Male Domestic Violence Survivors Come Out of the Shadows
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When Johnny Keane (not his real name) left Brighton two years ago he threw his mobile phone and house keys into the sea. With nothing more than a rucksack on his back, he abandoned his old life and lived like a fugitive for the next 10 months, sleeping on friends' floors and park benches, stealing vegetables from greenhouses when he had no money to eat.
Only a few months earlier he had been enjoying a seemingly enviable lifestyle, with a successful career, a seafront home, expensive cars and enough money to send his children to private schools. But after six years of relentless psychological and physical abuse from his then-girlfriend, the mother of his children, sleeping rough was a welcome escape.
"When I told her I was leaving for the last time she nearly pulled the skin from my face," Johnny recalls. "That was pretty normal behaviour from her -â€“ clawing, kicking, spitting, punching. One night she hit me over the back of the head with a marble chopping board. That was 12 stitches. I've been attacked with scissors, knives, everything. If I fell asleep on the sofa after work, she'd put her cigarette out on me to wake me up."
If there is nothing extraordinary in the grim details of an abusive relationship, hearing a man speak candidly about his experience as a victim remains highly unusual. Although government statistics estimate that one in six men suffer some form of domestic abuse during their lifetime compared with one in four women (and there is consensus among those working in the area that men are far less likely to seek help than women, meaning the number could be even higher), violence perpetrated by women against men remains one of the least openly discussed problems in today's society.
Johnny met his girlfriend when he was 30; she fell pregnant within six weeks. "I thought it was everything I wanted," he says. "I was 30 and felt ready to be a dad. I had no idea what was in store for me. I wanted to end my life on more than one occasion.
"Pretty soon it became clear that she was using a lot of drugs and often drank too much, but she had violent tendencies even when she wasn't using. It wasn't just an incident once a month or once a week even. It was a deeply harrowing incident every day. Sometimes a dozen times a day. There was no respite, so I didn't have any time to reflect and think, 'This is wrong.'"
Johnny experienced domestic violence in all of its forms -â€“ "mental torture, manipulation and control through our children, as well as physical violence. But when you love somebody and they tell you they love you, it's very difficult to leave or pursue prosecution. She'd been a victim herself in the past. All I wanted was for it to stop."
Last month, Erin Pizzey, founder of one of the world's first women's refuges in 1971, launched an online campaign and research project to raise awareness of the issue and help men such as Johnny. "This kind of violence is one of the last taboos," she says. "Much is known and studied about male violence, but very little is written about women, and any attempt to discuss female violence is met with howls of 'blaming the victim'."
Pizzey also condemns the "shocking" lack of outlets available for men who do find the courage to speak out â€“- a difficulty Johnny encountered first-hand when he first looked elsewhere for help.
"You don't hear men talking about this at the pub," he says. "The first time I went into the police station five years ago and said I needed help, they laughed and told me to go home. People can't believe it. She's this tiny little thing, seven stone, and I'm a big bloke, about 14 stone. In the end it took a nervous breakdown for me to seek help again. I was a wreck, I'd lost four-and-a-half stone in weight. I lost my job, my home â€“- I lost everything."
Patrick Jones, a writer from south Wales who spent seven years with an abusive partner, believes that fear of ridicule and a lack of services dealing specifically with this problem keeps many men in violent relationships.
"I never sought medical help for any of the injuries," he says. "I just thought no one would believe me, it sounded so silly. I tried talking to my doctor about my depression and where it was coming from but he just prescribed me some tablets.
"On the few occasions I talked to other men, the response was terrible. It was like a brick wall. So I just put my head down, got on with it and lived for the tiny moments that were OK. I still don't really feel I can moan about it. It's not like I'm fighting in Iraq."
While Patrick eventually managed to make the break from his partner and move on with life on his own â€“- writing a play, Revelation, about his experiences in the process -â€“ Johnny found salvation of a sort after coming across the ManKind Initiative, one of a handful of specialist charities in Britain dealing with male victims of domestic violence. "I was walking out of a police station one day after another incident with my partner and I saw a leaflet for ManKind. They were the first people to listen and help me and without them I wouldn't be here. I made them a promise that when I had structure and stability in my life again that I would give something back to them."
It says a lot about the general silence surrounding female domestic violence that ManKind's telephone helpline is in danger of closing in the next few months because of a lack of funding. "And it only costs Â£30,000 a year to keep it going," says Johnny. "It's nothing, but it's so important."
Johnny is now living in council accommodation while he seeks employment, but in the meantime he is trying to give back to those who helped him by serving as a member of a local domestic-violence forum and talking about his own experience to other victims and professionals working on the issue. It is a dramatically different life from the one he was used to, but he says he has never felt happier. "Our whole relationship, for eight years, was just total destruction. Looking back, I'm amazed I lasted so long. Now I know my kids are safe in the care of other people, I've got peace in my life for the first time in years."