Deep Dive: Roots of Violence

As part of our Changemakers Alliance story-and-solutions series, we hosted conversations with 24 people who work to reduce and heal gender-based violence. For this magazine issue, we focused primarily on cis male offenders who hurt female victims. We identified two main types of violent offenders:

  • Those who have been hurt — abused, neglected, assaulted — by others, and are motivated by that trauma to have power over others. Often these people grow up insecure and feel a need to overpower and bully people they see as vulnerable. The phrase “hurt people hurt people” was mentioned often.
  • Those who grew up with a sense of entitlement or a misogynistic attitude that leads them to objectify, demean, and direct anger at women.

We asked people who work with offenders to explain what they have learned about the roots of violence.

Melissa Scaia is director of international training for Global Rights for Women, which focuses on systems change and policy reform to reduce domestic violence worldwide. She is former director of Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, also known as “the Duluth Model.” She leads discussions with offenders in support groups. About half of them participate because of a court order; the others attend voluntarily to change behavior.

Joe Shannon is communications program manager for Violence Free Minnesota (VFMN), which is a statewide coalition working to end relationship abuse. VFMN uses public records to annually compile a report that documents every Minnesotan killed by intimate partner violence.

Rachel Martin Asproth is senior communications and design coordinator at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. MNCASA is a statewide coalition that addresses sexual violence through advocacy, prevention, racial justice, and systems change and policy. She focuses on ethical storytelling, and protecting survivor stories from being exploited to generate shock or funding.

We interviewed five people from the Minnesota chapter of Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), led by the Saint Paul–based national program Friends for a Nonviolent World (FNVW), organized by executive director Leah Robshaw Robinson. Joann Perry and Chris Solyntjes have worked with incarcerated people for more than 30 years. Reese Graham-Bey and Izell Robinson were introduced to the program while in the Minnesota prison system.

AVP-MN’s three-day prison workshops are led by non-incarcerated volunteers alongside incarcerated people, who co-plan and facilitate activities and discussions.

Is gender-based violence less prevalent?

Melissa Scaia: I have worked with men since 1999. Since 2016, I hear more political language from offenders in support groups that I’ve never heard before. “Oh, this is that woke stuff ” or “that liberal stuff.”

Joann Perry: Gun violence is still seen as acceptable by society. So is domestic abuse.

Chris Solyntjes: For many decades, having been involved with people who are guilty of gender-based violence, it seems like the same problem. I’d love to be more optimistic.

Joe Shannon: I’ve been working at Violence Free Minnesota for eight years. We started tracking gender- based homicides in 1989. The data graph is up and down. There is no rhyme or reason for some years being higher. There’s no upward or downward trend.

What are roots of male violence?

MS: There are four things that keep widespread violence 1against women in place.

1. We’ve learned from talking with men that those who are domestic violence offenders believe they’re entitled to get their way. In the early days, we thought they had anger problems. But what we now realize is that most offenders are not using violence against people other than those in their family. If they don’t get their way at work, for example, they are not using violence.

Melissa Scaia

Men who use violence are not mentally ill. If you took 100 men who committed domestic violence, and took 100 men in the general population, there’s not a higher rate of mental illness among men who have committed domestic violence.

2. We have to deal with objectification of women. Most abusers don’t hit a “person,” but in their mind “the bitch” or the “bad mother” deserves it. Most abusers don’t see their partner’s humanity. Most of the men that come into our support groups don’t think they’ve been abusive. That is common. Men have told us our groups are the only place they get messages that abusive behavior is not okay.

We have a rule in support groups that offenders have to use their partners’ first names. They can’t refer to her as “the old lady,” or other labels of objectification. We work with people around the world and have learned that this is a common sociological problem of objectification, not an individual psychological problem.

Part of the message in these groups is not just in what facilitators say, but what we do. I’m not going to make the coffee and organize the chairs, because that is typically seen as a woman’s work. A woman facilitator starts speaking first.

3. We have to deal with the fact that victim-blaming is a huge problem in our society. On social media, whenever a public figure is accused of domestic violence, it is easy to see victim-blaming in the comments. His family blames 4her, her friends blame her on some level, society blames her.

4. Offenders overwhelmingly tell us that people in their circle give them messages like “hit her where no one sees it,” or “you were unlucky to get a woman judge.’” They are not getting messages that this isn’t okay. I don’t want to give the message that prison time is always the answer, but there has to be some sort of community accountability — a balanced message of challenging him while also respecting him. It is not helpful to demonize abusers, but they should not get to move about their day as if nothing happened.

JP: I am glad we are not talking about this as mental illness, which makes us simply think it can’t be controlled. People label someone a narcissist and the conversation is over. That’s not the place to start.

Domestic violence walks hand in hand with rape. Both are about “the world is not treating me right, I’m entitled, I’m going to hurt whoever is in front of me for not behaving properly.”

Reese Graham-Bey: Most of the governors, legislators, judges, police, business people, and financiers are male — and the outcome of male-on-male conversation is exactly what you see: division and dissension, and a lack of attentiveness and respect or empathy for voices other than their own. Sexism is ingrained in our culture so heavily that we don’t even see it.

Children need to see that the mother they listen to has real power in society. In many faith institutions, we also are told that women are second.

I did peace circles when I was younger, living between Los Angeles and a Native reservation in Canada. We did a lot of community dialogue. Everybody got to hold the talking piece — even as a kid you were allowed to talk, you had a voice. There wasn’t a distinction between women and men and children. What everyone said was important.

Yet in most mainstream American culture, we grow up learning that whoever has the upper hand, whoever has access to violence, has the right to make the rules. Whoever has the most power in the moment has the right to tell you what to do.

Alternatives to Violence Project has nationwide volunteers. Some of the Minnesota volunteers pictured here (l–r): Samantha Alexander, Shea Holt, Leah Robshaw Robinson, Fish Townsend, Rhiannon Thomas, James Scott, Rosa Cordova, David Islam, Matthew Walker, Lorenzo Lien, Tom Maher, and Hank Fukui

Izell Robinson: A lot of violence in general is due to people having interpersonal conflicts with each other, and not knowing how to properly communicate and resolve those conflicts. We have to move away from this simply being a law enforcement issue. We need to stop the idea that you are “right” simply because you’re stronger than somebody. That’s a cultural thing. We have to legislate that. It starts with how you treat women, first and foremost.

CS: We also need to acknowledge that many violent offenders have had abusive childhoods. I had one guy talking with me who started to cry. I asked him what was going on, and he said, “Nobody’s ever been nice to me before.”

We do workshops about nonviolence in the women’s prison, and almost all of them have histories of abuse.

How does race play a role, for offenders and victims?

RGB: As an African American male, I’ve seen pretty much my whole life this underbelly of chauvinism and racism.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, for example, Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American, was shot dead because [a store owner wrongly assumed she was stealing a bottle of orange juice. The woman who killed her got no jail time].

Many domestic violence victims are discounted because they are considered “wild, violent women.”

IR: Violence disproportionately impacts Black women and Native American women — the way they get objectified, including by the police, is a major problem. A lot of survivors end up getting criminalized when they fight back.

Some violent offenders have the view that “I’ve been so beat up and destroyed by society and the system, I’ve been looked down on, treated so bad.” They see friends as young as 9, 13, or 21 not able to make it past a certain age. They are accustomed to feeling like there are no options.

Rachel Martin Asproth: When we look at who is being targeted for violence, we can see that often it’s people and communities who are already historically and currently marginalized.

Rachel Martin Asproth. Photo Sarah Whiting

The recent Missing and Murdered African American Women’s Task Force Report found that 40 percent of Minnesota’s domestic violence victims and survivors are Black, despite Black Minnesotans only being 7 percent of the population.

From housing inequity to the pay gap to high rates of incarceration, Black women in Minnesota face some of the highest risk factors for violence of any group. From a young age, Black girls are seen and treated as older than they actually are; they are punished more harshly and criminalized earlier; they are blamed and dismissed when they experience violence.

During colonization and chattel slavery, white men viewed and treated Black and Indigenous women as sexual objects and commodities. White women were often complicit.

Is prison a solution?

MS: Some survivors stay with abusers because they want the relationship to continue, just without the violence. If I called today to find a shelter bed for a woman, I could find one somewhere in Minnesota. I could find a judge to sign a protective order. There are not many resources for survivors who want to stay with their partner.

The question we need to ask is: Will men come out of prison having more or less respect for women?

JP: Part of the problem with prison time is that all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of people who agree with each other in the same place. The abuser justifies whatever he has done, that it was the woman’s fault for screaming so loud somebody called the police — I don’t know how many times I have heard that.

On the last day of our 22-hour intensive workshops, we have participants do role play with an unscripted scenario. People cannot play a role they have had in real life. Many of them do not want to play the woman’s role, so I ask the former abuser to take the role of the child listening in the other room. Miracles can happen from getting that perspective.

Does it translate into being able to overcome the pressure of a peer group? I don’t know.

Many people I have met in prison held their elder female relatives, mostly grandmothers, in the highest respect. Even if this matriarchal figure is long dead, she can be a strong voice in disapproval. Whether she is still around or not, that sense of shame can [be hard to uproot]. When you become somebody who resorts to physical harm, you are causing deep harm to yourself too.

JS: Our society views anyone who has been in prison as someone who can be thrown away. These are the people who are truly canceled. They can’t find a job when they come out. They can’t find housing. Some of these people have never been talked to in a humane way. And because of the way society sees sexual assault and sexual violence, people believe offenders are truly irredeemable.

Many survivors just want the abuse to stop. They want to be in a loving relationship with that person they were in love with. They don’t necessarily want them locked up or dead.

“In general, I believe prison is a horrible place for a person to learn about interacting with women — awful. Most rage and angst that is built up is because of a separation from community bonds and ties to women. It’s a terrible training ground. If I were a female victim of violence, the last place I would want to trust with reducing that behavior is prison.”

Reese Graham-Bey

What are solutions to reduce violence?

RGB: Children need to see more female leadership in society and the home. Men need to be trained in language, active listening, actions of empathy, and serving in support roles. They need to understand that punching somebody in the jaw won’t exorcize past trauma, but listening, engaging, hugging, and loving will.

IR: We need to teach everyone how to use conflict resolution skills to stop fighting with each other.

I facilitated an exercise in prison where each person had a piece of paper and drew a town. None of them imagined a city with violence in it. Even people who had been in the worst situations in life didn’t want to be in a place of violence. They didn’t have drugs in these imagined communities. That spoke volumes to me.

Another exercise is sitting with an empty chair in front of you, then speaking to that chair as if someone were sitting there who had hurt you in life. They begin to shed tears in front of other men. It teaches you how to respect [the pain of] people around you — and the key is, you also have to respect yourself.

I have a 21-year-old daughter. She was in an abusive relationship. She brought him to my home. I was standing across from him, face to face. My question to him was, “If somebody put their hands on your child in front of you, what would you feel?” His exact words were, “I would want to kill him.” I asked, “So how do you think I feel about you? The reason I’m not resorting to violence is you are willing to have this conversation, you are being respectful, and you are listening.”

We had a good talk. He had grown up seeing how people treated his mom and thought it was how men are supposed to act. That you are supposed to run the show. That everything you say is right.

RMA: There are several solutions.

The needs of victims have not been at the center of responses, and the current punitive framework has not been shown to prevent recidivism. Our criminal legal system does not deliver justice or healing to people, families, and communities that have been harmed. Many report feeling traumatized or unheard and wish they had more options. Restorative justice can focus on: What does the survivor need to feel safe again? What do accountability, justice, and healing mean to them? What does the community need for repair? It can facilitate profound accountability from the person who harmed and give those harmed a chance to ask for what they truly need.

The reasons people experience violence are rooted in multiple forms of oppression, and we need to do work that addresses that. That means racial justice, disability justice, fighting for the rights of trans youth, and more.

Being unstably housed is a risk factor. Minnesota has the fourth largest disparity in the U.S. in homeownership, and the second largest income gap between Black and white households. Women are evicted at a 16 percent higher rate than men. Black women are evicted 36 percent more than Black men.

The Missing and Murdered African American Women task force report identified investing in safe and affordable housing as one of the most important prevention strategies.

We need to invest in medically accurate, gender-inclusive, culturally responsive sexual education. We need young people to be able to access critical information around healthy boundaries, practicing consent, gender identity, identifying red flags in relationships, processing rejection, healthy masculinity, and communication with a partner. These are the tools that help to prevent violence and can begin to chip away at unhealthy, oppressive societal messages that can lead to violence.

CS: Many of the people that take the AVP workshops are hardcore guys who have done rough stuff. Building a community is what we do. We build trust. It’s absolutely a miracle every weekend. That’s why I’ve done it for so long.

You asked earlier if we were optimistic or pessimistic, and I jumped right in and said I’m pessimistic. This conversation makes me optimistic. It makes me feel like there are possibilities for good change.

Data and resources at gender-based-violence-data-and-resources