One in four women in Germany experience violence in a relationship at some point in their lives. But domestic violence also affects over 3000 men in Berlin every year. And they have a hard time finding assistance.
In March 2011 Peter Müller* was admitted to a hospital in Mönchengladbach for a broken cheekbone. He told the doctors he had fallen on the stairs. The 42-year-old is 1.82-metres tall and trained as a carpenter before working as a stage technician. Who would doubt his story?
Colleagues noticed he often had injuries. “When I had injuries on my face that I couldn’t hide, I would say that my dog had scratched me or I walked into a wall,” he remembers. But the truth was that he was being hit by his wife of five years. “She would pick a fight, which would start verbally but then escalate to a violent outburst on her part.” In extreme cases, “she would destroy my things (e.g., clothes, cameras, a guitar and a laptop). Or she would attack me with a pair of scissors, a knife, an ashtray, a hammer or whatever else was at hand.” His wife is only 1.65 metres tall and “not so strong”. But “when she got into a rage, she would have the strength of a bear.”
She would attack me with a pair of scissors, a knife, an ashtray, a hammer or whatever else was at hand.
Müller couldn’t identify any triggers. Sometimes she might accuse him of looking at another woman – “but sometimes a word that she didn’t like was enough.” Why didn’t he fight back? “As a child, my brothers and I were beaten by my father. After these experiences, it was clear for me that I never wanted to be violent.” There were no children to worry about, but he didn’t know how to react. “After the second or third incident, I told myself I would end the relationship the next time.” But he didn’t. “I knew I needed to break up with her, but I was psychologically so powerless… I couldn’t.”
At work, someone even asked him, “Did you take a beating from your wife?” He wanted to tell people what was happening, but he didn’t know how. “Instead, I had suicidal thoughts for a time.” Even after moving out of their shared apartment in January of 2012, “I couldn’t find any help as a man who was hit and humiliated by his wife.” Only in May at a therapeutic men’s group was he able to speak about his experiences for the first time.
Müller’s story is shocking. Female-on-male domestic violence is very rarely taken seriously, relegated to slapstick cartoons and stand-up punchlines. But in the real world, it’s more common than we think.
According to statistics from the Berlin Police for 2011, 23.6 percent of the victims of domestic violence were men – about one out of every four – and 23.8 percent of the perpetrators were women. These sensational numbers led to a wave of stories in the German press over the summer: “More and more women beat up their partners.”
However, when it comes to domestic violence, data are both dubious and lacking.
First, the above numbers only register official complaints, as Jennifer Rotter from the Berlin Initiative Against Violence Against Women (BIG) explains. “Police have reported that when they respond to domestic violence calls, sometimes a man who has attacked his partner will then file a complaint against her to justify his actions.” A woman might have been acting in self-defence, or might have done nothing at all, but she would still appear in this statistic. In addition, the 3053 male victims might have been hurt by female or male partners.
No matter what, women remain the main victims of domestic violence. While the BIG defends the right of every victim to professional assistance, Rotter reminds people that “even if a quarter of cases involve women attacking men, then three quarters of all victims are still women”. The last representative study by the Federal Ministry for Families, Seniors, Women and Youth from 2004 found that one in four women in Germany experienced violence in a relationship within their lifetime. No such representative studies exist about domestic violence against men: “We can really only guess,” says Rotter.
When men see themselves in a desperate situation, they don’t ask for help but instead throw themselves in front of a train.
The BIG, which offers counselling to victims of domestic violence, receives on average 7000 calls from women each year – last year only four came from men. But this number is also not representative. Numbers about domestic violence are always just the tip of the iceberg – most cases go unreported. “For women, it is difficult to admit they are victims. But for men, it is even more difficult because they will be asked, ‘What kind of man are you?’”
The most ‘serious’ violence tends to be male – men murder their female partners eight times as often as the other way around. But family therapist Peter Thiel cites several studies to argue that perpetrators of low- or mid-level violence, including psychological violence, could be up to 50 percent female. According to Alexander Tönnies of the Berlin police, female abusers “bite, hit, kick, scratch, take a frying pan or a stick, or throw a vase”.
BIG directs men to the Opferhilfe (Help for Victims), which assists between 15 and 40 men per year. “A man must probably overcome a lot of shame to disclose that he has been hit or humiliated,” says Opferhilfe worker Manuel Martay. When men come to them, there are limited options. While Berlin has seven publicly financed Frauenhäuser (women’s houses), there are no such houses for men. “The only public services available to these men are homeless shelters.”
In most cases of domestic violence, the police usually expel the perpetrator from the home. But if the victim is a man and there are children around, the man often has to leave the apartment so that the children can stay with the mother. Some men have also spoken to the Opferhilfe about “amused looks” from the police when they make reports.
This is where Thiel comes in. He runs a private Männerhaus (men’s house) – currently just a single apartment in Lichtenberg costing €30 per night. “Sometimes we get three calls in one week, and sometimes it is empty for two weeks.” Women ask for help much more easily; men need to be encouraged. He cites the example of Zürich, which ran a campaign with posters showing a man saying, “If she is angry, my wife will hit me. I can’t tell that to anyone…” accompanied by a telephone number. Berlin has never had such posters. “No help is offered, so men don’t have the feeling that they can receive any,” says Thiel. He has appealed to both the Berlin Senate and the Anti-Discrimination Agency for better campaigns and state funding for Mannerhäuser. His website states, “It is unacceptable that men are being treated worse than women.”
Thiel also criticises the fact that many hotlines for victims are staffed exclusively by women: “Sometimes when a man comes for counselling, they look at him suspiciously.” But men need help for their own reasons: “Men who ‘out’ themselves feel like they will be seen as crybabies. They are conditioned to appear strong. When they see themselves in a desperate situation, they don’t ask for help but instead throw themselves in front of a train.” The suicide rate in Germany is more than three times higher for men than for women.
For Martay, there’s no way around it: whether or not they feel they will be disbelieved or made fun of, male victims should definitely report. “I know cases of outstanding assistance from the police,” he says. Victims of physical attacks should also “try to defend themselves without injuring the other person, and gather evidence of their injuries”.
Müller has come a long way. The divorce proceedings with his wife are underway and although he still can’t talk about his experiences without stuttering or crying, he’s now working through his post-traumatic stress disorder in a therapeutic group for men. Based on his own experience, he also encourages male victims to admit to themselves that they need help. “You will receive more understanding than you can imagine.”