In the late 1970s and early 1980s, small groups of men began to mobilize, joining the women-led movement to end violence against women. The sociopolitical climate in which the battered women’s movement gained momentum, had been powerfully influenced by the social justice movements that had simmered and exploded during the preceding decades.
There were major struggles including the fight for human rights for men and women of color, women in general, gays and lesbians, and survivors of poverty and war, among others. They were struggles in which members of different marginalized groups would sometimes unite to confront their common oppressors—and, sometimes, succumb to the divide-and-conquer tactics of those same oppressors, fighting amongst themselves.
For the relatively few men who attended the biannual meetings of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the voice and soul of the battered women’s movement, it was alarming and enlightening to hear women tell the “herstories” of their brutal and widespread subjection to the wanton violence of men. The truth-telling was powerful, not only for its eloquence but for its stark revelations of the ways that race, gender, and class were used by men to both oppress and divide women in their efforts to unite against men’s violence. So, for example, women of color not only had to deal with the sexism of their brothers of color, they had to deal with the racism of their white sisters. Lesbians had to deal not only with men’s heterosexism but also with their sisters’ homophobia. And queer women of color had to deal with . . . well, all of it.
As one of the first men’s organizations to address women’s oppression by men, Men Stopping Violence often struggled with questions that sought to clarify and define men’s roles and responsibilities in the work to end male violence against women. How, in a sexist world, could men work in true solidarity with women? And how, in a historically white-led movement, would we address racism? Given that all forms of oppression reinforce the oppression of women, how would we address the ways in which these oppressions intersect?
We Are the Work: The Making of Men Stopping Violence (MSV) is about how one organization went about answering these and other vital questions and how those answers ultimately became the core principles of our work. It traces the origins and implementations of those principles. The book is not a document based on research and evaluation, one that measures the impact of intimate partner violence and the effectiveness of batterers’ intervention programs (BIPs) in addressing it, but by tracking MSV’s growth it does examine the strengths and limitations of BIPs and particularly the role a batterers’ intervention program can play within the context of community-based strategies. And this is not my memoir but, in effect, a memoir of MSV. It’s how I remember MSV’s inception and evolution, told in a narrative form that tracks the stories and events that shaped our work from 1982 to 2012. Sometimes I reference myself as an example of those who have been impacted by this work. Like many of the men referred to in this book who have struggled to come to terms with their role in either furthering or ending gender oppression, I had to struggle with my own challenges.
The beginnings of our work with men acting abusively focused on accountability and responsibility. We needed a model that would communicate to the men referred to us—as well as to the community as a whole—that his “problem” was not a matter to be addressed in a client-therapist relationship, but rather that his abuse was not only a violation of his spouse but an offense against the acceptable norms of his community.
We designed and implemented a public “orientation” as the first face-to-face contact we would have with men. In a public group gathering, we instructed men on what would be required for them to enter and complete our 24-week class for men who batter women. We spelled out the conditions of the contract, including the tuition required to pay for the course. By framing the work in educational terms, we were directly refuting the notion that mental health issues were at the root of men’s battering and that men could relearn how to be strong and powerful without being overpowering and dangerous.
Orientation is also where men directly experience the importance we place on keeping agreements: men keeping agreements with other men and men keeping agreements with women, especially their partners. When promoting the orientation, we clearly communicate that in order to attend, men have to arrive between 6:30 and 7 p.m. with their $20 fee in hand. A late arrival or no fee will result in their having to come back two weeks later for the next orientation. In fact, just before locking our front door we post a sign indicating that orientation has begun, and that if they want to pursue our program they can return—on time—in two weeks.
One night when I was facilitating the orientation, I was 15 minutes into my rap when there was a loud pounding on our front door, located at the bottom of the stairs on the first floor. I advised the 18 men in the room that there was a man who had arrived late who was having difficulty accepting the consequences of his late arrival. I also requested that they join me in ignoring his efforts to get me to respond to him. His persistent pounding made him hard to ignore, but eventually he stopped and we continued on without distraction. About five minutes later, there was a huge crash just outside the door of the orientation. I realized I couldn’t ignore it and asked the men to wait as I investigated the source of the noise.
When I stepped into the hallway I encountered a large man who appeared dazed as he floundered around on the floor. Turns out, this was the man (I’ll refer to him as Carl) who had been pounding on the front door. When he wasn’t admitted, he climbed up the side of the building, wedged open a second story hallway window, climbed through, and fell eight feet to the floor. Having lost his balance, he landed hard and awkwardly just outside the door of the orientation room.
When I asked Carl what he was doing, he explained that he had scaled the building to gain entry because he couldn’t go home to face his wife without attending the meeting. As I was helping him to his feet, he wanted me to know that his climbing through the window was his way of saying how motivated he was to get into our program. As I walked him back down the stairs and back out the door, he first asked me if I would call his wife to tell her how hard he tried to make the meeting.
When I told him I wouldn’t be doing that, he asked me what he should tell her. I suggested he tell her the truth: that he arrived late and when he found the door locked he was willing to break into the second floor of the building—breaking the law in the process of trying to get his way—and that he had then justified his actions by blaming her anticipated response for his failure to make the meeting. I advised him that if he really wanted to pursue the program he’d return on time for the next orientation with his $20 fee. He did return two weeks later, on time and with the fee.
Carl subsequently entered the program, never missing a single class in six months and in complete compliance with all of our program requirements. I would often refer to Carl when talking to community partners about men who enter our program, particularly to partners who wonder if these are men with mental disorders who simply can’t control themselves. I explained that Carl wasn’t “out of control” when he chose to climb up the side of our building. He thought of himself, like many men do, as an exceptional man with exceptional needs, for whom the rules simply didn’t apply. And when clear limits, boundaries, and expectations were set, he was able to consistently demonstrate complete control of his behavior. This in the context of the message that says that men will demonstrate self-control and stop battering women when the community sends a clear message that their criminal behavior won’t be tolerated, and that meaningful consequences will be imposed when those boundaries are violated.
One other thing about the night Carl attended orientation: as mentioned, if men don’t have the $20, they are told to return with their fees at the next orientation in two weeks. Sometimes when a man appears desperate to attend the meeting we will give him the option of asking other men in the room if they will lend, or outright give, him the money for the orientation. I can’t remember when we started offering that as an option, but the interesting thing is that on almost every occasion, as was true the night Carl arrived late, when a man asks other men for help, they produce the money for him. Mind you, when these men first arrive they are feeling angry and convinced that they don’t belong there. Nonetheless, they would pull dollars out of their pockets until the man met his obligation. While I came to believe in the importance of expecting more of men, I also came to understand that I shouldn’t underestimate the capabilities of men. Perhaps, two sides of the same coin.
Former director of programs and a cofounder of the Atlanta-based organization Men Stopping Violence, Dick Bathrick is a longtime marriage and family therapist, and a consultant and trainer addressing issues of race, class, and gender both in the U.S. and abroad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.