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Kuehl's Marriage License Bill Ignores Male Victims of Domestic Violence
By Glenn Sacks

 

Senate Bill 1618 provides for a $10 raise in the California marriage license fee. The purpose of the bill, which recently passed the Senate and is now in the Assembly, is to augment existing funding for domestic violence programs and to set aside extra funds for "underserved" populations of domestic violence victims.

The bill's sponsor, State Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), explains that the underserved populations who are the bill's intended beneficiaries are abused women in rural areas and abused immigrant women who face linguistic and cultural barriers when seeking help.

These goals are admirable.  However, they ignore the needs of our state's largest underserved population--male victims of domestic violence.

County domestic violence programs, which will receive and disburse the funds provided by SB 1618, have been indifferent at best towards male victims.  For example, Los Angeles County funds two dozen shelters for abused women, but only one shelter accepts male victims, and it is in Lancaster, 80 miles from downtown Los Angeles. San Diego County has only one domestic violence shelter which is willing to consider housing a male victim, and abused men are often referred to homeless shelters--not suitable places for a victimized father to take his children.

According to the US Department of Justice's Report on the National Violence Against Women Survey, there are over 830,000 male victims of domestic violence every year in the United States. Numerous studies--many of them conducted by some of the earliest advocates for battered women--have repeatedly found that women are at least as likely as men to initiate and engage in domestic violence. These include the work of domestic violence researchers Richard Gelles, Murray Straus, and Susan Steinmetz, authors of Behind Closed Doors, the influential and ground-breaking study of domestic violence against women.

As Gelles noted in "The Missing Persons of Domestic Violence: Male Victims" (The Women's Quarterly, Fall 1999), male victims are largely unknown to the public in part because men are extremely hesitant to report their abuse to authorities or to seek help. Many often do not seek police intervention because they fear that their female partners will successfully accuse them of being the actual perpetrators.

Gelles also believes that male victims generally do not seek out shelters because of their children. He notes that "...battered men who flee their attackers find that the act of fleeing results in the men losing physical and even legal custody of their children...men who retain their children in order to try to protect them from abusive mothers often find themselves arrested for ‘child kidnaping.' "

Kuehl dismisses the existence of male victims, saying "the attention given to it is exaggerated.  Studies with high numbers of male victims get them because they classify women who hit only in self-defense as abusers."

According to Gelles, however, the "self-defense" argument has been obsolete since 1986, when he and Straus revamped their studies to ask who initiated the violence, thereby screening out violence committed in self-defense.  Those studies and others have continued to show equal numbers of male and female aggressors, and indicate that women often compensate for their smaller size by employing weapons and the element of surprise.

Marc Angelucci, chairman of the Los Angeles chapter of Stop Abuse for Everyone (SAFE), points out that Kuehl's bill, which was recently endorsed by the Los Angeles Domestic Violence Council, is discriminatory because "men pay half or more of those marriage license fees, and they're entitled to share in all of the services that come with them, including outreach, which barely exists for male victims."

Kuehl blames the lack of services for male victims of domestic violence on "the community of men" itself. She contends that just as the battered women's shelter movement began as a grass roots movement which later came to receive substantial government funding, services for men should come only when men create similar organizations. While Kuehl acknowledges that men as a whole have been very supportive of assistance for abused women, she says:

"What advocates for male victims of domestic violence want to do is to take money from a low-resourced community--women--and give it to services for a well-funded community--men.  If men want services for abused men, they need to put it together themselves."

Kuehl's indifference understandably angers victims' advocates like Angelucci. He says:

"It's a pretty incredible attitude for a government official to take.  It's as if a cop suspects that a crime is being committed next door and says ‘well, I'm not going to go looking for the victim or try to stop the crime, but if the victim wants to come to me for help, I'll consider looking into finding some.' Is this the way to combat a widespread and damaging social problem?"

 

This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal and the San Francisco Daily Journal (6/13/02).

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