Power, patriarchy, victimhood, denial: three experts on why men hurt women

<span>‘Under their facade of control, these men are generally very miserable. Yet, lacking guidance on alternative behaviours, they remain trapped in a destructive pattern,’ says Sian Ord from Relationships Australia.</span><span>Illustration: Victoria Hart/Guardian Design</span>
‘Under their facade of control, these men are generally very miserable. Yet, lacking guidance on alternative behaviours, they remain trapped in a destructive pattern,’ says Sian Ord from Relationships Australia.Illustration: Victoria Hart/Guardian Design

This year alone, at least 42 women have been killed in acts of gender-based violence in Australia – something the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has called “a crisis”.

We asked experts working with perpetrators of violence in men’s behavioural change programs (MBCPs) what they’ve learned about why men hurt women. What do experts believe men “gain” from using violence and what is effective in getting violent men to address the core issues behind their use of violence?

They are entitled – and threatened by feminism

Simon Port is manager of violent prevention services and Sandra Rajic is a counsellor and men’s behaviour change practitioner at Everyman. Together, they run a program called Working with the Man. They say:

We’re not going to change men who don’t want to be changed

Simon Port and Sandra Rajic

A lot of men that [we] have worked with here are sitting in a space of entitlement. They feel entitled to use certain behaviours and entitled to be the man of the house, because that’s what [they believe] men have always done, and that’s what they have witnessed in a patriarchal belief system.

[They believe] their behaviour is justified because someone is challenging their position in that relationship. They act out when their power is being challenged.

We do a whiteboard exercise [that looks at] how we sell violence to ourselves. We get responses like: “she deserved it”, “she was crazy”, “she started it”, “she started yelling at me”, and “it wasn’t that bad”. It takes a lot of work to start opening and turning that mirror so they can see it’s not about blaming others and looking at yourself.

We’re not going to change men who don’t want to be changed. Everything we do is for men to question their behaviours, to make the connections and see how their behaviours impact others in their relationships. It’s about taking ownership, responsibility and being accountable, which gives them the opportunity to change.

Men have to sit with the consequences. Some of them will start feeling some shame about their behaviour and we work with them in that level of shame.

Related: As Australia screams for action against lethal male violence, this is a culture war for survival | Van Badham

Men will do things to feel power, to feel that sense of bravado. Some go out of their way [in front of] other men, to show how tough they are. Some feel very threatened by feminism, and say that feminism has gone too far.

People like Andrew Tate definitely don’t help. They look at these chatrooms with other men who agree with their narrative. They think “women have done me wrong” and they have a bunch of other men agreeing with them, telling them [they’re] right. We call that out very quickly.

The younger ones tend to be much more open and understanding of change. They look at men who are double their age and think “Wow, I don’t want to be that age [to do something], I want to do something about this now”. We need to start educating young people around entitlement, consent and healthy, respectable and safe relationships.

One of the women [in our partner advocacy team] said her partner had changed so much in this group, and since learning some of the tools, was trying to role model behaviour for other friends. Men are talking to other men about this, [and that’s how things can change].

The only long-term predictor [on the success of the programs] is if women feel safe, but we don’t have the funding to check up on the men two years after they’ve left the programs. We are not sure how long [the change] lasts but we are hopeful.

They avoid dealing with their feelings

Sian Ord from Relationships Australia’s NSW family safety program runs a Men’s Behaviour Change Programs (MBCP) called Taking Responsibility. She says:

One of the fundamental drivers of male violence is a patriarchal value system that has its basis in gender inequality, where men hold more power than women in our society. In that system, men are socialised to be dominant and in charge, to never show vulnerability or look for healthy ways to express their emotional experience. Men learn that anger and aggression are socially acceptable in many ways.

Factors like childhood trauma, or growing up in a household that placed more value on men than it did on women, supports that patriarchal belief system. And we know these ideas get reinforced daily – we continue to see more men in positions of power in society, and when women are sexually objectified in the media, it becomes normal to see them as sexual objects.

This thinking doesn’t discriminate across classes or social structures either; [it’s] held by professional or educated men and the socially disadvantaged. Some things make a person more dangerous; for example if they hold violence-supporting attitudes and also misuse alcohol or drugs.

Violent men see the payoffs they gain from exerting power and control over others. They get to be in charge and get their own way [and] they don’t have to be responsible for their actions. There’s a sense of entitlement and power, of being able to call all the shots.

Despite these perceived benefits, under their facade of control, these men are generally very miserable. Yet, lacking guidance on alternative behaviours, they remain trapped in a destructive pattern.

For some men there’s a tit-for-tat mentality. They think “I’m feeling hurt by something you said or did”, and whether or not that was intentional, they derive a sense of satisfaction or justice that comes with the violence that follows. In the program, many get to realise that relationships are not about winners or losers; they’re about mutual respect and equality.

Another perceived payoff of the violence is that they don’t have to address or sit with strong or uncomfortable emotions. Often the violence comes when men are feeling difficult emotions or their partner is giving them feedback. They feel anger, humiliation and other difficult emotions that they don’t have a roadmap to express.

Sometimes, the program helps them realise that violence doesn’t make these difficult or uncomfortable emotions go away. One man in particular was able to understand that humiliation resulted in fury. Through the program, he learned to recognise that rising in himself and developed ways to express his emotions safely.

Having a coordinated community response … is critical.

Anthony Lekkas

Some men describe their acts of physical violence as going from zero to 100, while we believe their normal baseline is likely closer to 80. In those cases we discuss what it would mean for them to let their guard down or process their emotions so they’re calm enough at a 10 or 20. One man was protective of his daughters in a very violent way, and later realised he was the actually the biggest risk.

Often men who have violence-supporting attitudes get incredibly controlling of their daughters’ relationships but don’t understand that by being a healthy and respectful role model they can ensure their children are much safer. This is what forms a child’s understanding of how relationships work.

We have 235 people on a waitlist in NSW, and they’re highly likely to reoffend. We don’t have solid research on the effectiveness on men’s behavioural change programs, but we do know they are more effective at reducing harm instead of the criminal justice system alone. We want to be able to measure outcomes a bit more accurately [but] we’re not funded to stay engaged with them long-term.

They feel justified because of their own struggles

Anthony Lekkas has worked in MBCPs for a number of community services for more than 14 years and is now facilitating a 20-week MBCP for men who have been violent towards women. He says:

Overall, its [a man’s] sense of entitlement to abuse and harm her that sits at the heart of his violence. If there is an intention to control and dominate and keep her entrapped, then he can feel less threatened by the possibility of her ever leaving him. Coercive control keeps her focused on his needs so that he always has the experience of feeling like his needs are the priority [and] her priority.

This is a cultural problem since we are all socialised with these gendered messages: that little girls and women are responsible for accommodation the relational needs in family and relationships and men are socialised to expect to be accommodated, mostly by women. Men can often feel justified in abusing her if she “steps out of line”. [They gain] control, attention, power, a release of tension, getting her to stop questioning him, a feeling like he wins the argument.

These spaces [tend to focus] on men’s trauma, mental health and other struggles they face in life that may contribute to [their violence]. I am not totally opposed to drawing from these approaches as they can alert us to some of the risk factors, but often this work is done without a sound grasp of feminist principles, [which] increase accountability to men and increase safety for women and children by exposing some of the interpersonal and structural gendered inequalities and how men capitalise on this to get their needs met.

Men in group[s] usually only share what has already been recorded by the courts or police reports that may have contributed to them being referred to the group. They will often talk about “the incident”, where they isolate one behaviour and begin by talking about the ways she was behaving prior to admitting to one small piece of information that describes a sole act of abuse.

What is missed is how this one enactment exists at the end of a series of tactics to control, dominate and harm that had lost their impact, so a higher degree of force was used in that moment. What we need to do in MBCPs is to get a broader context of the abuse and the ongoing invisible tactics that created a system of control and intimidation.

Some men in MBCPs often see themselves as the true victims of domestic violence. They can feel remorse for their partners but ultimately tend to join together to construct women as liars [and] exaggerators. They are often portrayed as being “cheaters” or committing [an] infidelity which usually gets other men on side very quickly.

Related: We won’t stop violence against women with ‘conversations about respect’. This is not working. We need to get real | Jess Hill

[These tactics are used] to avoid talking about his violence and construct her as the “problem”, and allow him to feel justified in being abusive and avoid the discomfort of accountability.

In group, men can feel shame and guilt, particularly when disclosing their abuse in front of a group of other men. This is important because it increases the experience of accountability.

Because of this discomfort, some men can end up feeling unfairly treated by the program and claim that the group is an “unsafe” space for them. This can be a tactic to take the focus off his violence and to victimise himself to elicit empathy from facilitators.

Having a coordinated community response to perpetrators, program providers holding the same practice frameworks, and an understanding of coercive control and male violence towards women and children is critical. We all contribute to a social, cultural and political context in which men’s oppression, murder and abuse of women occurs.

We all have a part to play in our daily lives to open up dialogue about this, but because the sector is attracting psychology and counselling-focused practitioners, we mostly see this as a “bad man” problem rather than an “all-of-us” problem.

• On Sunday: what can be done to change men’s behaviour?

• In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org