Pioneering support group offers help to male survivors of abuse
BELOIT—Jimmy once confided in his pastor that his wife was physically abusive.
“He told me it was always the man's fault when things like that happen,” Jimmy recalled. “He didn't give me any advice about what to do.”
For a long time, Jimmy wrongly believed he was responsible for the violence.
“I had knives thrown at me,” he said. “One barely missed my eyes. She hit my face and scratched me a lot. I still have deep scars on my arms today.”
Jimmy is humiliated by the experience and did not want to be identified by his real name.
The Rock County man and his wife eventually divorced.
But the pain of the relationship still haunts him.
“There's a lot of disbelief when a man says this happens to him,” Jimmy said. “Domestic violence is not a male thing or a female thing. It is a human thing.”
Earlier this year, he found a nonjudgmental place to share his experience. He regularly attends a support group for male survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Beloit.
“It gives me an outlet to talk,” Jimmy said. “When it first happened, I had no place to go. I felt alone. I thought it was just me feeling crazy. The whole conversation always has been on what men do to women, which makes it harder for men to talk about what happens to them.”
MEN'S RECOVERY GROUP
Stephanie Hormig of the Beloit Domestic Violence Survivor Center started the pioneering recovery group with help from the Sexual Assault Recovery Program.
She believes it is the only group of its kind in Rock County.
“We wanted to grow our outreach services,” Hormig said. “I gathered information on what a support group for men might look like.”
In her research, she realized that one in four men have been physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, according to statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The number is one in three for women.
“It's time to bring out the male survivors,” Hormig said. “They need as much healing as the women do.”
Men are reluctant to come forward because people see them as perpetrators, not victims, she said.
In a 2011 study, male victims of domestic violence were more likely to be arrested when calling police on female perpetrators, Hormig said.
In Jimmy's case, he often was arrested when his wife called the police.
“I wouldn't say anything when the police came,” Jimmy said. “I would take the blame because I didn't want anyone else to know what was happening. The one thing you don't want to do around other men is make yourself appear weak. There's humiliation in talking about it.”
Jimmy also said police had a hard time believing a man such as himself, who weighs more than 200 pounds, is a victim.
“I could have easily pitted myself against my wife,” Jimmy said. “But I was taught not to hit a woman. I never had any kind of situation like that until I ran into her.”
As time passed, Jimmy became more isolated because friends did not want to come to his house. He worked as many hours as he could so he would not have to go home.
The pattern continued until the violence escalated.
“I always tried to rationalize my wife's behavior,” Jimmy said. “She came from an alcoholic family as a child. I loved her and wanted to work it out. As a man, I am not wired to be a victim or to call myself a victim. What I wanted was help to get me through it.”
THE WAY FORWARD
Hormig talks about stereotypes about men during the support group. She also explores emotions.
“My purpose is to show the men that being a survivor is emotional,” she said. “A lot of men have been taught that having emotion is weakness. I try to help them see it is OK to have emotions while dealing with this.”
Stacey Stackhouse of the Sexual Assault Recovery Program said many men, like women, do not report sexual abuse, especially when they are young.
“They are confused,” she said. “They are embarrassed. It is hard for them to admit that they have been sexually assaulted. Men think they are supposed to be macho. They are supposed to be strong. It is embarrassing to their ego.”
Stackhouse, who co-leads the support group, said one in six boys will be sexually abused before age 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
She said the number is likely higher because abuse is under-reported.
“It's hard for women to deal with sexual assault,” she said. “It's also hard for men. We have a blind eye to it.”
Some men never talk about the abuse and suffer negative consequences later on. Among them are serious mental health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and other drug abuse.
Stackhouse is pushing hard to make men aware of the support group.
“We are trying to get more men involved,” she said. “Just coming in is a huge first step. This group is very much needed.”
Both Stackhouse and Hormig initially were concerned about women leading a support group for men.
So far, the experience is positive, they said.
“The men say it is easier talking to a female who is empathetic,” Hormig said. “We make them feel as comfortable as possible. We don't force anyone to talk if they don't want to.”
She called the support group “a judge-free zone.”
“We are there to help each other heal,” Hormig said. “The men are a support system for each other. They create a safe place with a shared respect. It is wonderful to see.”