Men's welfare campaigners fear an "unconscious bias" is causing police to ignore psychological abuse of vulnerable men by a partner and focus only on female victims.
The comments came after it emerged that in the first year since a law against engaging in controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship was introduced, it was overwhelmingly used to prosecute men.
From the law's introduction on December 29 2015 up to the end of March 2017, there were 4,246 allegations of coercive and controlling behaviour recorded, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
A Freedom of Information request revealed that 272 people were charged with the offence.
Of these, just four were women.
The law covers behaviour isolating a victim from their support networks, depriving them of their independence, exploiting them financially or controlling activities such as what they wear or who they speak to.
It also covers a pattern of acts such as threats, humiliation, intimidation or other abuse used to punish or frighten a victim, eroding their resistance and locking them in the relationship.
The ManKind Initiative, a helpline for male victims of domestic abuse, helped to campaign for the introduction of the law, but fears law enforcers think it is only a problem faced by women.
Last year 82 women were killed by a current or former partner compared with 13 men, but data from the ONS shows that one in three reported instances of domestic abuse involve a male complainant.
Mark Brooks, a spokesman for the charity, said: "When people say domestic abuse disproportionately affects women more than men, it's true at one level, in that there are more female victims than male victims.
"But when you use the term 'disproportionately' - it's almost saying that because there's more female victims, then really your focus should be on female victims rather than all victims."
He continued: "It takes away the individual impact - because if you're a male victim and there's a female victim in the house next door, you could be going through the same level of crime, there's not a disproportionate effect on you than her, it's the same effect."
Earlier this year, Jordan Worth, 22, became the first woman to be convicted of the new offence.
She subjected her partner Alex Skeel, also 22, to a series of vicious assaults, leaving him with major head trauma and serious burns.
But for months before the assaults, Worth dictated what he could wear, who he could speak to, starved him and forced him to sleep on the floor but succeeded in making him believe their relationship was normal.
Mr Brooks said: "The question is whether there is an unconscious bias in police and prosecutors when they apply or think about coercive control legislation and if their biases are actually stopping them applying the law to male victims in the way they apply the law - rightly - to female victims."
ManKind is also concerned that cultural stereotypes of the "whipped" boyfriend can mask signs of more serious controlling behaviour and coercion.
Mr Brooks said: "If a woman is going through that situation where she's being isolated from support networks like friends, family or colleagues, people start to ask questions."
He said that men who are perceived as being dominated by their partner are often mocked by their friends, who might not recognise how serious the situation can become.
"You would never say to a woman, 'Are you under the thumb of your boyfriend?' without being concerned about it," he said.
The prosecution figures for 2017 to 2018 will not be available until next year, but ManKind is hopeful that attitudes towards male victims are changing.
"What we need is more prosecutions and more publicity around those prosecutions, which will therefore then educate the public," Mr Brooks said.
The current data is not broken down by victim, so it is not clear how many of those prosecuted were in same-sex relationships, or were charged with abusing a family member other than their partner.
Deputy Chief Constable Louisa Rolfe, the National Police Chiefs' Council's (NPCC) lead on domestic violence, said that men are usually more reluctant to report abuse, as are those in LGBT relationships.
She said the NPCC had always expected the offence to have a slow start, followed by a significant uptick in the number of offences recorded and people charged in the second year.
"I am sure that women are equally capable of offending in that way and there are a number of horrific cases - men are victims of domestic abuse and they deserve support," she said.
But she warned against considering coercive and controlling behaviour as a "gender neutral" offence that affects both women and men equally.
"I think some domestic abuse - not all of it - is absolutely driven by perceptions of a woman's place," she said.
"In some domestic abuse there is a traditional view of a woman's place and it's driven by gender privilege and a desire to control a woman."
Ms Rolfe also said those guilty of this kind of offending can skew the number of domestic violence cases recorded.
"If you're in an abusive relationship, if your partner makes a counter allegation that they are also the subject of domestic abuse then police are obliged to record that," she said.
"As we know, the perpetrators of controlling and coercive behaviour are incredibly manipulative individuals and they almost always make a counter allegation.
"Police will make a very clear decision about who's the perpetrator and who's the victim, but the crime recording rules will oblige us to record both allegations."
Ms Rolfe added that although abuse occurs in all walks of life, often those in abusive relationships were both very vulnerable and the role of perpetrator and victim might be less clearly defined.
She said that to truly understand what is going on in an emotionally abusive relationship required a lot of professional curiosity and hard work from officers.
"Now if they do that in the right way, that should work equally well for male or female victims - we shouldn't have a bias towards women as victims and men as perpetrators," she said.
VICTIM OF PSYCHOLOGICAL ABUSE SPEAKS OUT
Coercive and controlling behaviour can break down victims who do not otherwise seem vulnerable to those who know them.
Businessman Ian McNicholl (pictured) endured more than a year of sadistic domestic abuse at the hands of his girlfriend Michelle Williamson before a neighbour called the police.
He suffered a skull fracture, and fractures to his cheekbones, nose and ribs, as well as severe burns to his hands from an iron, and to the inside of his nose after she forced a lit cigarette up his nostrils.
Williamson was jailed for seven years at Grimsby Crown Court for causing grievous bodily harm with intent in 2008, well before the law on coercive and controlling behaviour was introduced.
But before the assaults began, she employed typical psychological abuse tactics to terrify her partner - who was in his early forties and worked as a consultant to the civil service - into submission.
Mr McNicholl said Williamson managed to take control of his finances after displaying concern that friends whom he had lent money to were not paying him back quickly enough and were taking advantage.
Before long, Williamson had complete control of his debit card and had taken out several credit cards in his name, running up thousands of pounds in debt.
But her primary tactic was fear, telling Mr McNicholl her brothers were involved in organised crime and drug dealing, and would kill him if he ever tried to end their relationship.
Mr McNicholl said: "She was in my house. I had no way of proving it or not, so then you begin to believe it - you've only got one voice going into your head, which was her's.
"It was the seed she'd planted and she began to water it - 'If you make any attempt to leave, you'll be killed'."
Williamson also began controlling his daily routine, right down to what time he ate, and began depriving him of sleep.
"I woke up when I was told, I went to sleep when I was told - if indeed I was allowed to go to sleep," he said.
"I ate when I was allowed to eat. I ate food I had no choice over. I spoke when I was spoken to - I was like a TV set and Michelle held the remote and she pressed all the buttons."
When the physical violence began, Mr McNicholl tried to comply with all Williams's mind games in a bid to try to avoid being assaulted.
"The violence had absolutely no boundaries. I believed that she would kill me," he said
He continued: "Ultimately she took over my life completely. It was like being possessed.
"If you're going to sleep at different times, waking up at different times - sometimes at 3am - if your meal times are all over the place it begins to psychologically disable you."
Williamson would regularly send him to the corner shop to buy cigarettes, but would make sure he was on the phone to her throughout the five-minute round trip so he could not speak to anyone else.
Mr McNicholl had voluntarily taken a few months off work and was isolated from both his friends and his colleagues during his relationship with Williamson, although it took his neighbours more than a year to call police.
He believes that had he been female and people noticed he was perpetually covered in bruises, they would have acted much more quickly.
It took Mr McNicholl years to get out of the debts Williamson had run up and he lost both his home and his business, ending up in accommodation run by the Salvation Army.
He still suffers from acute headaches as a result of the assaults and now works as an ambassador for men's helpline the ManKind Initiative.
"I take opportunities to raise awareness, whether it be with the police or members of the public - just to raise awareness so that people look out for the men in their life the way they quite rightly look after the women in their life," he said.
WHAT IS COERCIVE AND CONTROLLING BEHAVIOUR?
Coercive or controlling behaviour is a pattern of actions which over time erodes the victim's self-worth and their control of their own life, depriving them of the freedom to walk away.
It is sometimes dubbed "Gaslighting" after the 1940s film Gaslight in which a character is systematically manipulated by her husband to the point she questions her own sanity.
It was introduced in December 2015 to bridge the gap in legislation that prevented police intervening before a victim had been physically assaulted.
Common behaviour includes:
- Isolating victims from family and friends
- Controlling the victim's movement, often taking them to and from work, the shops or to medical appointments
- Policing the victim's social media accounts and monitoring their mobile phone to control who they are talking to.
- Taking control of a partner's finances and restricting their access to cash.
- Constantly insulting a partner or putting them down.
- Disrupting the victim's sleep patterns.
- Threatening to harm a partner's children, family or their pets.
- "Shaming" the victim about their appearance, intelligence or weight either verbally or online.
- Mind games such as moving things or changing things in the house like lighting or ornaments then denying any change has taken place.
- Denying that their behaviour is unusual and telling the victim that no-one will believe them.
Over time, controlling and coercive behaviour can cause loss of self-esteem, anxiety and depression in a victim.
Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Humberside Police / PA Wire.