Statistics That Harm

Published in NZ Association of Counsellors Newsletter March 2005 Vol 25 No 3

Recently I attended a workshop with a visiting American feminist 'expert' talking about treatment for survivors of abuse both sexual and physical. She started the workshop by presenting several statistics that 'prove' that physical and sexual violence is something done by men to women and girls.
I bristled considerably at this. (In fact once we got past the statistics she actually had some very interesting things to say and showed that she works with couples in a way that shows respect for both partners. However it would have been very easy to dismiss her from the beginning because of my reaction.)

When discussing my reaction during the break I was challenged about it by one of my female colleagues, which made me think carefully about why I reacted. As a Counsellor working extensively with men who have been abused as children I know that males are abused a lot more than these statistics suggest, and it is becoming increasingly more common to hear that women have been doing the abusing.

I don't want to get into an argument about the statistics themselves as I have a strong distrust of statistics, especially in this area. There are two reasons for this:
1. Statistics can't show what people don't talk about. Over the last twenty years I have seen statistics relating to sexual abuse change dramatically. Does this mean more people are being abused? Probably not. It is much more likely to mean that people are feeling safer to disclose that abuse has happened to them. While more men are doing this than in the past, as a whole men still do not feel safe to acknowledge being victims of abuse (sometimes not even to themselves) and they certainly don't feel safe to talk about that abuse having been committed by women.
2. Many times when statistics are used someone else comes up with a set of statistics that says something different, argues about which set is correct and as a result the intended point gets lost. I don't know if the number of men who have been sexually abused as children is one in three, one in five or one in ten. I don't really care what the exact number is. What I do know and what I do care about is that it's a huge number, that any number is far too much and that the impact this has on society is enormous.

Of real concern is the impact of using statistics such as these. We know from much of the earlier work that has already been done about sexual abuse, that when society does not acknowledge abuse, victims feel isolated and minimalised and frequently do not feel able to talk about what has happened to them. We also know that many times offenders put huge effort into making sure their victims stay silenced and that having to keep a secret such as having been abused causes huge pain for victims. There is also much in male conditioning that works to keep men silent this includes the concepts of 'real men can't be victims', homophobia and the fear that they will be seen as sexual offenders (the vampire syndrome). When society also conspires further to silence victims the pain is even worse.

Where women are likely to internalise their pain men are more likely to externalise it. So a badly traumatised woman may cut herself and end up in a mental health unit with a diagnosis of personality disorder, a badly traumatised man may be more likely to lash out and end up in prison with a conviction or engage in high risk activities. Sexually abused men are filling up our prisons, addiction units and psychiatric institutions. They also feature highly in our accident and suicide statistics.

Samuel Osherson in his article entitled 'The Wounded Father Within' ('Reclaiming The Inner Child') said "For all that feminism has contributed to our culture, it has also brought a subtle idealisation of women and a less subtle denigration of men."
I think Osherson is right. Feminism has changed society in ways that have had huge benefit for both men and women. A less helpful side effect has been to produce an insidious feeling that women are good and men are bad.

Statistics such as those presented at the workshop and their ilk reinforce this 'women good, men bad paradigm.' This in turn further works to silence male victims and does nothing to encourage offenders of either gender to seek help. This silencing further reinforces the skewing of the statistics as victims and offenders both stay silenced.

Paradigms that involve blaming are not helpful. We need to move away from seeing abuse purely as a gender issue and see it more as a human issue.

If men and women are going to be truly equal it will only be by acknowledging and valuing each other's pain, giving each other room to heal and then looking at how we can grow together.

Paradigms that blame do not allow this to happen. They silence people. This further damages both the individual and damages society.

Peter Milne