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5 Ways Intimate Partner Violence Research Informs #MeToo

Recovering perpetrators teach us about prevention and intervention.

The necessary, disturbing, relieving and sometimes disorienting avalanche of sexual harassment revelations in the media has brought the issue to the forefront of the national psyche. It’s a shame―and a systemic failure which invites scrutiny both of the system and oneself―that it takes the exposure of famous people to create the momentum to begin to serious address this open secret. The issue of complicity, the bystander effect and then some, is as worrisome as the actual abuse and ongoing consequence because if we don’t pull this one out by the roots, it will just grow back. The metaphor of a plant, by the way, is inadequate―we have to understand this problem as like a disease, even a fungus or mold. The spores are everywhere, and the conditions which make them germinate are the same conditions we prefer for our own comfort.

Since there is not a lot of data on Hollywood producers, actors, politicians and other famous people studying why perpetrators in those particular industries wind up committing, and largely getting away with, routine heinous crimes, we have to look elsewhere for solid information to inform our hypotheses. While some factors are germane to these power-industries which attract some personalities more than others and amplify abuse-of-power dynamics, from a “simply more human than otherwise” perspective, that which helps us understand why men abuse and harass women.

Even though professional relationships are not necessarily described as “intimate,” as I see it, this is untrue. Professional relationships are personal in nature within a different framework, and gender-based sexual violence is every bit as intimate. Thinking of professional relationships as anything other than intimate is a dangerous precedent which should be avoided. Understanding the intimate nature of professional relationships can also enhance teamwork, the subject of a different conversation, but as with familiar and romantic relationships two related facets of the same situation.

Scope of the problem

What are the individual factors, and what are the societal factors? When do abuse patterns begin, what facilitates or prevents them, and what sustains them when there are obvious problems? To this end, it is helpful to look at the intimate partner violence (IPV), or domestic violence, literature as it pertains to male perpetration. While female perpetration is a serious issue not to be under-addressed, much of the recent focus is on male perpetration because it is more salient and historically-blatant. We can anticipate that as we respond during this wave of (moral?) reformation, we will come to more directly recognize all the myriad ways in which mistreatment and abuse of power is going on all the time. It’s an extensive list, as anyone who stops for even a moment to actually think about it must realize. Individually, while many agree with universal rights, collectively we defend against and tacitly support the ongoing perpetration of countless injuries. There’s no way not to, given how we are and our society is.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), IPV is rampant and causes heavy damage. They report that 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the U.S., adding up to more than 10 million men and women abused per year. One out of every three women and one out of every four men have been victimized during their lifetime. Fifteen percent of all violent crime is from IPV, and one fifth of cases involves a weapon (guns being most associated with homicide), increasing the chance of grave physical injury or death. Yet less than 35 percent of people injured during IPV get medical treatment. With rape, one in five women report being raped (one in seventy-one men report rape, but this number may be even more under-reported than for women), almost 50 percent of the time by an intimate partner. Growing up, one in fifteen children are exposed to violence, and a large majority are direct eyewitnesses, leading to future problems. IPV takes a heavy economic toll, with 8 million lost days of work per year, and yearly costs in the range of $8 billion.

IPV has a strong negative impact on well-being, leading to increased rates of sexually-transmitted disease, mental health and addiction issues such as depression, PTSD and self-harm and alcohol, tobacco and chemical dependencies, pregnancy-related issues, and general health problems such as high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease. While we cannot compare one form of suffering against another, we can see from this data that IPV is a massive problem. If every instance of domestic violence or child abuse got specific news coverage the way famous cases do, there wouldn’t be enough paper in the world, and the internet would crash from over-load. Journalists would suffer from more burnout than they do, and consumers of media would not have time to keep up. We’d either have to stop and deal with the issues, and put other things on the back-burner (which could hurt the economy), or go into a state of total denial and disavowal far beyond current levels.

What factors make it likely that a boy will grow up to perpetrate IPV?

Morrison and colleagues (2017, in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, reporting on their results of a structured interview of male perpetrators in IPV-recovery programs, discuss the existing literature. They tell us that IPV starts in adolescence, where aggressive behavior like bullying, socially-acquired attitudes toward women portraying women as submissive objects and men as dominant and acting with impunity, and holding beliefs that violence is acceptable, early-on lead boys down the wrong path. Many of these factors are related to socio-economic class, but many of the most crucial are shot throughout all layers of society.

Exposure to violence, especially in the home but also in the cultural milieu, lead to a heightened risk of future perpetration―growing up with family or community violence, being the victim of maltreatment and emotional abuse, experiencing sexual or physical abuse all contribute to being violent in the future. These factors cover societal and cultural bias, the effect of historical events on behavior and attitudes, the impact of endemic trauma and neglect, and more local factors including family, community and individual factors, making for a complex situation. Not everyone who has these risk factors goes on to perpetrate, and many of the protective factors are ones we can intentionally influence. Resilience is a useful parallel―some factors are intrinsic (e.g. the human capacity for violence and destruction) while others are either socially-learned (e.g. self-care attitudes and practices) or influenced by other environmental factors (e.g. the epigenetic effects of intergenerational trauma).

What can we learn from recovering perpetrators?

Because the literature on IPV does not include recommendations from men in batterer intervention programs (BIPs), Morrison and colleagues conducted a study to get better understanding of what factors men identify as involved in their own transformation into perpetrators. Recruiting participants from two BIPs programs, they held 45–90 minute semi-structured interviews with a total of 49 men completing the full interview with a larger number doing just the open-ended portion. Conducted by a doctoral-level anthropologist, the full interview consisted of open-ended questions about their experience in their program as well as four structured questions added later.

The open-ended questions looked at experiences with other members and facilitators, what worked and what didn’t work or was missing from the program, and how participating in BIPs had made a difference in their current relationships. Many participants volunteered information about their own history and offered opinions about what would helped them earlier on, before they became perpetrators. Researchers did not ask about demographics or personal history of childhood mistreatment in order to facilitate participation by offering a safe and anonymous setting in which to honestly and freely discuss their experiences.

The structured section had the following four questions:

  1. What do you think boys need to know about relationships that could help them avoid violence in the future?
  2. What needs in terms of preventing IPV might boys have that we should address?
  3. What messages about IPV would be helpful for boys?
  4. What kinds of programs geared towards non-violence and safety do you think boys would best respond to?

Researchers analyzed the transcripts of the recorded interviews using a program called Atlas.ti, which breaks text down into patterns of recurring themes. The data was analyzed further by a group of investigators working redundantly and independently, and then looking at pooled results, in order to ensure reliability. The following main themes and subthemes were found across the participants’ narratives, as reported in the paper:

1. Messages about healthy relationship behaviors.

Participants said that there are four things boys don’t know — what a healthy relationship is, what aggressive and dangerous behaviors actually are, that relationships can be very challenging, and that healthy relationships take time to cultivate. Participants noted they did had not know the signs that they needed help in a relationship, behaviors such as ongoing unconstructive conflict, nor how people in a good relationship act with one another. Adolescent boys may not know, specifically, than controlling is a form of abuse.

Participants noted that portrayals of relationships in the media are unrealistic, as well, leading people to believe they are easy―and presumably if a relationship isn’t working out well, in the absence of emotional tools and exposure to violence, will project blame onto and aggress against partners. “They need to know that a relationship is not 50/50 — it’s both people putting in 100%. They need to know that when you take two imperfect people and you put them together, you do not get perfection.” Participants said that younger people are prone to relationship conflict when they get involved too fast, don’t know their partners well, and don’t realize that it takes a long time to get to know someone as relationships develop. As we know, this is a general issue in many dysfunctional relationships.

2. The need to promote respect for women.

Men in these BIPs programs reported that as boys they were not taught to respect women. On the contrary, they were raised to feel dominant to women, to expect women to listen to them unquestioningly, and to feel entitled to treat women as objects without basic rights. Researchers quote one participant: “Young boys need to know that women are not meat. I’ve noticed that young men today think that’s what women are — I would like to teach them, ‘Hey look, women are not meat; they are not to be used. They are not on this planet to serve you and service you. They are equals.’ Respect them.”

Unequivocally, they recommend that all IPV-prevention programs target at boys should promote respect for women, starting with a zero-tolerance stance toward any form of physical aggression. Notably, they did not discuss having a zero-tolerance policy for emotional and psychological abuse, which may seem less-clear cut or more difficult to implement.

3. Teaching effective skills for communicating and managing anger.

Participants thought that from early on, boys do not learn how to communicate about or effectively manage anger. Generally, they said that boys were not taught how to deal with emotions, in keeping with stereotypes that expressing feelings represents weakness in the form of vulnerability. Participants agreed that they were taught to suppress and bottle up anger, until they lose control and become aggressive. “I know if I had an outlet to get my anger out it would have been different. I didn’t have any way to get my anger out, so it just built up and built up until one little thing and ‘pow!’ Then your life is changed.”

Anger management skills are essential to include: recognizing and verbalizing feelings, finding alternate ways to express feelings, and using techniques like taking a time out, walking away instead of fighting, and learning to self-sooth so they can diffuse aggressive situations before they lead to irreversible consequences.

4. Programs that provide mentorship and are situated with education.

Many participants reported a lack of positive role models in their own upbringing. They reported absent fathers as well as a lack of other men in the family and community who embodied the aforementioned factors of respect for women, healthy relationship attitudes and behaviors, and anger management and non-aggressive, non-controlling approaches to managing conflict. “Younger kids need an older dude around, because when dad ain’t around, you start making things up as you go.

Someone around to say, ‘No don’t hit that woman, don’t do this, or that, you’re going the wrong route’”. Mentors should not only model and communicate appropriate behavior and support positive behavior, they should also get more involved, be a part of the formal educational environment, and directly intervene when necessary to stop aggressive behaviors and send a clear message they are wrong and unacceptable. Participants suggested that IPV-prevention be specific, addressing the relevant factors in detail from a psychoeducational point of view, and begin very early, before kids begin to start dating in terms of school-based programs.

5. Addressing the impact of witnessing and experiencing violence and victimization as a child.

Although researchers did not collect data or otherwise ask about participants experiences with violence in their own homes, based on prior data it is understood that childhood abuse and neglect is a causal factor predicting, but not guaranteeing, adult violence. Unsurprisingly, even though participants were not directly asked about their own experience, violence in their family of origin emerged as an important fifth theme. Participants discussed adult violence in terms of their own personal histories, and talked about both witnessing as well as being victims of domestic violence themselves.

They noted that growing up in a family where violence was ordinary and unquestioned, they did not understand that it was not normal and automatically acted the same way in their own relationships. “I saw my dad beat my mom. I made a promise to myself in the first grade that I was never gonna do this. I never thought that this would happen.” In some cases, even when they knew violence against an intimate partner was wrong, they were still unable to prevent themselves from repeating what they had experienced.

While highlighting their own responsibility and not typically disavowing blame, participants reported lacking a choice in how to behave whether they knew better or not, pointing not only to the multifactorial origins of gender-based sexual violence, but also to the murky relationship among agency, blame, accountability and responsibility. It is especially important to understand how non-verbal learning can over-ride choice and morality when perpetrators are of right and wrong, and when it is more nefarious and independent of contextual factors such as sociopathy and intrinsic aggressive traits.

Further considerations

From this point of view, the role of posttraumtic stress as a result of pervasive developmental trauma is an important factor to consider, as many participants reported both witnessing and experiencing extreme abuse and neglect. Replicating familial intimate relationships, adult intimate relationships can trigger traumatic reactions and lead to traumatic bonding (Courtois and Pearlman, 2005) Consequent relationship dysfunction, including withdrawal and aggression, in the face of insecure attachment and fight-flight reactions, may precipitate violence when the risk is high and mitigating factors are insufficient.

Hopefully, as high-profile and endemic reports of abuse and harassment get media attention, change will spread to (trickle-down, to call out the inherent power structure) to less glamorous parts of society. Hopefully, #MeToo won’t fade away back to baseline neglect, or become mollified by bringing a few high-profile perpetrators to justice, and to their own recovery, as appropriate to the situation — but will lead to enduring, far-reaching structure changes to how we raise our children, and how we relate to one another. We must include “institutional betrayal” (a powerful research and conceptual tool developed by Jennifer Freyd, PhD and colleagues) in our understanding of how abuse is baked-into our social systems and how to change them.

The only way to prevent the tragedy of resuming complacency is to remain aware of and actively working toward positive changes, using all the information and tools at hand, making the necessary sacrifices, and taking steps to avoid succumbing to burnout and compassion fatigue, cynicism, complacency or indifference. Research such as that cited here can provide partial guidance on what to look for in addressing high-profile cases and corporate gender-based sexual violence, as well as the pervasive, less prurient and distracting relationship violence of everyday life.


Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.