violent mothers. Several of our interviewees say they have had no legal protection as fathers. However, our sample is not large enough for us to claim that these men’s experiences represent a widespread trend among men who are in contact with family protection in Norway.

It is also important to point out that the majority of our interviewees who have been users of family protection had no contact with family therapists until late in the process—that is, in situations of high-level conflict and relationship breakdown. We have found that men often feel that support agencies are oriented towards traditional gendered beliefs about men and women. This is in line with other studies. In a Norwegian interview study of minority men’s encounters with family protection, it was found that the views of staff were coloured by just such traditional assumptions about men and women, and that such prejudices almost automatically led staff to take the side of the woman (Lopez 2007, pp. 10–11). Looking at these studies in context, we can infer that the official support system has difficulty in addressing men’s vulnerability and their need for help in these difficult situations in their lives, and that this must be seen in the light of dominant gendered ideas and understanding of “violence” and “victims”.

Surveys carried out in the present study have also documented that the support system appears to be lacking in knowledge about the services available to men subjected to violence in intimate relationships. These findings may indicate that the system has problems identifying male victims and/or not recognizing when men require help.

A pilot study on violence against men in intimate relationships (Sogn and Hjemdal 2009) revealed that despite the goodwill of the support system, only a few organisations actively disseminated information about the services on offer to male victims of violence. As we have shown in Chap.  3, few people know that family protection also offers help to men who are experiencing violence in intimate relationships.

As mentioned before, most of the men in this study who have used a crisis centre report benefiting greatly from its services. This applies to both Norwegian and foreign men. A challenge that many men face in other parts of the system is that staff have not taken them seriously, have failed to recognise their role as fathers or have been suspicious of them. Seidler (1994) writes that men are educated to be careful about what they say because words can easily be used against them. As we have seen, the fathers in this part of the study spent a lot of time and thought finding strategies to avoid the switching of the violence relationship. A common strategy is not to talk about the violence to which they are being subjected.

For decades in Norway, there has been a strong political will to achieve gender equality. This has been expressed in the establishment of fathers’ rights to paternity leave, and in proactively making moves to prevent violence and abuse against women. Norway is one of the countries in the world in which most women are in work or education, and where it is taken for granted in most areas of society that both parents will participate in the care and education of their children. The men we interviewed who have children express a strong desire to be actively involved as fathers. The majority have taken a long paternity leave and say they have taken considerable responsibility for housework and care of the children. As we have seen, we also have some dramatic examples of fathers who have been deprived of the opportunity to be a significant caregiver to their children. Our sample consists of modern fathers who are the main breadwinners and also victims of violence. Their stories have been silent thus far in the discourse about violence in intimate relationships. Gender-biased understandings in and outside the support agencies (who should ideally be helping children and both parents) can contribute to those agencies becoming co-agents in the reproduction of a stereotypical gendered bias about violence in close relationships.

Violence and abuse have major health, social and socio-economic consequences. Violence between parents also affects any children involved. We see the current emphasis on putting resources into the prevention of violence and abuse (including bullying), with a focus on children and young people, as extremely positive. Our study shows that men who were victims of sexual abuse at a young age also experienced physical and mental violence, neglect and, interestingly, bullying at school. With early detection of violence and abuse, and specific intervention and treatment where necessary, a great deal of human suffering can be reduced. We have seen in the Norwegian survey (Chap.  3) that even in the various official support systems whose mandate it is to offer support and help, there is a lack of knowledge about the services available for men who are being subjected to violence and abuse. We also know that several other countries in Europe and the Nordic regions do not have crisis centres or other emergency facilities for men who are experiencing serious violence in intimate relationships.

The Norwegian government’s plan against violence and abuse for the period 2016–2021—Opptrappingsplan mot Vold og overgrep (Prop. 2016–2017)—provides an overview of possible measures to combat violence in close relationships, as well as violence and abuse against children, and of the main challenges related to the subject. The plan contains both short-term and long-term strategies to meet these challenges and presents a clear understanding of the major health and social consequences of violence and abuse.

Violence and abuse often lead to major physical and psychological problems for those individuals affected, and can also lead to lower educational attainment in school among children and adolescents, and thus poorer career opportunities later in life. For some, the consequences will be a reduced opportunity to participate in working life and a generally lower quality of life. The socio-economic costs, as pointed out in Prop. 2016–2017, are also significant.

The ambition behind this plan is to raise awareness and improve understanding among the wider public, but also to emphasise that the competence to deal with violence and abuse among professional groups appointed to do so (e.g. doctors, nurses, psychologists, police, lawyers) or those whose work puts them in a position to detect suspicious cases (e.g. teachers, staff working in child welfare) is worthwhile and valuable. The interviews with male victims of violence and abuse in our study indicate that such awareness is often lacking or entirely absent. Occasionally the lack of knowledge among various professionals has surfaced in shocking ways. Other studies have also found that discourses of masculinity and partner abuse frequently disadvantage men in identifying partner violence and seeking help (Corbally 2015).

It is crucial to identify violence early in order to prevent revictimisation. Victims of violence must be offered assistance. The public should be aware of the help available. Taken as a whole, our study provides the basis for the following general recommendations to prevent, detect and deal with violence in intimate relationships in Norway and in other countries:

  • Preventative work is important, because violence and abuse have major health, social and societal consequences.

  • Services offering help for men exposed to violence in intimate relationships (and their children) must be strengthened.

  • Assistance for men subjected to violence in intimate relationships (and their children) must be better known about by the general public, by the victims of violence and in the support system itself.

  • Understanding of issues that particularly affect men must be improved, including fear of and/or switching of the power/violence relationship and the threat of being deprived of parental care and contact with children.

  • Psychological violence must be put on the agenda as a major offence against men, so that support agencies can detect violence against men more efficiently and offer adequate help and treatment.

  • Awareness should be raised of the fact that psychological violence has serious consequences for the vulnerable.

  • There is a need to strengthen the competence of general and specialist health services and mental health-care services in identifying and handling violence and sexual abuse against boys and men.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Skeiv verden is a national organization for LGBT people with minority background in Norway.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OsloBlindern, OsloNorway
  2. 2.Hedda FoundationNesoddenNorway

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