November 25th is White Ribbon Day and the beginning of the international campaign 16 Days of Action to End Violence Against Women, whose focus this year, prevention, dovetails into the growing national conversation about perpetrators – in this context the men who are using violence against women. Anyone who commits an illegal or criminal act is a perpetrator (of that act), but when the victim is vulnerable, the injustice is deep and enduring, and the harm done is significant and lasting, the name, in speaking to terrible deeds, begins to cast all offenders in the same light, obscuring their individual differences as they become ‘the enemy’. There seems finally to be a war on domestic violence, and in war we don’t look for the humanity in the enemy’s face.
But perpetrators are human beings, and in this new conversation about them, there is a growing awareness that prevention requires engagement, and engagement requires understanding. Not excusing, or colluding, or mitigating. Understanding. Without it, we have only condemnation, fear and intimidation to compel men into attending behaviour change programs, complying with court orders, taking responsibility for their violence and developing their capacities for respectful and gender-equitable relationships.
Engagement with perpetrators is a cornerstone of prevention. Without it there is no behaviour change and a continuing cycle of violence.
We owe it to the victims of family violence to develop systems which deal consistently and effectively with offenders, but we owe it to the perpetrators too. We provide treatment programs to people living with drug addiction, many of whom have done terrible things to families and friends and other people, with the aim of stopping the addiction and helping them to earn a place back in the community, because we don’t give up on the possibility of change.
Many of the men we see in behaviour change and violence prevention programs understand only too well that their behaviour is wrong and that they have harmed people they care about, their partners, children, their own parents, siblings and friends, their church or other social communities.
The backgrounds of many perpetrators reveal exposure to common and persistent beliefs and experiences which have carved an entrenched narrative around the acceptability of violence and misuse of power. Many are ordinary guys you wouldn’t look twice at in the street, men who themselves never thought that they were going to use violence in a relationship.
Some perpetrators abhor their violence and what they have done, and are desperate for help to not be ‘that guy’ any more. Some don’t quite get it, but have the capacity to reach an understanding with support from violence prevention practitioners. Good practitioners are the ones who can have the tough conversations with the man, not let him off the hook, challenge his thinking and show him what there is to gain and to lose, and still be prepared to throw all that aside and get on the phone if there’s any reason to think others are at risk from something the man may be about to do.
Sure, many perpetrators want to find someone else to blame, to stay out of gaol, to keep living with their children, to continue to live in their homes, to keep everything covered up, to have life be business as usual. This is unsurprising. People who get caught committing other offenses often want the same thing – to keep the consequences to themselves to a minimum.
One of the reasons many Western jurisdictions provide restorative justice programs for offenders who admit to their offences is that seeing and understanding the impact of their behaviour on the victim can help the offender to start taking responsibility for their actions, to give up minimising the harmfulness of their behaviour and stop blaming others for what they did.
We want our systems to hold perpetrators to account, to make sure they have to face the consequences of their actions with legal sanctions proportionate to their actions, but we also want them to understand the sometimes greater harm there is in behaviours they haven’t been charged with. Long term patterns of controlling and dominating, verbal and financial abuse, cutting partners off from friends and family, humiliating jokes, put-downs and threats, damaging property…
Much of our community doesn’t understand that these are forms of violence and abuse, so it’s no wonder offenders (and victims) often don’t.
It’s a long, long walk from the late night arrest and the weekend in the cells to being able to to genuinely take full responsibility for violence to partners and family, to face up to the harm you’ve done to your children and to their mother, to accept that a relationship is over, or to rebuild one which will never have violence in it again, to own up to your own family, to your friends and communities. To pay the cost in full.
If you know someone who’s being violent or controlling, intimidating and abusive to their partner, name the behaviour. Tell him it’s domestic violence. Tell him it’s verbal or psychological abuse. Tell him it doesn’t matter what she did that he thinks justifies it, that nothing justifies violence and abuse. He’s responsible for the behaviour he uses. Not someone who said or did something he didn’t like. Not someone who ignored a warning he gave. Not someone who talked back or did something they wanted to do.
Tell him the behaviour has to stop, because it’s harming her and it’s hurting the children, and anyone else who’s exposed to it. Tell him you want him to stop because you care about them and because you care about him. Offer him your support to get help to find better ways to deal with what’s going on. If people aren’t safe, call the police.
Yes, I know that men can be on the receiving end of violence and abuse by women. And that many of these men can end up injured or emotionally and psychologically harmed. We see them, and we support them. But this is 16 Days of Action to End Violence Against Women, so that conversation will keep for another time.
Canberra Men’s Centre