Courage to Change: Working with male perpetrators of domestic violence

The complex reality for men beginning a Men's Behaviour Change Program (MBCP) can be, among other things, a mix of ignorance, inexperience and resentment. I’ve been working in programs for male perpetrators of domestic violence for more than ten years and one thing I notice among these men is a level of ignorance with regard to understanding the work required to change. In my experience, one of the biggest obstacles to men ending their abuse of women and children is their inability to understand the damage they are causing and have caused. I say inability albeit, in certain cases, this is more a refusal to acknowledge what they know themselves to be true. Regardless, if a man remains oblivious to the ramifications of his abusive behaviour, any change to that behaviour will be negligible at best. Men are unlikely to stop abusing as long as they feel it is causing no “real” harm.

“She gives as good as she gets, she never says anything about it so where's the problem? I didn't think it was much, she knows I would never hit her, she knows I'm joking, she asked for it, she's too emotional”.

These are typical responses men give in group, particularly in the early weeks, when questioned about the damage caused to loved ones by their abusive behaviour.

Inexperience I put down to upbringing. You cannot genuinely experience or comprehend that which you don't understand. Many men who abuse women – not all certainly – have never received any form of learning in how to respectfully treat women, children, other people in general. Not from home, not from school, not from friends, not from workmates and certainly not from a society that still accepts that women will suffer discrimination in many walks of life. Film, advertising, magazines, television, social media, sport, academia and the endless external influences a boy is conditioned to and by, all maintain varying levels of sexism and discrimination toward women, women's roles and their capabilities. 

Resentment can sit inside a man in a MBCP like a burning ember. It affects his learning and may eventually be the reason he leaves a program prematurely. The discomfort is too great or he is not yet ready to accept responsibility for his actions. Even a man who has voluntarily joined a group can be riddled with resentment, particularly when he is challenged on long-held assumptions or his muddled values. Those who are court mandated or have been issued ultimatums by a partner, family member or employer may carry resentment so extreme it taints everything they hear and say within the group. They can become defensive and feel victimised. The co-facilitators ideally see a man's sense of resentment for what it is, a protective response to an abnormal situation.

No man feels fully at ease in a MBCP – nor should he. It's not on any man's list of life aspirations, it's not a TAFE course or typical self-improvement program. Where some may see it as an achievement and are proud of their efforts in approaching a group agency, others might view participation as a defeat, with a shameful sense of “So it's come to this?” Regardless of a man's discomfort, it is helpful if a facilitator takes into account all of the possible states of mind brought into the room, particularly in the early weeks of a program. Empathy is a strong tool here. Some people, on hearing that men who have used violence against women and children are being shown empathy, compassion even, will feel aggrieved. They may ask “Hang on, who used the violence here? Who is the victim? What are the consequences for this man's behaviour? Where is the justice?”

All are understandable. Even experienced facilitators can find themselves drifting down this line of questioning - the punitive, judgemental attitude, particularly when confronted with a man showing rampant entitlement or smugness regarding his behaviour. It's a slippery slope requiring a quick pull on the handbrake.

If a man is to work toward the change that facilitators invite him to embrace, he can never feel he is being judged. The moment he feels he is back in school or someone is wagging a finger at him, he is probably lost to the program's reach. It's important to remember that men who use violence in the home may feel they have already been judged by others – partners, police, courts, in-laws, anti-violence media campaigns etc. There may also be a sense of self-loathing, conscious or otherwise. Added to this is the possible likelihood the man has been violated as a child. The relationship between facilitator and group member can be a complex one indeed.

Coming into a group to be offered non-violent ways to negotiate life's challenges, a man could hardly be blamed for thinking he was about to be judged further. It's imperative he isn't. This is not to suggest his past behaviour is to be accepted in any way. The very fact he is in a group that is endeavouring to offer him a platform for change says his current and past behaviour has been judged unacceptable. But this is as far as any judgement should go. The competent facilitator offers men who use violence and abuse a healthy mix of challenge and support without judging him. When a man understands and trusts this as the best way forward, he is more likely to accept those challenges, use those supports and work toward being the best man he can be.

So how much gender equality, feminist based information can a man using violence and abuse receive without becoming overwhelmed, resentful or angered further?

I'm a male facilitator of MBCPs and I struggle every day with my own conditioned ideas of gender. The unnecessary remarks, the subtle put-downs, the patronising, the rescuing, the contrived compliments, the assumptions, the presumptions, the looks, the so-called friendly touches, the cheek kisses, the sexual thought patterns, the limiting expectations. Few if any of these behaviours that I have used in the past have been asked for, appreciated or required by the women I have come in contact. On the road to learning about the space I take and the noise I make, I recall the flashes of anger when I have been rebuked or called out for my behaviour. The feeling I'm walking on egg-shells as I start to understand that all I really need do is think about my actions before putting them into practice.

Yet still I call myself a feminist - or used to. Nowadays I consider myself a man who is an advocate for women's issues and more generally, gender equality. I've never experienced prejudices as a female, why suggest I know first hand the pain, frustration and disappointments that go with them? Somewhere in this article, despite my best intentions to the contrary, I will likely offend someone, with a poorly worded idea or description. That's going to happen when a man stands behind his own gender equality work. I can live with that. Suffice to say, every time I speak or interact with a woman now, I think of the consequences, how different my words might be if she were a man, how I might have adjusted my tone, body language, facial expression. How dreadful to think I actually have to think about my words before I utter them!

So if a trained facilitator is still working on his own efforts to promote gender equality - and yes, it's a lifelong journey - what can we expect from a diverse group of men gathered together and united by their own lack of respect and abusive treatment of the other sex? Safe to say initially, not a lot.

The word feminism is rarely used within the scope of a MBCP. Too many men instantly think 'anti-male'. It's up to facilitators to decide how much time should be devoted to nudging this attitude toward gender equality. I personally think more needs to be done in this area but that is a question for program developers, support agencies and researchers.

I believe the everyday issues that make up the bigger, more publicised discussion points within the gender equality debate can be used positively in directing a man's negative thoughts regarding feminism. That is, let's not overwhelm a man with feminist theory and slabs of hooks and Bindel. Instead, address the aspects of his life within his control that affect women every day.

Let's look at how a man, call him Tim, may have spent his day leading up to his 6pm arrival at group.

That morning Tim coerced his wife into sexual intercourse despite the fact she was tired from a restless night's sleep and further worry about his abuse. She consented rather than start a fight which would see him resentful and angry for days. He read her silence as consent.

At the bakery on the way to work, he referred to a female shop assistant as 'darl' and winked at a male customer as she was bending to reach for his order. The man grinned back. Tim felt happy, powerful even, and somehow united with the stranger.

At work, he joined a group of men watching a pornography clip on a staff computer. Despite the protests of a female worker, Tim replied it was just a bit of harmless fun and suggested she lighten up. Later in the tea room he told the same woman he thought the men really didn't need to watch pornography as the view in the office was just as good. The woman was clearly uncomfortable and Tim became bristly and defensive when she left the room in a hurry.

At a staff meeting that afternoon, Tim interrupted a woman who was offering an opinion, with his own ideas. No-one picked him up on it, the woman felt and looked disrespected but no-one seemed to notice.

Driving home, Tim passed a billboard carrying an advertisement for men's shoes. Most of it was taken up by a woman on her knees, wearing a choker and little else. On the car-radio a sport's broadcaster referred to the national women's basketball team as 'great girls'. He changed to a music station and listened to an angry male voice shouting about his bitch and the pain he would cause her that night. At the newsagent he bought a paper surrounded by nude women on the covers of scores of magazines.

At home he gave his wife a dark look, letting her know how put out he was having to attend the MBCP 'just to keep her happy'. His two teenage children witnessed this silently.

Some of this is changing, due to feminist based pressure and laws promoting equality and decrying sexism and bias within the workplace, more women these days are protected against unwanted attention from colleagues, unfair workplace practices and discriminatory promotional opportunities. Unfortunately there is still a long way to go.

And so into the MBCP room comes Tim, equipped with all the sexist, misogynist, unfair and just plain misguided ideas our society can equip him with. This is not a man who will likely embrace a judgemental forum well. Let's face it, if that were the case, many more men would already be on their way to respectful living and safe families and family violence call-out rates by police would be dropping. They're not. Right this minute, Tim believes he is doing an okay job at being an okay bloke. Sure there are a few problems with “the missus” but pretty much every bloke he knew had them.

A half dozen or so men, milling around with cups of coffee and biscuits, have already arrived. Some make eye contact, one shyly introduces himself, others drift outside for a quick cigarette before things begin. Apprehensive, nervous, angry, shy, ashamed, trapped, some are looking forward, wanting things to start, unsure of what might come next.

In the next few weeks, Tim will be unlikely to hear what feels like too much talk of feminism. What he might hear are questions like “How was your first sexual encounter? Was it all about take, less about respect and sharing? Why? How come girls are expected to set boundaries whilst boys are expected to continually test them? Where is that written? Would you be happy if another man treated your partner as you do? Why not?

These challenges will ideally be filtered through good amounts of validation ie. support for good decision making, acknowledgement of healthy self-reflection, disclosures around poor role models in early life that left a man poorly equipped to face life's challenges with little other than aggression. To my mind, good facilitation is a balance between support and challenge.

Violence and abuse against women and children will not be eradicated a dozen men at a time across 20 two hour, weekly sessions. But what if those that embrace the techniques and tools on offer go back to their families, their workmates, their drinking buddies and neighbours and spread their own change? What if their attempts at taking responsibility for their own behaviours are witnessed by other abusive men? Men who may well be looking for a different way to face life's challenges other than with abuse and force?

Something as subtle as Tim walking past the pornography at work, or supporting his female colleague's voice can be enough to have other men questioning their own thinking patterns and behaviours. Once that tiny bell goes off in the mind of a man who abuses, who knows what its significance might be? A first time self-appraisal? A wish to be like the man who took a stand against violence, whether it be an offensive joke or inappropriate comment?

The excitement for me lies in the knock-on effect this work can create. I have no way of knowing where or when it is occurring or by whom once a man leaves a program, but I carry endless optimism for him. I've learned the biggest aid I have in this work is optimism. I hold on to a genuine belief that with the right type of safe un-training, supported by a non-judgemental, pro-feminist program of sessions based on a healthy mix of challenges and support, the man that has chosen to use violence can choose not to. We go on. 

Mike Esler is a facilitator of Men's Behaviour Change Groups for several agencies in Melbourne. He assesses and counsels men who use violence and abuse against their families.