News came out this month that a Domestic Violence shelter for male survivors opened in Batesville, Arkansas. According to the article, it is the first shelter for male survivors in the country. Several people on my Facebook Newsfeed (an extremely scientific sample) posted this news happily. And while the increase in resources for domestic violence survivors is a good thing, I think we need to be careful before we get too excited about this.
Before I get too "Debbie Downer," I want to first acknowledge that male survivors of domestic violence are a real and important thing, and male survivors face stigma and other gendered issues that women don't. Men that have survived domestic violence should have resources, and in a perfect world, there would be shelters for men everywhere they are needed. But the problem is we don't live in a perfect world of unlimited resources, and money going towards this shelter means that money did not go towards other services for women, who make up about 80% of DV victims and survivors, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
In the case of the Batesville shelter, the founders themselves said that the other option was a transitional shelter for women leaving the emergency shelter program. Further, from October to early February, only five men have used this nine-bed facility. Because of the gender disparity of survivors, it's likely that these resources would have served many more women at this point. In fact, a 2012 report from Domestic Violence Arkansas says "Ongoing funding cuts to our transitional housing program means that victims stay in shelter longer. This longer stay results in fewer beds available in emergency shelter for other survivors."
In the face of cuts to transitional shelters for women that lead to crowding of emergency shelters, diverting resources to create underused facilities doesn't seem like the best use of those resources.
Once again, it's not that these five men don't deserve gender competent services, because they absolutely do. Ideally, every survivor would have this access. But at the end of the day, this means that women who would have taken advantage of that transitional shelter didn't receive services that they could have used.
It is also important to remember that the men not have gone without services; they would have just been housed with women. Although the men's shelter hugely benefits women since they now don't have to share housing with men, some survivors of interpersonal violence are LGBT folks, so single sex housing doesn't eliminate the situation of a person being housed with their abuser.
I am perhaps especially wary of Domestic Violence shelters for men because one of Men's Right's Activists rallying cries is "why aren't there domestic violence shelters for men"? They ask this without ever acknowledging that the whole reason that interpersonal violence is even seen as problematic in the first place is because of feminism.
I really wish that we had the resources for all survivors of all interpersonal violence could get all the services that they need, including men, women, and genderqueer people. Ideally, we would have the resources to eradicate interpersonal violence, but that's a whole other thing. In a vacuum, "why aren't there domestic violence shelters for men?" seems like a reasonable question. However, we don't live in a vacuum and this presumes a false equivalency, that men and women face the same circumstances. This is of course not true for a million reasons, but the fact that 80% of survivors are women and therefore women's shelters are overflowing with people and the men's shelter have beds to spare is one of the ways this plays out.
Gender and its concepts and contexts are very important when talking about domestic violence. Whether the violence is perpetrated by a man, woman, genderqueer, or other non-binary person, domestic violence is always a gendered issue, and that needs to be taken into account. It is no coincidence that women are much more likely to be survivors than men. Interpersonal violence has strong roots in sexism and colonialism (see Incite's Color of Violence book for excellent discussion and illumination of these issues).
Domestic violence is one enactment of patriarchy where someone, most often a woman, is robbed of her personhood and treated like possession of her, most often male, abuser. We live in a culture where boys are advertised to by telling them a product will help them "get" girls, where objectification of women in advertising is still rampant, where black women — just by existing — are seen as simultaneously too sexual yet also sexless. When women still have to deal with so much harassment just walking down the street, it is clear that things are not equal, and domestic violence is yet another one of these problematic petals on patriarchy's gross flower.
No matter who the perpetrators or survivors are, toxic masculinity is always a part of domestic violence and I am skeptical that a shelter for men would spend time indicting the system that makes domestic violence so common (i.e. patriarchy) beyond dealing with the stigma that male survivors face.
Maybe I am wrong about this, and maybe this is a super feminist men's shelter. I hope that I am. Even though all survivors of domestic violence deserve safe spaces to heal and services that will help them with whatever needs they have, in a reality where resources are scarce, we need to be careful with what we prioritize. It is also crucial that the gendered aspects of domestic violence are at the forefront so we can attack the toxic elements of masculinity at its roots as we work towards a world without interpersonal violence.