Roast or toast? Mapping changes in violent men

Recognising that we have reached a stalemate in dealing with violent men, and an impasse in policy and research on perpetrator programmes, there is fresh interest in whether men can be engaged in a process of change.

Rahila Gupta
9 February 2015

Million Women Rise March, London 2012. Credit: Demotix / Nelson Pereira

Why should women have to take on the burden of working with violent men in order to reduce their offending behaviour?  Isn’t it bad enough that they are victims of it? Shouldn’t men assume responsibility for changing their behaviour as Alan Grieg has done by setting up a Challenging Male Supremacy project? Or is it just feminist petulance to insist that it is a man’s problem?  Anybody who has worked in the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector will have been asked the question of why aren’t they doing anything about the men? On the face of it, a sensible enough question. That would be going to the root of the problem instead of dealing constantly with the fallout.

The problem with the question is that it assumes that violence is an aspect of individual behaviour, whereas feminists believe that violence is the linchpin of a patriarchal system and part of a spectrum of behaviours used to keep women in their place. Most feminists have, therefore, steered clear of domestic violence perpetrator programmes (DVPP).

At the same time, there is widespread recognition that we have reached a stalemate in dealing with violent men, and that we have reached an impasse in both research and policy on perpetrator programmes. Whilst sending men to prison is critical in holding the state to account and emphasising the seriousness of the crime, prison does not always work, it does not tackle re-offending and does not keep women safe in the long term. Hence there is fresh interest from feminists to see whether men ‘can be engaged in a process of change’ which has been the driver of DVPP intervention in the UK since the 1980s.

So it was with some interest that I attended a conference, Changing the Story, which reported on the results of the Mirabal project, an evaluation of 12 DVPPs, on behalf of Respect, an umbrella organisation for perpetrator programmes. It was all the more intriguing as the 15 month study was led by feminists with impeccable credentials: Liz Kelly, Head of Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) at the Metropolitan University, and Nicole Westmarland of Durham University. In order to assess the impact of DVPP intervention, two groups of women were surveyed: the intervention group consisted of 100 women whose partners were on a DVPP, and a comparison group called the freedom group which consisted of 62 women, most of whom were separated from their partners and whose partners were not on a DVPP.

The DVPP programmes last between 30-36 weeks and have been described in detail on openDemocracy 50.50 by Angela Neustatter. Jo Todd, CEO of Respect, made an eloquent case for the challenges of DVPP intervention: that we should not underestimate how difficult it is for emotionally illiterate men to look at and acknowledge their own violence, which is a condition of being admitted to the programme, and over the course of it, to give an honest account of their behaviour, take full responsibility for it, develop empathy, understand the impact of it, unpick embedded notions of masculinity and entitlement, and then make a conscious choice to change. Little surprise then that over half the men in the study didn’t stay the course.

The researchers were at pains to emphasise, as was Jo Todd, that Respect’s accredited domestic violence prevention programmes are not a substitute for criminal proceedings, nor can they be used to mitigate sentences. The best of them follow the highly regarded Duluth model which is a woman centred analysis of domestic violence, drawing on the power and control perspective to hold the perpetrator to account.

The findings were reported with refreshing honesty: a majority of women experienced a substantial decline in physical and sexual violence, ranging from 61% to 2%, although damaging property and slamming doors was still present in a quarter of the cases, down from 94%; whilst coercive control declined, it remained an issue for half the women. There was a small shift in the two factors that women valued most of all – respectful communication, and having more autonomy or ‘space for action’. Despite all this, 51% of women reported feeling very safe by the end of the survey. There was a noticeable improvement in men’s understanding of violence, but a majority of men were still inclined to make excuses for their abuse or blame the women for it. Although men’s parenting styles improved - mostly minimally, there was no change in the number of women worried about leaving the children alone with their fathers. However, the data around parenting and children was skewed by the fact that more than half the men had not had any contact with the children while they were on the programme.

This brings us to one of the problems with DVPPs - an overwhelming number of men on the programmes have been referred by children’s services or CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) which does cloud the issue of motivation. Are the men primarily interested in seeing their children and prepared to make short-term changes in their behaviour in order to facilitate that? Or are some of the men using it as a cover to retain control and influence in the woman’s life - as workers in the violence against women and children sector have found?

Although the decline in physical violence is positive, ironically it makes it even harder for women to obtain police and Crown Prosecution Service intervention because allegations of coercive control, emotional and financial abuse - which continue even after DVPP intervention - have rarely been prosecuted anyway. Domestic violence has always been easier to prosecute when there is visible evidence of physical violence. The other factor that has a bearing on how we read these results is the big difference in the number of women who were with their violent partners in the intervention group – almost half were with their abuser at the beginning and a third were still with him 15 months on – whereas in the freedom group, the comparable figures were 13% and 9%. It is reasonable to assume that women who want to save their relationships, often for economic and social reasons, are likely to be more positive about the changes they report.

Although these researchers did not count the number of relationships saved as a result of DVPP intervention as a marker of success, it is bound to be seen by governments in that light. It is cheaper to keep families together - and also fits in with conservative values. This would be a complete reversal of current indicators of success for the VAWG sector which are measured by the number of women who have left an abusive relationship.

Because the results are not clear cut enough, and can be roasted or toasted depending on your bent, perpetrator programmes in a landscape of cuts and policies, like restorative justice, mediation, out of court disposals and a misogynistic and patriarchal culture, are viewed with suspicion by some who work in this sector who say that they amount to a relegation of domestic violence back into the private sphere, reversing feminist struggles to move it from the private to the public. If a woman does want to prosecute, she has to push even harder to get that to happen and risk being seen as unforgiving and vindictive, which instead of reducing the onus on women, could increase it.

Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, says, “We are not against perpetrator programmes per se, but for us, the most important hurdle to overcome is police response to domestic violence which remains unsatisfactory and often not fit for purpose. Perpetrator programmes can only work if they are a part of an effective criminal justice system that ensures protection of women. This is far from the reality at present.”

VAWG workers would not be so anxious about these programmes if extra government funding was being made available. At a time when refuges are being closed down and there is pressure on the sector to increase beds for male victims of violence, diverting more cash to DVPPs when their outcomes are debatable feels like a further assault on the sector. As the government is a signatory to the ‘Istanbul convention’ on combatting violence against women, article 16 of which requires members to set up these programmes, DVPPs are likely to grow in importance. If they are here to stay, many VAWG workers have responded the way you might to an unwelcome bedfellow – has he, at least, washed his feet and brushed his teeth?

It is better to support programmes that comply with the high standards set by Respect, operating within a feminist framework and evaluated by a highly respected feminist academic like Liz Kelly, than vacate the space and allow it to be run by conservative and/or religious groups as has happened with other violence against women services. This becomes the only pragmatic response to problematic policy developments.



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