Violent Men in Group Therapy…
Shamai, M., & Buchbinder, E. (2009). Control of the Self: Partner-Violent Men’s Experience of Therapy Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25 (7), 1338-1362 DOI: 10.1177/0886260509340538
When I was an undergraduate social work student at the University of Newcastle in the early 1990s, few client types were more maligned than men who beat their partners. The accepted practice wisdom was that such men were beyond repair and diverting resources to fix them up was a complete waste of time, effort, and money. Further, since it had been assumed by our lecturers that all men carry the potential for violence, putting a group of men together to talk about their perpetrator behaviours would invariably lead to collusion and further mayhem. To some extent, this is true. Many perpetrator groups do indeed quickly degenerate into a mire of misogyny, what ‘she did to provoke me’, or what any woman does to provoke any man. The psychologists, social workers and other professionals who lead these perpetrator groups often mirror the hatred expressed by participants toward women. It can so easily become a terrifying place.
One question that has just popped into my head is why is it that treating male perpetrators typically involves group work interventions (Shamai & Buchbinder, 2009, p.1339)? There are, of course, pros and cons associated with treating what are complex behaviours and attitudes in a group work setting: the readiness of participants to be there, their motivation to work, their capacity for change, the structure of the group, the accessibility of external support (eg. 1:1 counselling) and the skills, knowledge and experience of the facilitator or co-facilitators. Shamai and Buchbinder (2009) have taken a squiz at the literature on this subject and have affirmed several key reasons why perpetrator groups are so en vogue:
1. Groups create a structured ‘framework’ for perpetrators to come together and share their like experiences;
2. Groups encourage perpetrators to learn adaptive coping methods in what is an empathic, supportive space; and
3. Groups can positively challenge perpetrators who are resistant to change or who are defensive about their abusive behaviours and attitudes (p.1339).
Through researching the subjective experiences of men who have participated in perpetrator groups, Shamai and Buchbinder (2009) found that these men were afflicted by ‘many paradoxes’ (p.1354). For example, while claiming to have gotten a grip on their wayward emotions, they nonetheless remain fixated on holding power and control over others (pp.1354-1355). Moreover, while demonstrating that they well understood their individual pathways to violence, these men could not grasp the significance of power in constructing and perpetuating their violent behaviours and attitudes (2009, p.1355). In short, and Shamai and Buchbinder (2009, p.1355) dig up Buttell (2003) here to bolster their point: whatever else might be going down in perpetrator groups, they are hardly ever venues for ‘moral development’ (Buttell’s term). I would agree with that argument.
Shamai and Buchbinder (2009) conclude that although perpetrator groups give participants some scope ‘to gain awareness of violence in general and of their own violent behavior specifically’ (p.1356), they largely leave intact the underlying belief systems that presage such violence. Notably, that ‘dichotomy of power’ (2009, p.1356) in which women are still considered to be ‘less than men’ and therefore prey to their abusive behaviours (p.1357). Perpetrator groups, so Shamai and Buchbinder (2009) have also discovered, tend to avoid any substantive focus on the emotions that constitute male violence, that is, anger, and shame (p.1357). To my way of thinking, that would be like holding a safe-sex workshop for sexually active men without ever referring to condoms…