I work as a men's behavioural change practitioner

Date

As told to Clementine Ford

In honour of the global 16 Days of Activism and Daily Life's #shinealight campaign on men's violence against women, Daily Life recently spoke with family violence expert, Ada Conroy. As part of her work in addressing family violence and men's violence against women, Ada co-facilitates behavioural change groups with men perpetrating intimate partner violence. Here is part of her story, as told to Clementine Ford.

Much of what we do can also be considered secondary prevention, because in some instances we're intervening before ...

Much of what we do can also be considered secondary prevention, because in some instances we're intervening before serious assaults might occur.

I've been working as a Men's Behavioucral Change Practitioner with a community service provider since March this year, but I've worked for women's health organisations specialising in family violence for the past 15 years. Most of my work in this area has been through intervention, which basically means that I work at the response end. Men's behavioural change currently tends to be responsive, because it occurs as a result of family violence or intimate partner abuse. Much of what we do can also be considered secondary prevention though, because in some instances we're intervening before serious assaults might occur.

A typical men's group is incredibly diverse. The group I run is a 22 week rolling group, so we have new men coming in every month. They're men from tradies to GPs to pilots. I don't always know a lot about what they do. You can sometimes pick it depending on what they wear and how they posture to each other as well. It's almost as if they set up their own hierarchy in the class with some of them positioning themselves above other men. We've had posties, cabbies, electricians and writers. It's important to remember that the perpetration of violence doesn't discriminate based on profession or economic class.

I work in the northern suburbs which are really diverse class-wise and culturally. In terms of class and privilege, the men we deal with come from a variety of backgrounds. Still, it's very clear that men who occupy a higher class or economic status position themselves differently to the other men in the classes. It's clear in the way they speak and the way they interact with us (the facilitators) - even through the way they interact with other men who they perceive to be aligned with their class. We don't treat any of the men any differently based on how they present. As far as we're concerned, they are men who have used violence. Their levels of entitlement might be different, but ultimately they all feel some level of it.

The circumstances that lead to a men ending up in one of my groups might vary, but the core reason remains the same. Essentially, it means there's been an incident of family or intimate partner violence in which the police have been called to attend. In our groups, we talk openly about what that incident was - but we also translate to the participants the message that this incident wasn't a one-off. As a result, even though some of our participants are there voluntarily, most of the men we work with have been mandated by the court to attend.

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In the group, we talk about how it's the 'pattern of coercive control' rather than the violence itself that actually causes the most damage to women's lives, and it's important to us to get participants to take that really seriously. Instead of allowing them to focus on a singular incident and its smokescreens (for example, 'she was provoking me', 'I'd had too much to drink', 'I'm just really stressed'), we aim to restructure what it means when we talk about domestic or family violence - that it's actually about a spectrum of abuse that's occurred, with the physical violence itself being only a small part of that. It's about looking at the root behaviour rather than just the surface visibility.

As a female facilitator, there may be one or two men in the room who particularly try to target me. They might not believe anything I say, but they'll believe it if a male co-facilitator says exactly the same thing one second later. They interrupt me at higher rates. They act as if they haven't heard what I've said. They'll ask me to repeat things as if I'm an idiot. I think it's a combination of conscious and unconscious behaviours, but I think it's tied up in male privilege. My expertise and knowledge isn't valued by these men in the same way that my co-facilitator's is. But we use that in the group. So if they are interrupting me, I'll talk to them about it and tell them why it's not okay. We talk about whether or not this is one of the tactics of abuse that they use in their relationships to undermine their partner's voice.

What's interesting about that is how some of the other men react when I encounter hostile behaviour. Some of them feel very protective of me. Some of them are worried that I will become quite distressed. Some of them even feel unsafe themselves. It's interesting to see how distressed some of the men become when seeing me in that position of being abused. We're able to use that as a way to draw out some of their empathy. But I also stress to them that I'm not a punching bag and I don't want that level of abuse perpetrated against me just to prove a point to them. We can prove those points without that.

When people say that certain men can't be violent because they love women and they're nice to their colleagues or their friends or whoever, it's not actually true. Liking some women doesn't mean you're incapable of treating other woman violently. Because these men feel entitled to treat their intimate partners in this way because they feel a sense of ownership over them. In order to force her to do what he wants, the violent man will use a series of tactics of coercive control. He may be able to separate these actions from his day to day life and convince himself he's doing nothing wrong, because he has that comparative model for how he treats other women. We'll often talk about this kind of thing in the group.

One of the most surprising lessons from my work in this area is that these men aren't the kinds of monsters we envision when we think about abusive partners. They're very ordinary, everyday people who are in a lot of ways quite likeable. Sometimes men will join the group and I'll realise that they could probably be in my social circle - that we could actually be mates. That doesn't make them harmless. I'm still very clear that these men are very dangerous people who choose to behave in a way that is deeply frightening and very sexist - in fact, it's more frightening because they're so ordinary.

It's hard to know what the success rate is because the programs haven't had the necessary funding or resources to be comprehensively evaluated. But the general belief is that, of the men who attend behavioural change programs like this, around a third will make a small change and only a third of those men will retain that change. It's not really possible to know at this time what that level of change is, but we do know that the possibility for success increases alongside a program's length.

Our program goes for 22 weeks, but most of the other programs in Victoria are only 12 weeks because of funding limitations. Even in our group, men are welcome to stay on but their spots aren't guaranteed because of long waiting lists. So what we try to reinforce to them is that this is just the beginning of change. It can be tempting to feel disheartened in the face of that, but the program does have one major pragmatic benefit and that's that it gives the women involved in these partnerships a two hour weekly window of respite. It's a view that can be difficult for people to accept and understand. But what I feel we're doing is planting a seed.

Male entitlement plays a significant role in abuse. These men feel entitled to exercise certain behaviours purely because they're men. And this entitlement is reinforced through pop culture, through music, through movies, social expectations, through all of the messages that we get that men dominate and are entitled to access unending power. It's so clear to me that we need to be talking to young people about gender equality as soon as they start daycare. It needs to be embedded across the entire education system. There's a lot of ways we can talk about gender equality to kids, but this needs to be reinforced at every level throughout society.

Something people really need to understand is that all men benefit from violence against women - because it maintains the power of men. And I don't think that means all men are actively violent, but they all benefit from male privilege. And unless they address it, they're not going to be making any changes for women. Men who claim to care about women need to be conscious of actively doing a number of things. Firstly, they need to listen to and believe women when they talk about their experiences. And they need to be quiet. They need to acknowledge how much space they take up in the world - this means physical space, verbal space and economic space. Men need to really own that privilege and start to make changes. Violence occurs on a continuum - just because you're not hitting someone, doesn't mean you're not benefiting from male privilege and the oppression of women.

Do I think that violent men can change? I wouldn't do this work if I didn't believe it was possible. I believe in the work that we do and I believe that perpetrators need to be held accountable for their actions. I think this is one of the best ways we can do that. But can they change? I honestly don't know. I hope so. I really hope so.

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