If you hear the words ‘domestic violence’, which images come to mind? Most likely you will find yourself picturing a cowering wife and an angry husband with a raised fist. This is the default image of domestic abuse delivered by 1001 media articles and stock photos.

Threats and intimidation

But real-life domestic abuse is a more complicated and multi-faceted phenomenon. For one thing, it need not involve actual violence. This has been recognised in law since 2015, when section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created the offence of “controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship”. This term refers to the use of threats, bullying behaviour and intimidation in a relationship, in an attempt to cow a spouse or partner and control their behaviour.

Section 76 defines “controlling or coercive behaviour in the following way:

“A person (A) commits an offence if—

(a) A [they] repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person (B) that is controlling or coercive,

(b) at the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected [have a relationship],

(c) the behaviour has a serious effect on B, and

(d) A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.”

The section continues:

“A and B are “personally connected” if—

(a) A is in an intimate personal relationship with B, or

(b) A and B live together and—

(i) they are members of the same family, or

(ii) they have previously been in an intimate personal relationship with each other.”

Abusers typically attempt to limit their victims’ social lives, isolating them from friends or family, or controlling and monitoring their behaviour in the outside world – and if they succeed in wearing down their partner, this can all be achieved without leaving a single physical mark. Anyone found guilty of coercive control faces a maximum jail sentence of five years, a large fine, or both.

Male victims

There is another way which routine stock photo portrayal of domestic violence (DV) falls short of reality: not all victims are female. Yes, men do commit more domestic violence but nevertheless, a significant minority of victims are men. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, for every two female victims of domestic violence each year, a third victim will be male. That amounts to an average of 1.5 million women and 757,000 men per year.

However, many male victims quickly discover, however, that that the official support available to them is quite limited, and at times, almost non-existent. Few domestic violence shelters will admit men – only 22 out of 170 members of the tellingly named Women’s Aid Federation, for example, and even this represents significant progress,

Technically male victims are entitled to the same official support as their female counterparts. All domestic abuse survivors should be officially classed as “vulnerable” by their local authority, who will then have a statutory duty to provide them with emergency housing regardless of their gender. Part VII of the Housing Act 1996 and the Homelessness Act 2002 both address this requirement.

However, the popular portrayal, over decades, of domestic violence as an exclusively male-on-female phenomenon has had a lasting effect on perceptions, and male victims can still find obtaining official support and resources an uphill battle. Most DV services are firmly focussed on the needs of female victims and it is not uncommon for misinformed council officers to inform men that emergency housing is only available to female victims. This is a clear breach of the Equality Act 2010.

Thankfully, the situation is improving. Advice and support is now available to men experiencing domestic abuse via two separate national charities: the Mankind Initiative and Respect, who run the Men’s Advice Line.