Changing the behaviour of male perpetrators of domestic violence

Domestic violence shows no sign of abating. There is growing recognition that working with male perpetrators - alongside intervention and protection for women - is essential to reducing the violence that kills two women every week.

Angela Neustatter
28 November 2014

Jock grew up in a poor working class home in Britain, a classic alpha male showing his form in aggression and violence. By his ‘30s he had made good and was earning millions, mixing with socialites and politicians and battering the woman he had married. He subjected her to relentless screaming ,shouting and beatings then intercutting this behaviour with a compelling charm and protestations of love.

Adam Jukes, psychotherapist and author of  Is There A Cure for Masculinity? a book de-constructing the “phallus narcissism” that he says runs so many mens’ lives, has worked for 30 years with violent men, using analytic and cognitive work designed to get them to address the reality of their behaviour and take responsibility for it. He says that of all the men presenting to him as perpetrators of domestic violence seeking help to change, Jock a “self-justifying sociopath” seemed the one least likely to reform. Yet for all his angry, controlling behaviour in therapy sessions, and an abrupt ending to treatment, Jukes learned three years later that Jock had stopped his violent behaviour after their sessions.

There has long been a guarded reaction to the idea that it may be worth spending scarce resources on working with men, as has been done by the Domestic Violence Intervention Programme for 25 years, in the hope they will change behaviour. But the idea has gained formidable support as a way that must be included in measures to try to protect and support the women - two are killed every week and hundreds injured - and children who are victims. 

Liz Kelly, Professor of Sexualised Violence at London Metropolitan University, where she is also Director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU), is currently leading a research project  to evaluate programmes working with male perpetrators of domestic violence and she will discuss the results at two conferences in the new year. Professor Kelly  explains her imperative: ‘Domestic violence shows no sign of abating… It has become clear that in order to reduce and prevent domestic violence, the spotlight must be placed men and their behaviour , alongside…the interventions for women and children'. But importantly, she adds that the ‘understanding of domestic violence' needs to be pro-feminist. 

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Marianne Hester, Professor of Gender Violence and International Policy at the University of Bristol, as part of Article 16 of Istanbul Convention, has just published, a collection of papers which include those on perpetrator programmes. And support for programmes run by DVID and Respect which runs groups around the country, comes from organisations clear that their commitment is to women, such as Women’s Aid and CAADA.

So what happens in these sessions run by DVIP and who are the men they work with?  It is a mixture the CEO of DVIP, Ben Jamal, explains. Men (almost invariably) who refer themselves, and these include men who have gone with their partner to relationship counselling but told they must stop their abusive behaviour before they can get help. Others come through the national helpline.

‘We have a body of men who come from the family courts and private law proceedings where, as a condition of contact with the children, they are referred to one of our programmes. Others are threatened with a child protection plan and come to prevent that happening. These men tend to come reluctantly. The vast majority come with a degree of denial and minimisation. We can work with that. The barrier for us is someone who denies that they have a problem, and says that none of the reports to the police are accurate and they are only coming because they have been ordered to.'

They can, however, work with men who admit they have ‘some problems’, that they did hit their partner, but Jamal relates their line will be: ‘it’s not that bad, I’m not a wife beater. But I accept I have a problem. We can work with this.’

The Domestic Violence Intervention Project  involves twenty six weekly sessions in groups led by people with accredited training, and will usually begin with the narrative a man brings. So Jamal says: 'they might begin saying of their wife or partner they’re doing this, or she did this. We say okay, let’s look at what you did in the circumstance'. The aim is ‘to get someone to recount an incident and the story might be she said this, she did this. It  made me feel…..  so get them to reframe the story in terms of what they did, and how that is likely to have made her feel, and get them to look at the way they exercise control through the process. That might include an exercise where we ask them to break down the lead-up to an incident into their thoughts, intentions, beliefs etc around the situation, to help them see that they had a choice and it served a purpose for them to use violence or abuse.  And, importantly, Jamal adds, that it didn’t ‘just happen’. As men may join the programme at different times, those already taking part though may act as a check, says Jamal. ‘Those who have been through the process a lot longer may say something to a newcomer with his narrative like 'oh c’mon, let’s look at that’, and it can be very motivating for new starters seeing the changes that more established men have made and are describing.

The commonest approach for courses addressing male violence is the use of cognitive, behavioural and other therapeutic interventions along with awareness raising and educational activities. The aim is educating men about how to eliminate their use of violent, abusive and controlling behaviour and promoting the value of gender equal relationships.

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Throughout the DVIP programme there is contact with and support for women victims and this goes on for a month after the men have completed the programme. If a man is violent during the course he will not be allowed to continue at that time and his partner is informed and she is offered support. DVID also run a separate programme called Al Amman for the Arabic speaking community, where there may be a particular range of reference points used by men coming from within that community - most of whom are Muslim. Jamal says 'what we’re doing there is the same process as elsewhere’. Here, protecting women lies, importantly, with challenging men on what they see as a cultural entitlement to treat women a certain way.

Neil Blacklock runs the development work for Respect, the umbrella for nationwide groups, although others are run independently within the criminal justice system, and he talks of ‘a huge gap in probation. He talks of seeing 'men struggling with trying to face reality and make sense of it. They want to have healthy relationships and their impulsive behaviour is damaging that. They usually come in with a degree of shame, justification,  blaming others The work done is about getting them to engage with reality. And quite a lot can be done with male perpetrators. So this makes it worthwhile spending the money.'

During the DVIP programme figures tell of a vast improvement for women, with 93% experiencing no further physical or sexual violence. But it is agreed that by no means all the men they work with men stop being violent permanently, although their behaviour may be moderated and they may see further help. It is not surprising says Jukes, whose notion of “phallic narcissism” has it that men identify their sense of self with an erect penis, and some to a pathological degree, so that they cannot bear to be vulnerable or risk showing soft emotions. He authored a book Why Men Hate Women.  He also believes ‘misogyny is endemic whether  hard-wired or learned behaviour.’  Yet setting up the Men’s Centre in Kentish Town three decades ago was an act of faith he still stands by. “It must be one of the oldest treatment centres for violent men in Europ, and he says ‘I have seen surprising successes with the most difficult men presenting with massive behaviour problems and although it is very hard to follow up results over the  long term, I don’t think money is wasted on the work done and as I was saying to a woman working on domestic abuse the other day if, in doing this, we save just five children from having their lives wrecked in is worthwhile.’

Measuring success rates accurately is contentious. Work done by Ed Gondolf in the US who followed 880 men and found that men might not appear immediately to change, but when followed over two years, those who had the will to change managed to do so, has been challenged.  So Blacklock is hoping Professor Kelly’s research may demonstrate a positive result.

There is much frustration that more money is not made available for perpetrator programmes in Britiain  with just one in ten local authorities running them, because Blacklock is convinced: ‘if  it was nationwide and thoroughly provided we could do so much more. But it is vital the work  meets national standards. Cheap badly  run services could put women and children at even greater risk, but with proper work we can do work that is humane and economically beneficial given the enormously high level of cost on both these levels.’

Read more articles on 50.50's series  16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence 2014


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