The re-normalization of wife battering


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The re-normalization of wife battering

By Martin Dufresne Montreal Men against Sexism Canada
Published in Domestic Violence Action+Resources, 8, September 2000, Australia

Whether it's called "therapy", "treatment", "counseling", "education", "intervention" or, non-committally, "programs", we are seeing unsupported speculation about "what makes men hit" and the overarching principle of supporting batterers rather than sanction them for their violence is sweeping the industrialized world. This diversion endeavor is achieved via so-called "batterers intervention programs" (BIPs), a low-cost, allegedly "moral" alternative to justice and security for women and to further disruption for the patriarchal system. This despite a dearth of evidence that such programs shield anyone but men from the consequences of wife battering (Browning, 1984, Burns, Meredith,Paquette, 1991; Harrell, 1991)

            Support programs for wife batterers were initiated in the USA in the early eighties as an "alternative" to judicial intervention against this most common form of violence - traditionally tolerated, ignored and often prescribed by a male-supremacist system. Since then, experimental BIPs have sprung up throughout North America, apparently whenever a man or an agency decided to give it a try. Such diversion programs are now being advocated for, referred to and handsomely funded as pilot projects in Europe and Australia. The development of diversion programs seems directly proportional to a) hostility to women's progress in having men held accountable for their "private" violence and, b) conservative administrations' concerns about divorce and the much-alleged demise of the patriarchal Family. 

            Indeed, the media, the judiciary and the State have endorsed sight unseen any type of BIPs as "the" solution, to the point where no feminist resource for battered women can today avoid being asked the question "But what do you do for the men?" With BIPs being conceptualized as men's right to their share of resources, pressure is being applied and funding is being held back or gutted on the pretext that it would be reverse discrimination not to support the perpetrator as much as his victim, not to direct women's efforts and men's power toward "alternatives" to the very solutions feminists have been advocating for, i.e. extending the reach of justice to men's private crimes against women, and providing entitlement, autonomy and do-or-die resources to the women on the front line of "family violence".          Derailing the demand for accountability              At best, BIP providers offer carefully worded optimistic floss ("BIPs can be effective"); at worst they broadcast far and wide grossly inflated claims of success. All of this appears to obfuscate or coddle corporate patrons, lawmakers, judges and the general public whose support for battered women remains hostage to misogynist ideology. In times of budget cutbacks and conservative frenzy over the demise of The Family, siding with batterers instead of sanctioning them, supporting men over women (and children) combines the imperatives of male-supremacist politics and of short-view economic savings.

Indeed these programs and their systematic promotion whenever the issue of male family violence is broached appear to systematically oppose and derail the feminist project of confronting and turning back the tide of male violence against women through substantive accountability for men's violence. Whatever "explanation" they offer for wife battering, BIPs can be seen to simply add allegedly new scientific/humanist sheen to very traditional explanations/attitudes toward male sexist violence. In a world that still resists the notion of men's accountability for assaults against women which they, after all, own in a heterosexist world,  BIPs reaffirm and enshrine as "science" the principle that men are entitled to "change" at their own rate, if and how they feel like it, and only inasmuch as their self-interest is re-enshrined and protected as the outer limit of morality in gender relations. We feel that this reversal of feminist advocacy and renewed focus on male self-interest is especially lethal to the victims of intimate violence, implicitly invited to give their batterer yet another chance, to "take him back" for at least the length of the program, over and against their own experience, insights and choices

This general context of society's acclaim for BIPs may explain why these initiatives' effectiveness in ending sexist violence seems taken for granted ("at least, something is being done"), or sensationalized by the media ("Our guest today is a reformed batterer"). And yet, since BIPs have had to rise to the notion of men's accountability for their actions, set by the feminist movement, e.g. Barbara Hart, it makes sense to insist on BIP providers' own accountability. This can be done by exposing the limits and risks of the experimental "therapies" whose efficiency they misrepresent to woo funding agencies, the judicial system and batterers themselves, by insisting on independent assessment activities. In the words of R. Karl Hanson and Liz Hart, authors of The Evaluation of Treatment Programs for Male Batterers (1991):

            If important decisions are going to be made based on whether a batterer attends treatment (e.g., partner stays or leaves, sentenced to jail or probation), then it becomes crucial to know the effectiveness of the treatment.

After all, these important decisions can and do cost women their lives. Men who claim to want to change abusive men should be the first to be or be made accountable.

In their own words

In the early nineties, Hanson and Hart organized in Ottawa, Canada, the early nineties a conference bringing together most of the field's North American researchers and practitioners. The following is a point-form presentation of various candid accounts by conference participants of the limits and risks of their very own programs for wife batterers, albeit the best in the field by all standards. The supporting quotes from the conference proceedings appear in our text "Limits and Risks of Programs for Wife Batterers" (1995).

            Most of the conference speakers concurred that judicial intervention and support for victims were more efficient than their programs at achieving their stated aim, stopping perpetrators from recidivism against their current victim. One only wish that they would be as forthright in their published articles, funding requests and promotion work for BIPs in general or for their specific program.

A realistic psychological exploration of batterer dynamics - men's socially-sanctioned and lucrative hatred and control of women - remains absent from these programs, censored from the start as "feminist ideology. This alone is reason enough to challenge them. For what now presents itself as psychological theory and practice eludes the actual dynamics of the situation and is much closer to masculinist politics than to a progressive and indeed realistic analysis of the dynamics of sexist violence.

Here then is a summary of various points made during conference sessions by the program providers and analysts that convened at the 1990 Ottawa conference   Assessing the efficiency of "therapies" 

¨ Most program providers have neither the time nor the resources to correctly assess their program's efficiency

¨ They feel that a valid assessment would prove ponderous and costly

¨ Comparative assessments of programs remain few and far-between

¨ Experimentation and improvisation remain the rule: an efficient or sufficiently integrated approach to wife-battering has yet to be identified

¨ Significant questions are being raised concerning the competency and training of most programs' session leaders

 Fundamental problems

¨ There is no universally-acknowledged approach to "treating" batterers or understanding of their process

¨ Dangerous, victim-blaming theoretical models abound

¨ A social problem of epidemic proportion is being ignored by BIPs' focus on the individual

¨ Intrapersonal explanation factors are being grossly over-represented

¨ Although programs are marketed as "therapy", research has yet to identify any pathology in wife battering

¨ Attempts to identify a characteristic "batterer profile" on which to base a clinical approach have failed

¨ Over-represented variables may point to consequences, rather than causes, of battering

¨ For example, contrary to common media representations, depression has not been shown to be causal factor of battering

¨ Neither is battering an anger problem, despite the facts that most BIPs build on "anger management" problems. Batterer rarely hit people more powerful than themselves, e.g. bosses or cops.

¨ Stress has not been shown to be the problem either

¨ Nor is violence visited upon the perpetrator as a child

¨ Contrary to another common myth, wife batterers suffer no lack of skills

¨ Recidivism remains impossible to predict in the current psychological paradigm

¨ Although most programs aim for attitudinal change, providers remain in the dark about how the desired attitude changes might influence recidivism if they were to be attained

¨ Treatment models still can't integrate the fact that many batterers are now in new relationships and its impact on treatment.

¨ To sum up, researchers admit being completely in the dark, both theoretically and empirically

¨ But by merely speaking of "therapy" unqualified, all these key issues are obscured

¨ At the cost of what would be a scientifically valid protocol

¨ Haphazard intervention creates the risk of iatrogenic impacts

¨ Unable to discern which perpetrators can change, therapists are reduced to trying to weed out those who can't

¨ And tend to wash their hands of these, which cuts out of the data and of social intervention a growing number of assaulters

¨ Although programs thus tend to limit themselves to the very best subjects, BIPs legitimize the growing practice of dejudiciarization, extended to all batterers, regardless of treatment availability or prognosis

Methodological problems: Questionable success figures

¨ Why are so much attention and publicity given to programs that reach so very few batterers?

¨ Subject samples are clearly non-representative of the general batterer population.

¨ The few follow-up studies done were limited to a restricted and non-representative sample of batterers

¨ Program effectiveness studies generally rest on biased and unreliable self-assessments by batterers

¨ Many reasons produce misleading false-positive reports

¨ Follow-up periods are generally too short to produce evidence of lasting change

¨ The so-called "honeymoon" period is a big factor in false-positive reports collected after too short a period

¨ Program effectiveness studies rarely take into account the lack of opportunities to batter (when a partner has left), creating even more false-positive reports

¨ Some therapists ordain continued contact with the victim as essential to treatment, setting up women for further abuse

¨ Even non-recidivism cannot be interpreted as caused by "therapy". A number of other likely causes remain unexamined by current studies.

¨ For a number of reasons, most research does not make use of control groups, creating useless data

¨ The influence of judicial intervention on program clients is ignored, despite proof of its efficiency

¨ Very little importance is given to the social desirability factor in assessing subjects' answers to questionnaires and self-reports about his violence

¨ In general, self-assessments are poor predictors of real-life behaviors

¨ Program make-ups are hobbled by middle-upper-class values and unrepresentative of most batterers' attitudes and skills.

¨ Far from becoming more refined with time, a growing number of programs are sacrificing efficiency considerations in order to maintain attendance and financial input.

¨ Many program providers seriously question the success possibilities of the stripped-down, shortened programs they find themselves forced to run for lack of sufficient resources.

¨ Recidivism data generally ignore psychological violence

¨ The data is sometimes cooked using the lack of violence by victims in order to over-represent program success for "participants"...

¨ Batterers who drop out of programs, whether court-ordered or not, generally suffer no adverse effect whatsoever.

When "therapy" becomes counter-productive

A methodologically valid study of three Maryland programs' outcome (with long-term follow-up and randomly assigned control groups) actually showed slightly MORE recidivism among program participants than in the control groups (Harrell, 1991)

Analysts acknowledge a general rise of psychological manipulation and violence among program participants

A reductive notion of conjugal violence can create false-positive results as physical outbursts are replaced by careful and erudite intimidation by someone who managed to beat the system and avoid consequences.

Men can even use program content in order to refine their control strategies, claiming to have become the "experts" on DV and on the victim's alleged power & control strategies

Men exploit "therapy" to sidestep sanctions that would have a truly dissuasive effect

Psome pogram providers are openly attacking, along with men's rights activists, support for victims and criminal justice budgets.

The clinical approach serves to obscure the very real benefits of wife abuse for perpetrators

The multiplication of unverified theoretical "explanations" detracts from acknowledgement of batterers' responsibility

Structurally, batterers are much more supported than confronted by "therapy" programs

Program providers show a clear anti-sanctions bias

Men end up being pitied

A surprising and dangerous lack of empathy for victims

Therapies maintain partners in high-risk situations, as compared to safer options

An idealist "therapeutic" discourse ends up mimicking the batterer's rationale for his violence

So-called batterer's "profiles" trivialize conjugal violence and ignore the diversity of victims' experience

 "Couple counseling" approaches prove especially risky

The best way to help men change? Supporting women

            In conclusion, we note that, contrary to the notion that perpetrators' hypothetical difficulties are the real reason for the abuse inflicted on their victims and, therefore, sufficient reason to support men, Tolman and Bennett point out empirical evidence establishing that support for battered women is most often the key to substantive change in men's assaultive behavior. This would make the BIPs preferential focus on men actually counterproductive:

The pattern of outcome results does not clearly support psychological intervention as the primary active ingredient in changing men's abusive behavior. The relative success of drop-outs for treatment is problematic for those advocating treatment of men who batter. In all likelihood, positive results purported to be due to a particular intervention are the result of multiple systems of factors. (Tolman&Bennett, 1990)

                                                                                                 Martin Dufresne


BURNS, Nancy, Colin MEREDITH and Chantal PAQUETTE. Treatment Programs for Men Who Batter: A Review of the Evidence of their Success. Toronto: Abt Associates of Canada, July 1991.

HANSON, R. Karl and HART, Liz. The Evaluation of Treatment Programs for Male Batterers. R. Karl Hanson and Liz Hart, eds, Ottawa: Solicitor General Canada, 1991.

HARRELL, Adele J. Evaluation of Court-Ordered Treatment for Domestic Violence Offenders. Washington (D.C.): The Urban Institute, Dec. 1991.

HART, Barbara J. Safety for Women: Monitoring Batterers Programs. Reading: Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1988. (Consult Hart's on-line library at

JONES, Ann. Next Time, She'll Be Dead: Battering & How to Stop It.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

JONES Ann and SCHECHTER Susan. When Love Goes Wrong: Strategies for Women with Controlling Partners, New York: Harper-Collins, 1992.

MONTREAL MEN AGAINST SEXISM. Limits and Risks of "Programs" for Wife Batterers. Montreal, MMAS, 1996.

TOLMAN, R.M. and BENNETT, L.W. "A Review of Quantitative Research on Men Who Batter". Journal of Interpersonal Violence, March 1990, 5, 87-118.


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