Featuring eleven first-person stories of men who committed to end their physical and emotional abuse, Sara Elinoff Acker's Unclenching Our Fists (Vanderbilt University Press, 2013) provides context about research dispute on whether batterer intervention programs work. The men’s names, photos and stories put a face on violence and encourage reform. This excerpt was taken from chapter one.
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Batterer Intervention Programs: Working with Abusive Men
Every Thursday evening, twelve men file into the small, cluttered group room where I work. They sit on a variety of old, mismatched furniture—second hand couches and folding chairs—coffee cups and slices of pizza in hand. They range in age from their early twenties into their sixties. Some look nervous or preoccupied, others are relaxed and bantering with the men who sit near them. The men span a diverse spectrum of occupations and incomes: a real estate agent sits next to an unemployed roofer; the landscaper sits between a PhD student and a cab driver.
These men’s lives probably never would have overlapped were it not for one thing they have in common: they have all abused the women they loved.
Soon the casual conversation winds down and our group begins. “How did your week go?” my co-facilitator asks. “Did you have any incidents of abuse? Were you able to prevent yourself from having any incidents?” One by one the men “check in”—talking about their efforts to remain nonviolent during the previous week. One man says he’s worried about going to court on a year-old domestic violence charge. Another discusses a tense email exchange with his ex-partner over child visitation. A third man admits he raised his voice and swore at his partner.
The men are dropping into the work of the evening. Everyone in the room is there because he has been physically violent, intimidating, and threatening, or emotionally and verbally abusive to his partner. The mission of the group is to encourage each man to face his problems and learn how to stop his abuse. The twelve men in our group are not alone. Every week, in an estimated fifteen hundred locations across the country, men are meeting in similar batterer intervention groups.
Batterer intervention programs were founded in the United States beginning in the 1970s, working with both mandated and self-referred clients. The first programs for male batterers were established in Seattle, Denver, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Today, there are programs in all fifty states and many countries around the world. They offer a combination of didactic teaching and personal exploration with the goal of ending intimate partner abuse. Programs vary in length, most from twenty-six to fifty-two weeks, depending on state standards. Groups are run by trained facilitators, usually male-female pairs, in part to model a healthy, respectful, and egalitarian working relationship between a woman and a man.
Batterer intervention programs, at their best, create a space where men acting abusively can take responsibility for their behavior, recognize the impact of their actions on their families, and learn to become non-violent. Group members are taught practical skills to help them interrupt their own abusive behavior. They are challenged to address not just their angry and physically violent episodes but also their ongoing patterns of control and emotional abuse. They are taught how to interact with partners in egalitarian, noncontrolling ways and how to parent nonviolently.
In addition, batterer intervention programs can be a source of important information for victims, probation departments, and referral sources. Programs share information about group members’ attendance and level of participation, as well as flagging potential problems, including dangerousness. Often this helps guide decisions about sentencing, whether an abusive man should have contact with his children, and whether he needs to address other problems such as substance abuse, mental health, and parenting. By reporting any indicators of potentially dangerous behavior or resistance to taking responsibility for past violence, batterer intervention programs provide critical information to courts, child welfare departments, and victims.
My own program, Men Overcoming Violence, is one of sixteen certified batterer’s intervention programs in Massachusetts. Over the course of two decades, Men Overcoming Violence (now called the Moving Forward program) has worked with close to three thousand men. At its peak, our program ran eleven weekly groups in the four western counties of Massachusetts, including one for inmates in the county jail.
Men come to our program because their domestic abuse has been met with some kind of consequence: their wives or partners have decided to leave; they’ve been arrested for domestic assault and battery; or child protective services got involved with the family and required them to attend a program. Sometimes men call us in the aftermath of a horrible incident when they feel ashamed of what they’ve done. No matter what the circumstances, most men start attending because some kind of crisis has awakened them—at least temporarily—to an important truth: their abusive behavior is unacceptable.
No one is born abusive. Abusive attitudes and behaviors are learned and, with great diligence, can be unlearned. But before abusive men can change, they need to stop blaming everybody else—wives, girlfriends, parents, bosses, the world at large—for their behavior. They must recognize that their abuse is traumatizing to their partners and children. For there to be any possibility of change, they must first admit that they alone are responsible for their abuse. Such accountability represents an enormous shift in how they think about the violence; many abusive men never take that step.
For many years when people would ask about my work, they’d often say, “I’ve heard that abusive men really don’t change. Isn’t it frustrating and hard to work with men like that?” The work is sometimes frustrating, and it certainly is difficult; change doesn’t come easily to abusive men. But what I’ve seen is that some men who have been abusive do become nonviolent. I think that the transformation these men make is among the most underreported stories in the field of domestic violence.
Addressing Domestic Violence: A Historic Crossroads
Domestic violence has been an epidemic in our society for generations. For centuries it has been shrouded in secrecy and, if acknowledged at all, kept private, a family matter. Traditionally, since women were often seen as the property of their husbands and had significantly less power, politically and economically, those who experienced abuse in their homes were expected to tolerate the behavior. This remains true in many parts of the world today.
Although great progress has been made in the United States in the last generation, domestic violence continues to be a deadly problem, with women as the primary victims. Department of Justice statistics from 2004 show that in the 625,000 cases of intimate partner abuse reported to law enforcement, eighty-five percent of the victims were women. Seventy-five percent of the perpetrators were men. Although the number of men being assaulted is rising (most likely due to an easing of the stigma around reporting), in 2010 women were still four times more likely to be the victim of intimate partner violence than men.
Most domestic violence incidents are not reported to the police; reported incidents of assaults represent only the tip of the iceberg. Most experts believe that only one in ten incidents is reported to law enforcement. This means that as many as twelve million individuals may be involved each year in domestic violence incidents as victims and perpetrators.
Domestic violence is part of my own family’s history. For more than sixty years, my grandmother was emotionally abused. My grandfather ruled the roost. If my grandmother, my mother, and her two sisters didn’t do as he wished, he verbally lashed out at them. He controlled every aspect of their lives. He was especially cruel to my grandmother, flaunting mistresses, never expressing affection or telling her he loved her. Instead he was demeaning and critical almost every day of their decades-long marriage. My grandmother became depressed, would refuse to eat, and was hospitalized at different times throughout her life. My mother begged her to leave the marriage, but my grandmother was economically dependent and afraid to be on her own.
There was barely any language to describe what my grandmother was going through—words like “domestic violence” or “emotional abuse” were not yet part of anyone’s vocabulary. She wasn’t being beaten, so no one would ever see her experience as legitimate abuse.
Her experience was simply understood as the way marriage is, something to endure “for the sake of the children.” Throughout her marriage, my grandfather was never held accountable.
With the rise of the second wave of the feminist movement in the late 1960s, things began to change. Feminist activists and domestic violence survivors started organizing for the right of women to live lives free of abuse. The silence surrounding family violence was finally broken.
Domestic abuse, activists proclaimed, is not simply an “anger issue.” Feminists were the first to articulate that domestic abuse is about power. They defined it as a pervasive pattern of dominance and control in which one person in a relationship consistently uses intimidation, threats, control, and blame to manipulate the other. Physical violence is only one dimension of the problem and isn’t used by all abusers. Domestic violence also includes emotional and economic abuse, sexual abuse, and the manipulation of children.
Feminists argued that rather than looking toward psychological causes, domestic violence should be understood as a societal problem, reinforced by deeply held cultural beliefs rooted in sexism. When you consider that for centuries women have been second-class citizens, that men are considered the undisputed rulers of their families, that violence is seen as an acceptable way to express anger or resolve conflict, and that power is defined by the amount of control one has over others, then violence against women inevitably follows. To end domestic violence, feminists asserted, the status of women and girls must be transformed, traditional notions of masculinity must be challenged, and power must be redefined.
The second wave of feminism gave birth to consciousness raising groups where women met together to explore the way sexism impacted their personal lives. As women talked about the violence in their intimate lives, they began to see just how widespread these problems were. It was most likely the first time in history that terms like “wife abuse,” “battering,” “incest,” and “sexual abuse” entered the national conversation and were taken seriously as social problems. Feminists established safe homes for women fleeing domestic violence. In 1974, the first battered women’s shelter in the U.S. opened in Minnesota. Within three years there were nearly ninety shelters for battered women across the country. Today, more than two thousand shelters and support organizations for victims of domestic violence are operating in the United States.
These battered women’s programs saved thousands of lives by providing abused women and their children with shelter, counseling, and advocacy. Despite many successes, too many women still continued to be brutalized, some killed, at the hands of their partners. It was clear that programs for victims were not enough. Activists realized that successfully combating domestic violence would require new programs to intervene with abuse perpetrators. Additionally, intimate partner violence needed to be criminalized. New laws were created so arrests could be made based on probable cause (rather than a police officer being required to witness a violent incident.) Protective orders became easier for victims to obtain, and violation of those orders resulted in criminal charges. Police, judiciary, clergy, and health care workers received critical training. Primary prevention programs in schools and community education campaigns were established. Fundamentally, services for victims and their children became part of an overall web of response to the problem of domestic violence. Activists helped to keep the momentum going for this ever-expanding social change effort, in a coordinated community response.
A critical component of this response was intervention with perpetrators. No matter how many battered women’s programs were established, no matter how many women and children were helped, the plague of domestic violence would continue unabated until abusers stopped perpetrating their violence. Somebody had to work with the men, to interrupt the violence and abuse and teach alternative behaviors. This is where batterer intervention programs like the one where I worked came in.
Excerpted from the new book, Unclenching Our Fists: Abusive Men on the Journey to Nonviolence by Sara Elinoff Acker, published by Vanderbilt University Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. For more information: visit Vanderbilt University Press.