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Women's groups demand answers from LSS

The Legal Service Society of BC (LSS) is  responsible for providing legal aid to people in British Columbia.  As a result of government cuts to the LSS budget, more and more low-income people in British Columbia have to rely on pamphlets, websites and summary advice services when navigating the family court system. Funding for family law representation is largely limited to short-term help for parents leaving abusive relationships.

As part of my work with the Jane Doe Legal Network, I have been part of many discussions with LSS on improving the way they screen for violence in relationships to ensure that women get the help they need to keep themselves and their children safe. So, when I found out that LSS had produced a pamphlet entitled "Men Abused by the Partners" I was curious.

When I looked through the pamphlet, I was shocked when I saw  the definition of “sexual abuse”. It was expanded from the definition used in LSS's gender neutral pamphlets to include a woman criticizing a man’s sexual performance or withholding sex as a type of punishment. This definition reinforces a male entitlement to sex and incorrectly implies that women are not, in fact, free to refuse sex in any circumstance and for any reason. This of definition not only trivializes the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse, it is also contrary to law.

There were other substantive concerns with the content of the pamphlet and I am glad to report that some changes have been made after in-depth discussions between women-serving agencies and senior staff at LSS. However, there remain a number of outstanding issues that need to be addressed.

At the core of the concern with the pamphlet is the potential for misinformation to be used empower abusers to continue their pattern of abusive behaviour. The pamphlet does not acknowledge that power and control are central to the dynamics of abuse in relationships or that there are often substantial power differentials between men and women in relationships. It also fails to address the reality many abusive men  blame their spouses for their behaviour and allege abuse when women stand up to the abuse or take steps to protect themselves. People working in the legal system must be very aware of this reality in order to assess situations appropriately, particularly where an allegation of abuse is made against a woman who has been the victim of violence at the hands of her partner.

The "Men Abused by their Partners" publication explicitly states that it is specifically for men abused in heterosexual relationships. Even more concerning, this particular pamphlet is the only publication in a series on relationship violence produced by LSS in 2011 that raises the issue of gender at all. All other pamphlets in the series are written in gender neutral language.  At its core, anti-violence work is about the right to the safety of people of all genders and sexual orientations. However, in this context, I am left asking how and why the decision was made to prioritize the development of pamphlet for men abused by their female partners.

As a result of these ongoing concerns, women's groups got together to write anopen letter to Mark Benton QC, Executive Director of LSS.

The letter was delivered to Mr. Benton on January 6th 2012, and copies were also sent to Hon. Shirley Bond (Attorney General of BC) and David Loukidelis (Deputy Attorney General of BC). We are awaiting a reply from LSS and look forward to a continuing dialogue about the issues of domestic violence and abuse as it relates to legal services and the production of legal publications.  In the meantime, I would like to share the letter with you.

 


January 6, 2012

Open Letter Re: LSS Publication “Men Abused by their Partners”

Dear Mr. Benton:

We write concerning LSS’s April 2011 publication entitled “Men Abused by their Partners,” a fact sheet for heterosexual men who have allegedly experienced mistreatment or abuse by their female partners. We say ‘allegedly’ because it is very common for abusive men to blame their spouses for the troubles they are experiencing in a deteriorating relationship. As service providers we must be very aware of this reality and work to assess these situations and not be fooled by initial accusations that may be unfounded. At the core of our concerns is the potential for misinformation to empower abusers and give them fodder to continue an abusive cycle.

We look forward to a continuing dialogue about this and other LSS publications concerning issues of domestic violence and abuse. We trust that the comments contained in this letter will be helpful to the LSS in its important work of disseminating useful, relevant, and accurate legal materials.

Until recently, the “Men Abused by their Partners” fact sheet contained a number of extremely problematic statements that appeared contrary to law and liable to misapplication. Of particular concern were:

  •         The definition of “sexual abuse” to include a woman criticizing a man’s sexual performance or withholding sex as a type of punishment
  •         The suggestion that a man who is feeling “embarrassed” by his partner is experiencing abuse
  •         The targeting of the publication to men in heterosexual relationships only, which ignores the reality of violence against gay men in same-sex relationships. Research suggests that men in same-sex intimate relationships are much more likely to experience violence than men in heterosexual relationships.

After discussions between LSS and several of the undersigned organizations, on December 8, 2011, LSS updated the fact sheet by amending the definition of sexual abuse, removing the reference to feeling “embarrassed,” and making other minor changes. Thus, some of the most troubling aspects of the document have been removed, namely, a definition of sexual abuse that reinforces a male entitlement to sex and incorrectly implies that women are not free to refuse sex in any circumstance and for any reason, a view that is contrary to law and which deeply trivializes the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse. LSS also advised that a separate publication for gay men is forthcoming.

Despite the amendments LSS has made, the document, especially within an otherwise gender- and sexual orientation-neutral framework, remains problematic. The issue of men’s social and economic power in relation to women is rendered invisible, as is an analysis of who is most often the primary aggressor in an abusive relationship. There also remains the question of how this publication, including the problematic and legally unsupportable definition of sexual abuse, was able to make its way into circulation in the first place.

The concerns raised by this publication are particularly important given LSS’s role in administering public legal aid. The Director of Public Legal Education and Applications must ensure that intake personnel are able to effectively adjudicate cases and ensure that limited legal aid resources are targeted to those most in need. In the case of family law, LSS has determined that those most in need of legal aid are victims of abuse. Therefore, it is essential that all of LSS’s legal information, publications and training materials convey an accurate understanding and analysis of the gender and power dynamics at play in abusive family situations. The apparent lack of oversight of the legal information being disseminated on this important and complex topic greatly affects our confidence in LSS on this front, and causes us to worry that legal aid applications made by women alleging abuse are being denied without a full and fair consideration of these issues.

In light of the limited legal aid budget in this province and the epidemic nature of lethal violence against women, we are concerned that in producingthis publication, LSS’s scarce resources have been allocated to a very small minority of heterosexual men. We would expect that in the midst of a legal aid crisis, resources would be allocated to marginalized groups, such as women facing violence and low-income British Columbians (who also tend to be women). If LSS is committed to making a resource specifically for men who are victims, a pamphlet for boys abused by their fathers and step-fathers or a pamphlet for men in same-sex relationships would serve a more statistically significant population.

In addition to our concerns about the specific content of the “Men Abused by their Partners” fact sheet referred to above, we are concerned about the decision to eliminate the use of gender specific terminology in LSS’s 2011 Live Safe fact sheet series, with the exception of this one publication for men abused by women. The decision not to name women (except as offenders) in this series represents a significant shift from LSS’s previous approach, reflected in its 2004 fact sheet series Legal Information for Battered Women. It is also inconsistent with the recommendations contained in the “Report on a Community Review of LSS publications on Violence against Women in Relationships,” which was shared with many of our organizations after concerns about the “Men Abused by Their Partners” fact sheet were brought forward.

This 40-page Community Review document explicitly states that LSS should continue to use gender-specific terms in its publications on relationship violence, and should include an explanation that the information also applies to anyone experiencing violence in a relationship. As the advocates involved in the consultation point out, to do otherwise would distort the social reality of violence in relationships, as it is overwhelmingly women who are abused in relationships, and men who inflict the abuse. Men’s experience of abuse by their female partners, while unacceptable, very rarely includes violence, does not occur with the same frequency or intensity and is simply not an equivalent experience; gender neutral language serves to mask these critical differences and could put lives in danger.

A legal opinion commissioned by LSS related to the use of gender-neutral language reinforces this view; the opinion notes that strict gender neutrality does not necessarily result in substantive equality, and if one group is previously disadvantaged, strict neutrality may perpetuate that situation. The report is silent on the implications of naming a disadvantaged group as perpetrators of violence, with no reference to this group as victims.

The Community Review also mentions several audiences who would benefit fromspecific fact sheets, including the LGBT community, older women, youth, people with low literacy, and people with disabilities, as well as heterosexual men. While the review was cited by LSS as the reason the “Men Abused by their Partners” publication was prioritized, the decision to start with a publication specifically for heterosexual men is simply not justified based on the Community Review document we received.

We are also concerned about the way in which the term “consultation” has been used to justify this publication. In an initial conversation about this document with three women’s organizations, the Director of Public Legal Information and Applications stated that the need for this document came out of a public consultation and that women’s organizations were part of that consultation. Two women’s organizations were identified by name.

When informed that they had been mentioned, these two agencies asked for clarification because they did not recall taking part in the consultation and had not identified the need for a publication for men abused by their female partners. The Director responded to these concerns in an e-mail to the Jane Doe Advocates network on December 7, 2011. In that email she stated that the 2009 community consultation reviewing LSS’s publications on violence against women “identified a need for a resource for men who are abused. When asked who participated in the consultation, Atira and BWSS were the only agencies I recalled by name. No attribution beyond participating in the consultation was intended.” Organizations that were named maintain that no meaningful consultation with their organization took place. As a result, we feel that there has been a misuse of the concept of consultation and a tokenizing of women’s organizations’ involvement in setting priorities.

The decision to prioritize a publication for men abused by their female partners is also not supported by statistics and research on intimate partner violence. In the fact sheet, LSS states that “studies done in Canada show that about six percent of men have been abused by their female partners.” While it is unclear where these statistics were taken from, the Statistics Canada 2009 General Social Survey reports that 6% of the Canadians surveyed had experienced physical or sexual victimization by their partner in the last 5 years, and that a similar proportion of males and females reported having experienced spousal violence.3 However, these statistics do not specify the gender of the perpetrator of the violence. If LSS is basing its claim that six percent of men have been abused by their female partners on these statistics, this is inaccurate and misrepresentative of the data. Furthermore, many other data sources suggest that these numbers significantly underestimate the prevalence of violence against women.

Moreover, statistics like these fail to capture the growing phenomenon of women falsely accused of abuse by men, nor the significant number of women abused by men who do not report their abuse because of economic dependence on their abuser or fear of retaliation and harm. The data do not distinguish betweenoffensive and defensive acts, or tell us whether they were a single incident or part of a pattern of violence. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be injured as a consequence of abuse, five times more likely to require medical attention or be hospitalized, and four times more likely to be killed by their male partners. Abuse against women by men is much more likely to be severe and repeated, and women are at a much higher risk of being injured or killed upon leaving a violent relationship. With the prevalence of abuse against women by male partners, it is estimated that the social cost of this form of violence is $4.2 billion in Canada.

Men’s Rights Activists use the language of equivalency to undermine women’santi-violence work and delegitimize women as the primary victims of abuse, claiming that domestic violence is a gender-neutral phenomenon and that men’s experiences of “husband battering” are being suppressed. They rely on a selective reading of research statistics, ignore serious methodological flaws in the studies, dismiss mountains of conflicting evidence, and cause significant harm to the very men they claim to be trying to assist.6 It is essential that an important organization like LSS maintain a balanced, nuanced and accurate understanding of spousal violence.

Yours truly,

Atira Women’s Resource Society
Battered Women’s Support Services
Ending Violence Association of BC
Pivot Legal Society
South Fraser Women’s Services
West Coast LEAF
YWCA Munroe House