Working With Men on Prevention

We have to change the thinking that women are less.

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Melissa Petrangelo Scaia

Melissa Petrangelo Scaia formerly led what is known as “the Duluth model,” focused on domestic violence. The Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project, which was started by Ellen Pence as an interagency collaborative model, is now used in all 50 U.S. states and more than 17 countries.

Talking to Offenders

We have group sessions with offenders who have to share an example of a time where they knew they crossed the line with their partner. We work with them to figure out what the core belief is that underlies the abusive behavior. One of the guys said, “I just think I am right all the time; that I am smarter than she is.”

I asked the rest of them: “Have you ever thought that ‘she is stupid’ or ‘I am smarter’?” Most of them had. That is why anger management does not work, because they were not generally angry, but generally saw their partner — a woman — differently. I remind them that they cannot simply say they are going to stop being abusive. You actually have to change your thinking and beliefs and replace them with new non-sexist beliefs. I ask them if they could imagine entering into a conversation with their partner in which there is something they can learn from her. It is a real struggle for them to imagine they could actually accept that thinking.

This is a widespread social problem. Men need to be together in groups to address these concepts.

Connecting With the Children

We also need to recognize that people react to childhood traumas in different ways — eating disorders, substance use, advocacy work. There has not been enough study about that difference.

I know of a young girl who faked seizures every time she sensed that her dad was going to yell at her mom. They had spent thousands on medical tests, and it was something she did to simply try to stop the abuse by the father against the mother.

We know that most abusers try to pick a favorite child. They need an ally in the home, so they will give one child in particular extra things. That is really common. Then there is a child they are the hardest on, usually the oldest or youngest.

We know many victims go back to an abuser because they cannot find stable housing. Most shelters allow you to stay up to 30 days, and there is very little transitional housing. When I worked for Advocates for Peace, we had a federal grant that enabled us to pay first and last month’s rent as a deposit, and then up to six months upfront. We need so much more of that in order for women to have safety. Advocating for better housing options would really make a difference.

Public Conversation

We say there are these three rings of accountability that men have to have. The first ring is self-accountability. The second is governmental — our criminal justice system and social services have to hold them accountable. We also need community-based accountability. Many men get messages from others that it is okay to be abusive. One man said his co-worker told him, “Next time you have to hit her so others don’t see it.” Another said his mother told him his wife deserved it. The silence when the community doesn’t talk about it is the same as support.

I know of a woman who said, “So are you beating your next girlfriend? Have you started that already?” She did this in front of the whole family on Thanksgiving.

Men have to hear they are in a culture that doesn’t think this is okay. We have to respectfully challenge them, then ask, “How can I help you to not do this again?” Few people do that with abusers.

It is about saying, “I just want you to know I know what happened.” Get rid of the secrecy of it. He needs to know that people know that this is not a private matter — it is public and affects a lot of people. Say something like, “I just want you to know that I know. I also want you to know that I want to help you, but part of me helping you is that I won’t engage in a conversation with you where you get to blame her. I will cut you off if you do that. I don’t care what she did — she did not deserve that.”

Making a True Commitment

The Duluth Model has been so successful because it focuses on the voices of survivors. People hear about successful programs and think they can simply replicate them. But they often don’t take the time to hear from victims in their own community. You get a lot of really smart, well-intentioned people sitting around a table talking about things they have heard people doing, and they just try it, and that is a mistake.

The last time someone did focus groups or interviews with victims in Minneapolis was in 2005. Domestic Abuse Project has a new director, Amirthini Keefe. Global Rights for Women is working with her and others, like Cornerstone and other advocacy groups, to conduct focus groups. We particularly will ask, ‘When you are scared or need help, who do you go to? If it is not the police, why not?’

We know that women who have resources often do not call the police or go to a shelter, because they have a credit card and can go to a hotel or leave. There is a lot of shame. So we cannot think it does not happen in families of all races, ethnicities, cultures, and economic classes.

There are different pressures to not report. Victims will call the police when they are really scared — when they don’t think anything else will stop him. Most women call for an intervention because they want the violence to stop, but it does not mean they want the relationship to stop. Many women try to handle it on their own — stop doing what he doesn’t like — but it doesn’t always work. That is why it is pretty rare that people call the police.

Amanda McCormick was the partner of Ellen Pence (the founder of the Duluth program, who died of breast cancer in 2012). McCormick has pointed out that we know what can end widespread violence against women — we are just not willing to commit to it. We have to end entitled thinking and get rid of patriarchy in every system in our culture. Some women think it is their job to be submissive. Many of these women come from religions that order them to be submissive. We have to end the objectification of women by the pornography industry. People have to be held accountable no matter what — which does not have to be via the traditional police-criminal justice system.

My frustration is not that we don’t know what would end violence against women. It is that we have to change the thinking that women are less.

We also have to look at the complexities of, for example, banning men from access to weapons if there is a protective order against them. Many women in rural Minnesota are not looking for that kind of ban.

There are huge differences between urban and rural women, and between Black, Indigenous, people of color, and white women.

I also know training is not the simple answer. We have gotten a bit better in terms of culturally appropriate responses. But there are a lot of subcultures around Minnesota. The answer is right in your community. Take the time to ask the women. It is easy to get 10 women from various subcultures in your community and sit down to talk — you will learn a ton about what is not available in your own community.


Melissa Petrangelo Scaia (she/her) is the director of international training for Global Rights for Women, working with groups around the world.

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