It is not easy to get young men who have been violent to women to talk about it. But when they do opportunities arise to change their behaviour, explain Professor David Gadd and Dr Rose Broad.
There is no inevitability that young men who use violence will continue to do so. But for them to change behaviour there may need to be an event or chance for reflection that motivates them to address their violence.
The end of a relationship can be such an occasion; or when they feel ashamed of the harm they have caused; when someone else sees their violence; or children or other family members notice; when they get into trouble; or when they begin to perceive similarities between themselves and older men, such as fathers and stepfathers, whose violent behaviour has affected them negatively.
It is, of course, a mistake to think that using violence makes all young men happy. It is not usually something young men feel proud of. So while they might downplay or deny it, they do so because they feel a certain amount of shame. This creates a small window of opportunity to get them to talk.
In the From Boys to Men project we found that most young men want trusting relationships. But many have no idea how to achieve them – and so resort to controlling behaviours when they feel insecure. Young men often face unrealistic pressures that lead to them falsely claiming they know what they are doing when it comes to love and intimacy. These pressures are both barriers to, and opportunities for, encouraging young men to open up about violence.
Creating a wider public dialogue through social marketing is a good idea. This can help young men to see themselves in other people’s stories and this can be a way of opening new discussions about matters that might have been deemed private. Social marketing that addresses issues of trust and fights – whether arguments or physical conflicts – are critical. Such social marketing should never imply that because a person has once been a perpetrator they will always be a perpetrator. Mistakes do not have to be repeated.
Following up on this dialogue is something that parents, teachers and practitioners who work with young people ought to do. Those young men who are already being violent, however, are likely to find it hard to talk to teachers or their parents.
This is why alternative service providers are needed – services where young men can:
- Talk without getting into further trouble;
- Make first contact electronically or by phone, so they can more easily surmount initial fears about talking.
- Speak to skilled, sensitive listeners who are able to build trust quickly and are able to ask difficult questions without appearing threatening.
Policymakers who commission such services need also to be alive to the complex challenges practitioners face. As our report illustrates, practitioners need to:
- Be careful of the terminology they use. Many young men who are perpetrators are also victims of other people’s violence, or witnesses to it. They may not yet see themselves as perpetrators and it may be easier to engage them as young men who have used violence, but may not do so again.
- Avoid assuming that men who use violence against women are simply motivated by sexist attitudes. Many will hold quite contradictory attitudes and will know that violence is wrong and believe in fairness and equality. Care needs to be taken to listen to what young men say and appreciate the complexity of the circumstances, as they see them, in which violence has occurred.
- Anticipate that some of those young men who present the greatest dangers to young women have multiple problems. These may leave them beyond the reach of schools and their problems may be too difficult for offender managers to support in the context of time-limited interventions.
- Be able to build long-term relationships of trust. The absence of secure and trusting relationships in their pasts can make it difficult for some young men to form positive relationships with partners and/or children, or to engage effectively with organisations providing support. Such working relationships need to continue over the long-term into early adulthood, as clients face renewed challenges as they enter intimate relationships of their own, set-up homes with partners, or take on parenting roles. Too many young men convince themselves that their problems with violence are specific to a particular ex-partner. Many also feel betrayed by ‘the system’ when they find themselves moving out of a safeguarding framework that regarded them as children in need of protection and into a criminal justice framework that regards them as a danger to be controlled, policed and punished.
- Address issues of diversity and discrimination. Racialized stereotypes of perpetrators are sometimes deployed by young men to minimize the seriousness of abuse they have perpetrated. LGBT people dealing with relationships involving violence can be alienated if quoted examples relate primarily to heterosexual couples.
- Be in a position to deliver support services to partners and other family members in ways that go beyond working with ‘couples’. This may be required so that the wider dynamics of family and community life that contribute to the occurrence of violence are taken into consideration. This means recognising that young men are sometimes violent to ex-partners and parents; sometimes have multiple partners and/or partners they do not cohabit with; and sometimes use violence against women in the context of gang rivalries. The dynamics of domestic violence often also extend to attacks on ex-partner’s new boyfriends.
Helping young men to open up about violence is demanding work. But it is the only way to secure long-term reductions in the incidence of domestic abuse. It is critical that policymakers support practitioners in this endeavour.