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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.”


glance

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News
After legalization, hemp advocates look to next steps

EAST TROY

Hemp cleared its biggest obstacle Thursday when Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill legalizing its production.

But before farmers can work the crop into their rotations, the state’s hemp marketplace must first get up to speed.

“That economic supply chain is going to have to be developed once again,” said Allison Pratt-Szeliga, the program manager at Michael Fields Agriculture Institute in East Troy. “Wisconsin used to have several hemp mills around the state. You could just bring your crop there, and they would start to process it. We don’t have that anymore.”

Learning how to grow hemp, having enough seeds for everyone interested in production, modifying farm equipment and building processing plants—the crop’s to-do list is an extensive one.

Michael Fields is a nonprofit organization promoting sustainable agriculture through research and education. It is looking forward to learning more about hemp and becoming an adviser to interested farmers, Pratt-Szeliga said.

“It’s been on our radar for a while. Industrial hemp used to be one of the No. 1 crops in Wisconsin,” she said. “When people started talking about it again, it was always like, ‘Oh this would be a really great research opportunity for us.’”

More than 30 states have already legalized the crop, so Wisconsin is not at the forefront of hemp production. But the bill earned bipartisan support and unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature.

Farmers are showing varying levels of interest. Some expect to be early adapters, while others remain skeptical, Pratt-Szeliga said.

Ken Anderson, president of seed company Legacy Hemp in Prescott, worked with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau to pass the legislation. He believes it won’t take farmers long to overcome the learning curve and begin production, he said.

“Getting farmers to produce quality grain for us is not an issue. We have faith they can do it. We know they can do it,” Anderson said. “The issue is getting grain into markets and expanding the market. Some people see that as obstacles. I see it as an opportunity.”

He and Pratt-Szeliga are both waiting on the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to develop hemp regulations. Then, work can begin.

It’s possible hemp processors and hemp equipment flood the marketplace quickly enough for production to begin this spring. If not, it might take another year, Pratt-Szeliga said.

The final product can serve plenty of uses. Depending on which variety and which part of the plant is used, hemp can be turned into food, clothes, insulation, construction materials and more, she said.

As she talked, she held out her arm and showed off her shirt made from hemp.

She believes growing hemp for seeds might be the easiest way for Wisconsin farmers to enter the market. In an agricultural region dominated by corn and soybeans, it’s the type of market they’re accustomed to, Pratt-Szeliga said.

Now, crop producers just need a processing partner.

“I do feel there are people out there who are entrepreneurs at heart who are interested in different economic opportunities,” Pratt-Szeliga said. “I’m sure some people will jump on this.”