The Invisible Victims

by Adam Jones

[Published in The Globe and Mail, 16 May 1992.]

MONTREAL - In this city, as elsewhere in Canada in recent years, talk of violence has been talk of violence against women. If you blinked, you might just have missed another, equally crucial side to the story.

Violence against men has generated almost nothing in the way of media coverage or social concern. This is perplexing, given that it constitutes the largest single category of violent victimization in Canadian society.

Consider the numbers. There were 77 murders in Montreal in 1991, and 62 of the victims (80 per cent) were male. That's higher than the national average: about two-thirds of Canadian murder victims are men, a figure that hasn't changed substantially in 20 years.

We have no ready vocabulary for these victims, beyond the catch-all, "violence in general." Murdered and otherwise brutalized men dwell in a conceptual netherworld, the gatekeeper of which is that hoary old stereotype, boys will be boys. We assume the large majority of the men were killed in criminal contexts or drunken brawls. Somehow, they were asking for it.

In mid-January [1992], the Montreal Gazette ran a full-page feature on Montreal's "faces of death" in 1991. It reported that some of the male victims were "killed in arguments" and that some were known or suspected to be criminals. Others lived their lives far from the criminal realm:

"Roger Lalancette, 45, shot twice in the face by an intruder while watching television in his St. Leonard home."

"George Roberts, 25, fatally stabbed after he went to the defence of a woman who turned to him for help after her boyfriend was alleged to have beaten her."

Reading on, you feel voices and personalities struggling to break free from such dispassionate prose: "Gunned down in front of his children." "Shot in front of his horrified daughter as he tried to disarm an armed intruder."

A notable trend is men killed while working. There's the taxi driver strangled during a robbery; the corner-store managers and workers shot or beaten to death; the police constable "disarmed and shot."

This is part of a broader pattern. A 1990 Ontario Ministry of Labour study listed 84 "work-related homicides" in the province from 1975 to 1985. Seventy-three of the victims were men. It makes sense: the riskiest jobs - gas-station attendant, taxi driver, police officer - are male preserves.

As for overall deaths on the job, the study found 1,200 men were killed at work, compared with 43 women. At a time when women constituted at least 40 per cent of the workforce, nearly 30 times as many men as women were killed on the job.

Again, the reasons for the huge disparity are readily apparent. The most dangerous occupations in Canada - fishing, farming, construction, forestry, mining - are overwhelmingly filled by men. The male executives in upper management live their lives insulated from discomfort or danger. The jobs on the ground, though, aren't cozy. They are more often deadly. Almost always, men do them.

Consider the national crisis that would ensue if 97 per cent of occupational fatalities - hundreds every year in Canada - were women. And yet, this chilling statistic about men in the workforce is hardly front-page news.

The usual method of rendering the male victim invisible is to skate over the fact that a man is involved at all. In the Globe and Mail and elsewhere, coverage of deaths on the job tends to characterize victims by occupation rather than gender.

This strategy can be seen at work in media treatment of another area in which men constitute a large majority of victims. Two years ago, I conducted a study of newspaper articles and editorials on suicide in the Globe and Mail. Eighty per cent of "successful" suicides in Canada are male. But except when individual cases were mentioned, the Globe tended to virtually ignore the gender dimension. The victims were "adults and teens," "young people," or "kids."

The picture was very different when I turned to Globe coverage of an area in which women constitute the large majority of victims. The best available figures on serious conjugal violence suggest that the proportion of male victims is around 15 per cent. In an article on battered women, the Globe itself mentioned - dismissively and in passing - that men were victims in 10 to 20 per cent of spousal attacks.

But in subsequent editorials, the Globe moved without apparent difficulty from gender-neutral terms to language that explicitly excluded the minority category of victims - writing, for example, that "the person being abused can sense when a threatened attack will be far more dangerous than those she has known." The suffocating one-sidedness extended far beyond choice of pronouns.

It's easy to imagine the outrage if an editorial on suicide discussed the problem as if male victims were the only ones who mattered. Imagine the further consternation if the language of the editorials implied men were the only victims who existed. But this kind of media treatment of conjugal violence is standard.

One result is a "complete research and perceptual blackout of the issues of men who are hit by their wives," in the words of North America's leading researchers on domestic violence, Richard Gelles and Murray Straus. The argument that "there is no such thing as a battered husband ... flies in the face of logic and empirical data." But conjugal assault against men remains "a form of intimate violence for which there has been no research, no sincere publicity, and no public or private funds invested."

Violence against women in movies and on television has attracted much notice. Again, men represent the large majority of victims. Nevertheless, only violence against women seems worthy of mention or concern.

The situation is particularly grim in the comics section of daily newspapers - something any reader can easily test. There's a vast gulf between the amount and kind of violence, whether verbal or physical, directed toward male characters and that permitted against female characters.

In the space of a month last year, for instance, Beetle Bailey ran three strips in which the "humour" centres on brutalization of the mild-mannered title character. In one strip, Beetle is pounded into a tangle of twisted limbs by the beefy female staff-sergeant. In another, he refuses to answer a question from Sarge, his superior. Sarge responds: "I'll beat it out of you," and knocks Beetle unconscious. In the third example, Beetle is depicted as an almost gelatinous mass of flesh on the ground. Sarge is standing on a stepladder in order to leap down onto Beetle's ruined body with greater force. The joke is that Sarge "is really coming down hard on Beetle."

It's striking, too, how often the comics employ themes and language that would have strongly reactionary overtones if the victims were women. Conjugal violence against men, for example, is a regular staple of strips such as Drabble and Andy Capp. Once every couple of weeks, Andy can still be found flat on his back in the street after a roundhouse blow from Flo, his wife. Because the victim is male, there's no offence meant - and none taken.

This isn't to say newspapers can't recognize extremes of brutality and degradation in the comics when they see them. After all, back in March, Globe and Mail editors got so worked up over a Blondie strip that they actually censored it from the day's edition. The strip was considered sexist (and possibly "ageist") because it depicted Blondie choosing an older female secretary for Dagwood over an array of younger, conventionally pretty applicants.

Meanwhile, in Blondie strips deemed perfectly acceptable by Globe editors, a door-to-door salesman tries to talk Dagwood into buying a product with "a million and one uses," and is clubbed to the ground with it for his troubles ("Make that a million and two"). Dagwood is drop-kicked one metre off the floor by his boss ("Are you getting the picture?" "I'm getting a lot more than that!"). The boss, in turn, tries to hide from his abusive wife, who bursts in yelling, "Where is that pond scum?!" Imagine the outcry if Blondie were the victim of such verbal and physical battering.

Why the bias? Partly, because of the solicitude our culture has traditionally accorded those who are, on average, physically less powerful - women, the elderly, children. Another factor is the cultural stereotype that reinforces men's stoicism in the face of danger and victimization. Real men don't drop their guard and lay themselves open to assault or injury. If by chance their physical integrity is compromised, they're expected to "take it like a man."

This enormously damaging stereotype ties in with the cult of male strength and heroism, still a cornerstone of male-dominant society. That may seem contradictory - but only if we ignore how prevailing norms can have complex and diverse effects on subgroups or individuals.

For example, the fact that the executive class in Canadian business is overwhelmingly male means that "men" - certain men - hold decisive economic power. At the same time, the burden of physical labour, disability and death in these industries is also borne overwhelmingly by "men" - other men, as recent events at a Westray mine in Nova Scotia so graphically remind us.(1)

Acknowledging these fissures in the power structure might undermine some militant platforms. But it would do less violence to the truth.

It is commonly, and correctly, pointed out that most of those committing violent acts in Canadian society are male. But that's no excuse for underplaying men as victims. Does sharing a certain characteristic with your assailant somehow make you an accomplice in your own injury or death?

Do we say a black woman raped by a black man is unworthy of the same attention and sympathy give to a survivor of an interracial rape because, "That's just how blacks are"? When a Salvadorean peasant is murdered and mutilated by soldiers or a death squad, is his or her suffering dismissed because the terrorists are fellow citizens, and "That's how politics works in those Latin American countries"?

Such views aren't uncommon. But we immediately spot their redneck roots. Why is it, then, that when victims and survivors are male, the mere fact that their assailants tend also to be male is enough to consign the matter to the dustbin?

Examining the experience of victims in Canadian society necessarily forces us to confront the ambiguities and paradoxes touched on here. Those who feel acknowledging male victims of violence would serve to detract attention from female victims would do well to resist the temptation to view social policy as a zero-sum game. A more nuanced understanding of processes of violence can only help, not hinder, a principled campaign to address women's fears - and the brutal reality that underlies them.

Anyone experiencing discrimination, victimization or suffering deserves sympathy and support. One of the biggest obstacles to extending that support fairly and impartially is a cultural bias in which male victims are blamed for their victimization - to the extent that they are noticed at all. It's time to bring those men back from oblivion.


Gendercide and Genocide

Gendercide and Genocide

Edited by
Adam Jones

Vanderbilt University Press, 2004

The most wide-ranging book ever published on gender-selective
mass killing, or "gendercide," this collection of essays is
also the first to explore systematically the targeting of non-combatant
"battle-age" males in various wartime and peacetime contexts.

Link to further information
and a full table of contents.

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1. In May 1992, 26 men were killed in an underground explosion at the Westray Mine near Stellarton, Nova Scotia. "I guess the only job worse than coal mining is trench warfare," Bob Gould, a retired miner, told The Globe and Mail shortly after the disaster. "I've seen men cut in half, fellows buried alive, guys crushed to death. I myself was buried under a roof fall. It's common, but you never think of the danger." André Picard, "Safety a relative term in mining," The Globe and Mail, 18 May 1992.

Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.