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  • Rosen Pitman-Wallace

What Causes People to Engage in Domestic Violence?

© Erica Bowen: Photograph by Havening Practitioners

"I don't think masculinity is working for anyone in this sector": An Interview with Expert Erica Bowen

With the recent arrest of Andrew Tate, notions of 'toxic masculinity' are flooding the headlines once more. And while this time, there seems to be an awareness of the dangers of misogyny being given a platform, I wanted to examine notions of masculinity within a different sphere.

There are a lot of generalisations in the media right now about perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes, from #MenAreTrash to heteropessimism; it might be fair to say that there’s a lot of negativity being directed towards men. But how is this affecting behaviour change programs for male perpetrators of domestic abuse? With notions of masculinity constantly being targeted and tugged at in the media, I wanted to examine how research can support the deconstruction of these harmful gender norms. For this article, I wanted to consult an expert in the field and so have interviewed Erica Bowen.

Erica used to work as an academic, researching interventions for domestic violence. Now, she works as a consultant on these types of interventions alongside her own practice. Her work has ranged from sessions with adolescents in schools to rehabilitative work with (predominantly male) perpetrators. 

Erica tells me that when she started in this field 22 years ago, focusing on perpetrators was controversial within the domestic violence sector and, in many ways, still is. While the policy has shifted, there are still those who doubt the usefulness of working with perpetrators or question directing the already limited funds in the sector away from supporting survivors.

What causes people to engage in domestic violence?

Well, we know that many people who engage in violent behaviours have learnt those behaviours from the way they have been socialised, from their own childhood experience of witnessing or being a victim of violence in the family. On the other hand, sometimes domestic violence is more just an extension of being very ‘anti-social’ and being generally violent outside of their family or partner relationships. There is no single type of perpetrator.

For some perpetrators, there is definitely, without a doubt, a correlation between their beliefs about gender and about women. If you frame the person you are going to abuse or attack in a particular way, that can help give you moral ‘permission’ to attack them. So you create almost a caricature of that person, if we dehumanise somebody, we almost shut down our empathy towards them, and that gives us ‘permission’ to treat them badly.

Perpetrators do tend to have a need for control, which can be motivated by different individual needs. So it could be that you have a desperate desire to maintain the relationship, so if there is a need in you to be in a relationship, then your control is about keeping that person close, which sounds counterintuitive, but it does happen in many cases. Conversely, it could be that your need for control is driven by that sense of having to assert your manhood in a particular kind of way, and those individuals tend to be violent or abusive outside of intimate relationships as well. So it’s a broader pattern of that kind of ‘hyper-masculine’ approach to life. On the other hand, there can be cases where a relationship conflict is exacerbated hugely by other external factors, such as financial stress, and there doesn’t appear to be a broader pattern until one extreme act of violence occurs, for example, in an argument.

So do factors like poverty play a role too?

A lack of stable employment, lack of education, poverty: we know these are all things that can set people on a very difficult life trajectory; for some people, that will also include domestic abuse - not for everybody. Trauma is such a big issue in this population, and it’s under-acknowledged because I think people are concerned that if we start using therapeutic words when we’re talking about perpetrators, we’re being nice to them, and we shouldn’t be nice to them. It comes back to acknowledging that there are so many factors that influence human behaviour; if you think about your own behaviour, there are so many factors that influence it every day. If we take an intersectional lens, we know that for more marginalised people, they are going to be under levels of pressure to conform in ways that others are not; they are going to be under incredible pressure to maintain a veneer of who they ‘need to be’ in ways that others are not. We have to be acknowledging all of that; we can’t just think that we can focus on just one aspect and think that that will be the solution because it won’t.

These kinds of traumas and social issues can happen to any gender, so why do you think so many perpetrators are men?

One big factor is the social construction of our society and the way power is distributed. I think the other challenge is that we haven’t really given men the space to come forward as victims, which is not at all to deny the experience of women as victims or their difficulty coming forward. But we have a whole sector that is geared towards helping women come forward and share their experience as victims, so the counterpart to that is we cast men in the role of perpetrator. And obviously, that means that men who experience domestic violence have less space to come forward and acknowledge their experiences of victimisation. But the number of men who report has pretty much been increasing year on year, which I think reflects the fact that there has been a greater acknowledgement of men as victims.

What we now need to be doing is give space to everybody to speak about their experiences of victimisation, regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or representation, so that we can provide really holistic and inclusive solutions because, at the moment, we have a very heteronormative response to domestic abuse. So it’s not just about gender; there are many wider issues that need to be acknowledged as well. And I think we’re starting to get there, but there’s a long way to go. We need to move away from the idea that masculinity means you only have one role in domestic violence, and that is to be a perpetrator. Because I don’t think masculinity is working for anybody in this sector.

Final Thoughts and Further Reading

Despite her many insights, Erica acknowledged repeatedly that there is still a lot of work to be done to find solutions for domestic violence. In terms of policy, she emphasises the need for a specific domestic violence offence or marker for other offences so reoffending rates can be measured more accurately. This would help the rehabilitative programs she consults to measure their success more effectively. 

Erica also emphasised throughout our interview the need to broaden the narratives around domestic abuse and ensure support is available for all victims, regardless of demographics.

For further information about diversity and inclusion in the domestic violence sector:


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