BRATTLEBORO—“If I couldn’t get something from you, I didn’t want to know you,” says James, who describes himself as a much different person six years ago.
He also says that this way of thinking let him justify his abusive treatment of his wife and children.
“I used to think, ‘Well, at least I didn’t hit you,’” he says.
Resolving violence against women — from domestic abuse to rape, to muggings, to women afraid to walk home alone at night — is generally perceived to be a women’s issue.
Not so, say domestic abuse advocates. Because men perpetuate most of the violence, men need to “man up” and confront their behavior and attitudes toward women.
Men are not biologically destined to inflict harm on women, says author, educator, and filmmaker Jackson Katz.
Katz says that when a man perpetuates violence, he is acting out the assumptions of society, which assume that a man’s needs are met first, that women must cater to men’s needs, and that women must be submissive to them.
Using this line of thinking, if a man’s needs aren’t met, he has the right to use force, explains Katz, who is considered one of America’s leading anti-sexist male activists.
“There must be some ownership taken [of men’s behavior],” says Bill Pelz-Walsh, a counselor with Men’s Counseling Services in Brattleboro.
Pelz-Walsh says that although many attitudes around gender are changing, many men still rank themselves above women.
James sees his violent behavior differently six years after court-ordered participation in “Taking Responsibility,” Pelz-Walsh’s 30-week intervention program for batterers.
In the program, he learned that his behavior — like slamming his fist into the wall by his wife’s head and yelling in a drunken stupor — created an unsafe household just as much as if he had beaten her.
‘He must be sick’
An arrest for domestic assault landed James in Pelz-Walsh’s men’s group. James describes the incident as a “one-time event” inflicted during an alcohol-induced stupor.
“And that was the last time I drank. That was my rock bottom,” he says.
Through the program, James learned that he needed to respect other people’s boundaries and that he had anger issues.
He calls the men’s group “incredible,” especially when he and his peers dropped the “tough guy act,” and instead chose to be open and honest with each other.
“Of course, I only raged when I was drunk,” James says. “Of course, I was drunk every day.”
For the first time, he also had to confront his emotions. He says that Pelz-Walsh got into the “nitty-gritty anger issues” with him.
The process was new and uncomfortable.
“And respect,” he says. “I don’t think I ever learned the meaning of the word beforehand.”
He likens his old behavior to a caveman’s. He thought he respected women, yet he’d been raised in an environment in which, as they had behaved in the Bible, women were expected to act submissively.
“I always thought I was superior. I grew up watching Leave it to Beaver, for crying out loud,” he says.
Katz says that he realized in college how differently violence affected women’s lives. Unlike his female friends, he thought nothing of walking home alone at 2 a.m.
“Every woman I knew ordered their life around the threat of violence from men,” he notes.
Katz says that society likes to describe a man who beats his wife because she burned dinner, or murders his girlfriend for cheating on him, as “sick.” It’s comforting to perceive the abuser as someone from outside the community.
But really, Katz says, such a person is acting out societal norms.
In this society, he asserts, it’s normal for men to be forceful and for women to be submissive.
It’s normal, he says, for a man to dehumanize a woman walking past him by saying to his friend, “Look at that!”
It’s normal for a man to take something he wants through brute force.
Katz says that rather than calling an abuser “sick,” we should call him “hyper-normal.”
‘Real men don’t cry’
“If men don’t get help, it [abusive behavior] gets worse,” says Pelz-Walsh, who has worked with more than 2,000 men through Men’s Counseling Services since 1992.
Most men enroll in his groups after a court order or partner say they have to.
For a man to participate in one of the programs at Men’s Counseling Services, he must acknowledge that he has a problem and be willing to take responsibility. Otherwise, Pelz-Walsh won’t work with him.
Men in denial usually land in the criminal justice system, he says.
In Katz’s opinion, even in 2011, society’s restrictive view of what constitutes a “real man” is at the root of much of men’s violence.
“Men should help change the climate in the male culture,” says Katz.
Real men are strong. Real men don’t cry. Real men are competitive. Real men are rational, calm, and the polar opposites of women, who are irrational and weak.
Society reinforces these expectations through obvious influences like films — think of John Wayne about to ride out and shoot someone, or Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in which Belle loves the Beast despite his gruff and antisocial behavior.
But, says Katz, society also marshals the troops through peer pressure.
If a man steps out of the little machismo-box, his peers are on him like flies.
He’s called derogatory names for groups lower on the food chain, like “sissy,” “queer,” or “retard.” Sometimes his peers’ harassment turns physical.
In the end, many men feel it’s easier to stay silent and think “I’m not abusive, so it’s not my problem,” Katz says, adding that men can help shift society’s norms by making violent behavior unacceptable.
“Our silence is a form of consent,” he says.
Pelz-Walsh says that many men enter relationships without knowing who they are, and expect to mature emotionally through another person.
Early in a relationship, “we love being loved,” he says.
But after a few months, if a man isn’t emotionally secure, he can begin to feel threatened.
That’s when the controlling behavior can begin.
“If men don’t seek help, the abuse in the relationship will continue to escalate,” Pelz-Walsh says.
About 50 percent of relationships contain some form of abuse, says Pelz-Walsh.
But if you flip the statistic, Pelz-Walsh says, 50 percent of relationships are healthy. “I believe [men’s violence is] changing, and I’m excited by it.”
He said for him to be successful in his work, he must accept where each man is and believe him capable of change.
“If I can’t model, then I can’t preach,” he says with a smile.
It’s a men’s issue
Katz co-founded Mentors in Violence Prevention, a group that targets gender violence and bullying in schools that helps “bystanders” safely speak to their peers and helps defuse bullying, harassment, or threatening behavior.
Pelz-Walsh said that it’s easy to blame a man’s behavior on peer pressure, or his anger, or his rotten childhood.
But that’s no excuse.
Looking too hard for the root causes of men’s violence can “give men too much of a rationalization,” says Pelz-Walsh, who believes that abusive men need to be held accountable for their actions.
Katz agrees, saying that letting men off the hook with statements like “boys will be boys” robs men of their responsibility and chances to be sovereign human beings.
James says that hearing the other men in his group talk about their violence set off “huge lights” for him.
He saw how his behavior affected those around him. Although he says he didn’t exhibit all the types of abusive behavior that he heard from his peers in Pelz-Walsh’s course, James includes himself among the “worst-case scenario” abusers.
“I knew I was just as bad as the guy who beat the crap out of ‘his’ woman,” he says.
Katz says a big part of domestic violence work is convincing the public to see it as a men’s issue, not merely a women’s issue that “good” men help with.
“Unless we make that shift, all the rest is cleaning up after the fact,” Katz says.
He adds that placing the responsibility for change on the less dominant group can keep systems of oppression in place, as the people with less power in society try to do all the heavy lifting.
From abuse to tears
James now walks away from the arguments that he would have had in the past. He describes his current relationships as “honest.”
“I cry now. A lot.”
He adds that he still has emotions that he doesn’t understand because he never fully developed that part of himself. He keeps in contact will Pelz-Walsh and continues Alcoholics Anonymous.
He wants to introduce an interventionist program into the schools. He sees teenage boys’ behavior toward girls their age — touching them and “talking trash” — as harassing and unacceptable.
“These little boys in this school… in this land… are abusing girls at an unbelievable rate,” James says.
In the meantime, James tries to teach his son to respect women, and tries to model respectable, non-tough-guy behavior.
And in doing so, he serves as a model for other men who “can take responsibility for their roles of partner and father, and for being a good man,” Pelz-Walsh says.
“Then change can happen.”