Everything you’ve always wanted to know about perpetrator programmes but were afraid to ask
I did a talk about my experiences at the Boys at the Crossroads conference on 12th October in Bristol, for more information, click here.
I’m a group facilitator on a Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme, which, if I ever got invited to fancy dinner parties, would probably go down like a lead balloon, as the saying goes.
But really, people are usually intrigued, some are just less afraid than others to ask questions! This blog contains my honest reflections and experiences of being a group facilitator working with men who have used abusive behaviours. My workplace and the overarching research are mentioned, but these views are my own and are not of my employers, the researchers or the programme creators. Confidentiality is of the utmost importance here too, so I won’t be using any names or identifying factors for individuals, but will sometimes refer to “group members” generically as a collective when talking about patterns and themes.
The language is binary due to the nature of the programme I work on as it’s for cis-gendered heterosexual men only, but I just want to flag up the vulnerability of trans and non-binary people being abused by partners and family members, also male survivors of abuse. None of these things are talked about enough.
What is a perpetrator program?
Programs and interventions vary in different areas, so my experience is only based on the Reprovide study of a domestic abuse programme. It’s a 26-week intervention for men who have used abusive behaviours toward their partners or ex-partners, offered through domestic abuse charity, Splitz Support Service.
The weekly group sessions are 2.5hrs (with a short break) and involve a check-in at the start, followed by a led session based on themes and content from the programme manual. The sessions focus on different aspects of abuse, ranging from what abuse is (which is very important due to the misconception that only physical abuse is “real” abuse), sexual respect, anger management, attachment theory, CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), emotional regulation, and more. It’s not something the men can do as a quick tick-box exercise to appease social services, it’s a long intervention and it’s challenging. It takes commitment, bravery, responsibility and accountability, and it involves dealing with a lot of difficult emotions.
There are very few perpetrator programmes in the UK (though areas differ) as proving that they work and getting funding is difficult (hence the reason for the research study). There’s no doubt that prioritising helping victims/survivors is crucial when it comes to funding domestic violence services, but this can lead to a lack of help for perpetrators who want to change their behaviour, which in turn helps keep their partners (and children) safe. Perpetrator work is crucial for long-term change in helping victims/survivors and their children, to avoid them going into other relationships with the same patterns of behaviour. The safety of partners, ex-partners, children and future partners is at the heart of the programme.
Why just men?
A question I’m asked a lot (and I initially wondered this too) is “what about women?” Well, studies show that men are far more likely to be perpetrators than women. I know that statement will make some people feel uncomfortable and may prompt the response “but women can be abusive too”. This is true, but this response steers the focus away from the central issue. It’s similar to saying “all lives matter” - it de-centres the current problem, making it harder to focus on areas for change. Other perpetrator interventions in other areas may accommodate women, but the particular model this programme is based on (the Duluth model) involves content specifically to unpack masculinity and issues of power and control in a patriarchal society. It’s sometimes called a “pro-feminist” model for that reason, though I personally would argue that working on the basis that patriarchy and inequalities exist isn’t inherently “feminist” but is rather just highlighting an issue that affects us all. Naming the patriarchal imbalances doesn’t have to be an attack on men (as is often assumed about feminism) as it can help men too; after all, the patriarchy is damaging for everyone and places various harmful expectations on men.
In a wider social context, it can be difficult to talk about male violence (especially on social media) without there being a lot of anger and defensiveness. We do still live in a society based on historical patriarchal values and that can make it difficult to have conversations about male violence as it can be met with de-railing and gaslighting tactics (albeit sometimes not conscious). Powerful people often fear losing their power and want to stay in control, so equality is risky for them. It’s the same with individuals who use abusive behaviour, it’s about power and control and the fear of not having it.
We need to centre what’s important to be able to make a positive change in the world, and that means we need to put aside our discomfort with talking about male violence and abuse. This isn’t about pointing the finger or blaming men, but rather looking at how we can help. Patriarchal values can be harmful, with narratives about being a “real man” and expectations of being “the provider”. The messages about being strong and not showing emotion are prominent in the group, and we do work around “the man box” and masculinity expectations to unpack these. Many of the men on the programme have never been in spaces where they talk about emotions, and certainly never with other men. Many would say they’re not emotional people while forgetting that anger is an emotion too. We sometimes draw icebergs to demonstrate this, with anger at the top and all of the other emotions under the surface; anger being the emotion often seen as more “acceptable” for men to show.
As a facilitator it’s been amazing to see how powerful group work with these men can be. They share experiences, model new behaviours, and both challenge and support each other. The group allows a safe and boundaried space to start to process these difficult emotions without the judgement or stigma they may otherwise face for having the label of “an abuser”.
What got me into this work
About ten years ago (at the time of writing) I got a job as a receptionist at a counselling organisation, and like many newbies was given tasks such as stuffing envelopes. We had a domestic abuse signposting pack, which contained flyers for a perpetrator programme, and it instantly struck me as such a crucially important thing. I would never have dreamed that ten years on I’d be working on one myself! I was just a self-conscious receptionist, I hated groups and I never thought I’d be able to become a group facilitator, or a counsellor too…but proving myself wrong has been pretty awesome I’ll admit!
When I was learning more about feminism and inequalities, I became quite fascinated by men’s rights activists, incels, pick-up artists and “men going their own way” (MGTOW), in the dark depths of the internet known as the “manosphere”. It was part horrifying, part ridiculous, and mostly infuriating. I was channelling my anger and processing some of my stuff no doubt, but I was also curious about where these kinds of views and such blatant misogyny stemmed from. Since then, I’ve trained as a counsellor (at the time of writing in my final year) and have benefited hugely from being able to look at both systemic and individual factors and issues which lead to abuse, both in my own time, my work and through studies.
Personal experiences in my own life have led me to have increased curiosity about perpetrators of abuse and sex offenders, and understanding these client groups has been helpful for my own healing too. I still had doubts about if I was being naïve, especially as most other counsellors (and trainee counsellors) I met did not want to work with these client groups. I wondered if I was kidding myself; wouldn’t I be terrified sitting in a room full of abusive men? Often I get the sense that certain client groups are seen as “too manipulative”, “untreatable” or “resistant” (interestingly, eating disorders are thrown into these categories too, which is my other line of work), but this has only sparked my interest and passion further. I wonder how much these labels were more about the practitioners and their views, judgements and societal stigma.
Words like “perpetrator” and “sex offender” hold a lot of stigma and seem to spark instant fear, leading to them being quickly deemed as “monsters”. There’s a sense that they will never change, or can’t change, or even that they were “born that way”. This is absolutely not the case, even serial killers and “psychopaths” were not “born evil”, despite what the media would portray. It’s instead a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors which can create disruptions in early brain development. People are not “born evil”, this is a myth perpetuated by society, potentially as a way to focus on the ”baddies” and ignore systemic societal issues and trauma which influence this behaviour. It takes curiosity and compassion to look beyond the labels and stigma, and holding strong boundaries, and being self-aware and reflective, so supervision (group and one-to-one) is very important in this work.
Perpetrators and offenders have often been hurt and traumatised themselves. This is not an excuse for their behaviours but it’s important we look at the potential causes and influences. Experiences are different for every individual, but themes can include violence or controlling behaviour in their home when they were growing up, substance abuse, poverty, trauma, mental health issues, and systemic inequalities and discrimination such as racism. The first few years of life is a vulnerable time and we know from various literature that not having your needs met and not having enough love in the early stages of life is detrimental for brain development. (I suggest reading Sue Gerhardt’s book “Why Love Matters” if you’re interested to learn more). This in conjunction with attachment theory (Bowlby), means that a child may grow up with an insecure attachment based on not forming secure relationships with caregivers when they were babies, which becomes a template for their relationships and their whole lives. Part of the benefit of group work is to form and grow relational bonds through relationships with the facilitators and the other group members.
My expectations when starting as a group facilitator
When you picture a perpetrator group, what do you see? Many new guys starting the programme have told us they expected Stella-swigging blokes in vests with tattoos on their necks. The men tell us they’re often surprised and relieved to find that it’s “normal guys” just like them. But sometimes, they may hope to find men “worse” than them, so they can position themselves as “not as bad as that guy”. This can happen with men who have not used physical abuse. They think they are not as bad as other guys because they’ve not been physical, but part of what we do on the programme is to go over all the other types of abuse and the impact – that emotional forms of abuse stick with women for years, if not their whole lives. There is no hierarchy of abuse in the group, they’re all there because their behaviour is impacting people negatively and they want to change that.
I’ll be honest, I was absolutely terrified when I sat in on my first group. I knew that there would be men from all different backgrounds; a range of ages, working class and middle class, in different professions and from varying cultural background. But…how would I feel sitting with all these men that I knew had abused women? What if I freaked out? Cried? Got scared? I soon realised that many of these men were anxious and scared too, especially when starting the group. It can be terrifying for them, as they share the same fears around what to expect, but also there’s the worry of what we’re potentially going to put them through! Some of our role plays are hard-hitting, and we run empathy exercises (for instance asking them to sit in the role of their children and answer questions about the dad) which can bring up a lot for them, but it’s within a safe, contained and boundaried space.
These men are dealing with a lot of shame, past trauma, attachment wounds, anxiety and many other factors, so safety and being “held” is vital. For me, being able to offer this “holding” and containment has been a real honour. I get to sit in a world that only a few see, and that feels like a real privilege and a gift. These men sit with really tough emotions and work really hard on their behaviour and self-development, and I find myself admiring and respecting them. This can create internal conflict in itself, forming relational bonds and feeling somewhat proud of the guys and the work they do, in the context of a society that says they’re “bad”. Many people have done bad things, but it doesn’t make them “bad” people. Underneath this behaviour there is often pain, shame and low self-esteem. The paradox for the men can be feeling as if they don’t deserve to improve their self-esteem, but this is needed in order to move out of the “pit of shame” as we call it (sometimes known fondly in our group as the “pit of sh*t”).
My reflections one year on
I started working for Splitz about a year ago (at the time of writing), which means I’ve done a full run of the programme (it’s continuous, so men join at different stages). The original members of the group who I started with have completed the programme, so there have been some heartfelt endings and it’s been lovely to hear the reflections from the men in their final group. I’m not involved in the research side of it, but if you ask me if perpetrator programmes work, then ABSOLUTELY. I have seen, felt and experienced it. Not everyone will be ready to change, but many are, and this can have an impact on their whole family.
It’s so important that we see beyond labels, judgements and stigma to see the human being behind the behaviour. I like to believe that nobody is “untreatable” or “too resistant” or not worthy of help. Working on a perpetrator program helps take a bigger picture approach to domestic violence and abuse, by moving beyond the reactionary system currently in place, which often just involves helping victims stay safe in a dangerous situation. This just means the perpetrator continues their behaviour, and even if the victim can leave, they both risk getting into other abusive relationships in the future, so this approach isn’t helping to break cycles in the long-term. Helping perpetrators reflect on and change their behaviour is a vital longer-term approach to help break cycles of abuse, ultimately helping the next generations to come.
Click here for domestic violence and abuse support organisations
Information and referrals to the Reprovide programme
10/14/2022 08:31:31 am
This was a very interesting read, I too feel sure treatment for perpetrators must have a positive impact. My question is about your reflections at the end, that perpetrators can change their outlook and ways. What is your view on perpetrators who committed crimes such as peadepholia or rape of a minor ability to change? Obviously treatment for such individuals is vital and can only be a positive thing, but my question is... Many people don't disclose or report childhood sexual abuse until they are adults, myself included. What if, by the time of disclosure, the perpetrator has changed? What if he now appears to be a family man? What if he's realised the error of his ways? He must answer for his crimes, obviously. But I was wondering how the fact they may have changed by the time of reporting sits with you. What implications do you think the possibility they have changed has on the reporting of historical crimes and subsequent punishment, like prison? What if a changed man is imprisoned for crimes he committed when he was different. Thank you.
10/16/2022 10:01:17 pm
Hi Sarah. Thanks for reading my blog, and thanks for your comment and questions. It certainly is tricky with sex offenders and historical disclosures, so I guess it would be on a case by case basis. I don't know enough about the legal system at this stage, but I think there are prison and probation sex offender programs, so I would think this would be mandatory. As for their engagement in it, I think that would depend on their own ability to self-reflect and take accountability. Sorry I can't be more help with that!
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