Men’s Experiences Of Violence And Abuse From A Female Intimate Partner: Power, Masculinity And Institutional Systems – October 2011


The phenomenon of intimate partner abuse has attracted considerable attention over the past 40 years. However, although the epidemiological literature has consistently reported that at least 30-40% of those experiencing intimate partner abuse are men, it has come to be constructed as a gendered social problem where heterosexual men are stereotyped as ‘dangerous’ perpetrators and their female partners as ‘vulnerable’ victims. Consequently, the ‘abused man’ and the ‘abusing woman’ have come to be marginalized, not only in statutory policy and service provision, but also in academic research and the development of psychological interventions.

My thesis argues that heterosexual ‘abused men’ are constrained from occupying the position of victim and are consequently denied the compassion and support available to ‘abused women’. The research sought to understand how heterosexual men constructed their experiences of abuse and to consider how these constructions impacted on the negotiation of their identity in response to abuse and also their help-seeking conduct. The research was informed by a critical realist epistemology and adopted a discourse analytic approach, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault.

The men’s accounts constructed their partner’s behaviour as challenging but non impactful and explainable by psychological problems, caused by past traumatic experiences, and precipitated by current material stressors. The warranted responses included endurance, social withdrawal and seeking psychological support for the partner. The constructions drew attention to a range of institutional and self disciplinary practices, deployed in the context of stereotyped accounts of gender and partner abuse, which served to constrain the men’s public identities and help seeking conduct.

This research echoes calls for more inclusive research into the phenomenon of partner abuse and psychological interventions for ‘abused men’ and ‘abusing women’. Those who provide services, including psychological services, should also be better informed and trained to respond appropriately to ‘abused men’ and ‘abusing women’.

Dr Simon Josolyne
Clinical Psychologist
Graduand of the Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology
University of East London, Stratford Campus
Water Lane (The Green Entrance)
Stratford, London E15 4LZ


Aims of the Research:

The primary aim of the research is to explore how abuse by a female intimate partner is constructed in and through men’s talk and to identify the material and social practices warranted by these constructions. The secondary aim of the project will be to identify the subject positions enabled by these constructions and to consider how the identity and conduct of the ‘abused man’ are constrained or enabled in the context of self-governing practices acting at the level of society, institutions and the individual (McNay, 2009).

Analytic Approach:

The research is informed by a critical realist epistemology, reflecting Parker (1992), who has argued that discursive constructions are grounded in social and material structures. Critical realist psychologists posit a complex dynamic relationship between the material and the discursive in the operation of power to constrain or enable human conduct (Hook, 2001). For my analytic method, I have adopted a post-structuralist approach to discourse analysis drawing on the work of Foucault (1982), in order to focus on mechanisms of power and subjectification. My analytic approach will be discussed in detail in chapter 2.

Issues of Definition:

Firstly, I will briefly deconstruct the title of this dissertation; “Men’s experiences of violence and abuse from a female intimate partner: Power, masculinity and institutional systems.” The first part of the title is an attempt to convey the heterogeneity of problematic or impactful interpersonal behaviour experienced by men in intimate relationships with



Several writers (e.g. Willig, 1999) have distinguished between ‘methodology’, as being the study of methods and dealing with the philosophical assumptions underlying the research process (i.e. critical realist social constructionism),
and ‘method’, being a specific technique for data collection under those philosophical assumptions (e.g. discourse analysis). This project utilised a Critical Realist Discourse Analytic method informed by Foucauldian principles (CRDA),
which will be explained in detail in sub-section 2.2.2. The following section provides an explanation and rationale for adopting a discourse analytic method.

Data Collection Procedures:

Material for the study was collected through semi-structured discursive interviews with research participants. These interviews ranged in length with the shortest being 1 hour 40 minutes and the longest 2 hours 20 minutes (average approximately 120 minutes). An estimate of 90 minutes duration was given to interviewees beforehand. Finishing times were negotiated at the start of each interview.

The interview schedule was developed in collaboration with my director of studies, and amended slightly following an initial interview. Questions were developed based on the existing literature, and aimed to gain the participants’ perception of the context and experience of abuse from a female partner and related events (e.g. seeking help).

An attempt was made to use simple, non-professional language which did not assume any particular professional stance or knowledge (Patel, 1999). This was important given that the participants came from a variety of backgrounds. In practice, I adopted a conversational interview style based on Potter and Wetherell (1987) allowing interviewees to elaborate on their views. I also adopted a discursive approach (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009), using a cue-sheet to remind me to maintain awareness of potential discourses or assumptions deployed or influencing the participants’ responses, as well as to identify inconsistencies and counter-discourses when apparent.

In addition, I sought to be an active participant within the interview, maintaining awareness of potential discourses or assumptions influencing me, while remaining aware of the interview as a conversation/dialogue and our respective ways of speaking, positioning ourselves and relational styles.

Most interviews were held in an interview room at the university. At the participants’ request two interviews were conducted at their home. Before beginning the interview, participants were asked to sign a consent form. Participants were given the opportunity to ask questions about the research at the beginning and the end of the interview. They were also asked how they had found the interview process, and in instances where personal or potentially distressing information had been shared, I asked participants how they had experienced this.

In my role as a trainee clinical psychologist, I acknowledged and validated their experiences and sought to identify potential avenues of further support that they might access, if required. This process was extended to subsequent email contact with two participants in order to provide additional information about locally-available services. The interviews were audio-recorded using a digital recorder. Following completion of the interview, participants were thanked for their participation and travel expenses details organised, as appropriate.

Analysis and Discussion:

Constructing his Experience: Abuse as ‘Challenging Behaviour’:

The men’s’ talk constructed the immediate experience of their partner’s behaviour as a site of challenge within the relationship in terms of coping with the immediate behaviour, assessing its personal impact and seeking an explanation for it. The following sections will present three modes of ‘challenging behaviour’.

Abuse as ‘problematic behaviour’:

In constructing experiences of abuse, various accounts were deployed, which served to produce the behaviour as problematic, in terms of both the immediate experience and its consequential effect on the man. These constructions also enabled different practices in terms of how the male partner might respond to the behaviour, as well as having different implications for the subject positions of both himself and his partner.

Constructing his Response: Abuse as a ‘Call to Action’:

The label conveys that the abnormal behaviour of the partner serves not only as a challenge but as a call to action to respond appropriately in his masculine role(s) of partner, husband or father.

Four ways in which abuse as a ‘call to action’ was talked into being were identified. The first of these concerned ways in which he responded directly to the challenge presented by his partner’s abnormal behaviour, in terms of both the decision to act and his response. The second of these concerned how the man positioned the need to receive help or support, and then sought to enact this positioning. The third of these concerned the man’s predicted experience of involving others in crisis, while the fourth concerned the man’s actual experience of involving others in crisis. The following sections will address each of these in turn.

Summary, Evaluation and Implications:

Research Questions and Aims Revisited:

The primary aim of the project was to explore how ‘the ‘abusive’ behaviour of a female intimate partner is constructed in and through men’s talk, and to identify the material and social practices produced in and through these constructions. This was addressed in the main research question, which was warranted by the lack of contextualised accounts of UK men’s experiences of abuse from female intimate partners, despite the apparent prevalence of men reporting abuse in crime surveys.

However, the existing literature has done little more than speculate as to why ‘abused men’ continue to be a ‘hidden’ and ‘silenced’ group, apparently unwilling or unable to access external support. Consequently, the secondary aim of the project was to identify the subject positions enabled by these constructions and to shed light on institutional and self-disciplinary practices acting on these men to shape the negotiation of their identities and responses to abuse, including help-seeking.

Therefore, three further research questions were articulated in this study:

? What social practices comprise and/or are warranted by these constructions of abuse by an intimate female partner?

? What subject positions are enabled and what are the implications for action of these subject positions, particularly in relation to the seeking of support?

? How do these ‘abused men’ become constituted through the government of regulatory powers and discipline of the self?

The main research question has been addressed through the presentation of constructions of three main discursive ‘sites’, which are inter-penetrated by social practices and ‘technologies of governmentality’ (Foucault, 1982), and which sustain certain subject positions, and silence others.

The first of these was ‘constructing his experience’, within which the men constructed their partner’s behaviour as challenging, as a result of experiencing it as aggressive and humiliating, selfish and domineering, or irrational. These constructions drew on accounts of threats to masculinity and men’s fear in public space, accounts of ‘feminine privilege’ in the domestic space and ‘misogynistic’ accounts of woman as ‘damaged’, in addition to aspects of the man’s materiality including domestic power relations and finances. In general the men tended to construct the challenging behaviour as having little or no impact on their physical or emotional well-being, but as having more impact on his identity as a man, both publicly and privately. Furthermore, the men drew on lay accounts of mental illness, problem drinking, monthly hormonal changes and psychodynamic accounts linking early trauma with later psychological distress, to construct the challenging behaviour as explainable. By ‘pathologizing’ the challenging behaviour, the men’s talk seemed to perform the action of separating their partner from responsibility or blame. The implications of these constructions of the ‘abusing woman’ will be considered in section 4.3.

The second of these was ‘constructing his response’, within which the men constructed their immediate problems as negotiating ‘discursive dilemmas’ in how to respond to the challenging behaviour. These dilemmas included whether to ‘escape or endure’, to ‘reassert dominance or cope through avoidance’, or whether to ‘maintain self-control or get angry’. These constructions illustrated the complex conditions surrounding these men, as they drew on accounts of patriarchal ‘male dominance’, fatherhood and motherhood and non-violence to women, in addition to material factors including the embodied effects of abuse, practical constraints on escape and a lack of perceived support in the community. In addition, the men’s talk regularly positioned their partner and/or children as needing support, and themselves as the husband / father and as protector/problem-solver for the family.

Furthermore, the men’s talk constructed their responses as a ‘call to action’, firstly to negotiate a decision to seek help, and secondly to take action (or not) to involve others in crisis. Those men who talked of opting not to access
support drew on accounts of unhelpful institutional practices, perceived threats to their masculine identity and likely social stigmatisation of the ‘abused man’. Those men who talked of deciding to access support drew on the same accounts to characterise their experiences as negative, and inform their subsequent actions to withdraw from public gaze and avoid further help seeking opportunities. The implications of these constructions for how public support in offered will be considered in section 4.3.

The third of these was ‘constructing the abused man’, within which the focus of the extracts were the subject positions enabled for the man and the processes by which the ‘abused man’ became subjectified within the talk. Within the talk, the men sought to avoid the putative role of victim and take on alternative roles as rational enduring men and as fixers/protectors of the relationship/family. However, in order to manage threats to their masculine identity and achieve a more favourable positioning, the female partner was positioned, not as a responsible perpetrator, but often
as a victim of physiological and/or psychological difficulties, which were also sometimes presented as limitations of ‘womanhood’ (e.g. monthly hormonal changes).

In addition, the talk constructed certain institutional practices as ‘technologies of power’ (Foucault, 1982) acting on the man from a distance to constrain his identity and conduct as an abused man. In so doing the men talked into being two ‘technologies of power’, namely ‘police responses to domestic violence reports’ and ‘family court practices to protect the woman/mother’. The effect of these was to produce the man as always already a perpetrator of partner abuse and, thus, to regulate his conduct by calling upon him to defend himself as a potential perpetrator of abuse, and discourage him from casting his partner in a negative light. Furthermore, the men’s apparent ‘interpellation’ (Althusser, 1972) by feminist and patriarchal ideologies was indicated by the association of gendered accounts of partner abuse with constructions of ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, 1982), namely self-rejection, passive acceptance of abuse and self-restraint from making any public complaints against the woman. The implications of these constructions of the ‘abused man’ will be considered in section 4.3.

Evaluation and Critical Review:

In this section, the research will be evaluated and critiqued in terms of a range of issues including epistemology and methodology, quality, research process and ethics, usefulness and providing feedback.

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