Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Thwarting Shame: Feminist Engagement in Group Work with Men Recruited to Patriarchal Dominance in Relationship

Academic journal article The International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work

Thwarting Shame: Feminist Engagement in Group Work with Men Recruited to Patriarchal Dominance in Relationship

Article excerpt


This paper discusses feminist group work with heterosexual, cisgender men from a range of cultures, all of whom have used violence in their intimate relationships. Themes of respectful engagement are explored, with particular focus on externalising practices for interacting with shame. Patriarchy and its practices are firmly centred as responsible for adversely affecting women's and children's safety, and beseeching men to deny their part in perpetuating gendered violence. May we all know freedom from its grasp.

A herstory of responding to patriarchal violence

In Australia in the 1970s, effective feminist activism resulted in the funding of a range of health and social services designed to meet the needs of women in communities. Among these services, domestic violence responses were formalised by the state, moving women and children fearing for their lives from the lounge rooms of caring others into purpose-built, secure properties (Domestic Violence NSW, 2014). Effective, organised advocacy kept the doors of these services open whenever threat of closure loomed, and meagre funds demanded innovative practices to meet complex needs.

In 2008, my organisation was tasked with delivering a new project to respond to family violence. The suite of services prescribed in the funded program included an allocation to provide services for men, without further specification (Department of Family and Community Services, NSW Government, n.d.). Many women had told us that they wanted the violence to end, but not their relationships. However, we had yet to develop a response that met this brief. We wondered if this project might offer an opportunity to formulate ways to support women returning to relationships with partners who had abused them.

Women returning to relationships where violence had been present were likely to encounter punitive responses. Child protection services were concerned with the impact of domestic violence on child development and wellbeing, and fully engaged with 'mother-blaming' practices that view reconciliation as the woman's failure to demonstrate protective behaviour toward her children. Associates of the criminal justice system refused to alter protection orders. My own organisation and other similar services responded largely with withdrawal of support. Perhaps our ideological perspective led us to accept her return to an abusive relationship as a statistically supported element of the journey toward living free from violence. This approach denied women's agency and implied that further violence was inevitable. There had to be a better way to meet the needs of women when they were at their most vulnerable.

As part of the culture of women's domestic violence services, I had frequently referred to men who used violence in relationships as 'perpetrators', 'defendants' or 'persons of interest'. I had willingly inherited and embodied totalising descriptions of these men's identities in both language and approach. Although I had begun to identify the malalignment of such descriptors with my own ethics of care and inclusion, a particular event helped to clarify my preferences. It shaped my engagement with men who were recruited to sexism and misogyny by their fathers, grandfathers, the media and systemic patriarchy. This poignant, particular story encountered in my work, enabled me to step back and view responses from a perspective beyond the individualistic and to develop a tangible response. Perhaps this story is an apt place to begin recounting this journey.

Matthew's story

A young man named ·Matthew (·pseudonym) came to reside at a women and children's refuge (referred to as a 'shelter for battered women' or 'crisis accommodation' in other parts of the world). Matthew was seventeen years old and accompanied his mother, who was escaping violence perpetrated by Matthew's stepfather. As a streetwise young Aboriginal man, Matthew understandably seemed disinterested in participating in play activities with the small children accommodated at the refuge. …

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