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Hard Work and Hope: Gaining Perspective on Engaging with Men

Why there’s hope for a safer world for women.

By Phil Barker

A few weeks ago, I went to a wedding. We spent a wonderful weekend celebrating by a lake among the rolling, golden brown hills of the NSW Hunter Valley.

My partner took off for the day in a limo with the brilliantly hysterical hen’s party, for 10.00am champagne and day spas, leaving me with the rare luxury of a day to myself. I decided to start Jess Hill’s new book, See What You Made Me Do, on men’s power, control and violence.

Eight hours later, as the limo doofed its way back up the gravel drive like a mobile disco, I had finished the book and was stalking the room, seething with a mix of rage, horror and disgust. While I have also recently written a book about what a reimagined, positive masculinity might look like, which covered men’s use of family violence (The Revolution of Man), I didn’t realise the true extent, depth and horror of the problem. I felt completely hopeless. The hens left me to my brooding and partied on elsewhere.

With gut-wrenchingly confronting stories and deep, primary-sourced research, Hill’s book provides a deep exploration of historical, institutional and political failures, but what stuck with me was her analysis of where men fit in all of this – our sense of entitlement, our rage at our own shame, at our failed performance of manhood.

The timing wasn’t great. Because, tomorrow, *Andy, the father of the bride, was going to arrive for the ceremony. Andy, we all knew, had, many times beaten and abused his ex and mother of the bride, *Rose. Now Rose is a strong and beloved matriarch, remarried to a wonderful man. She even invited Andy to be in the bridal party. Some were his family too. She covered his rage, and the brutal memories, with bouquets of love and forgiveness. It was an extraordinary thing to see.

I, however, wasn’t feeling so forgiving. I hated these pathetic men who used violence and control against women and their children. What’s wrong with these freaks, I thought? Now, here was one right in front of me. When he walked in, he hugged my partner way too long for anyone’s comfort.

I said nothing, but satisfied myself by radiating “I see you” vibes so strong I hoped he got radiation burns.

That weekend, his son told me stories of broken glass showering him as he ate dinner in a high-chair, and much worse. I was looking at the guy who did it as he spoke.

Two weeks later, in the bowels of a bank building in the Melbourne CBD, I was at a training day with No to Violence, an organisation working with men to end men’s family violence. I have been asked to be an advocate for NTV. This was part of my immersion into the organisation, an induction into the real training NTV does with the people who work at the coal-face, on the phones and in men’s behaviour change groups, with the men who use family violence.

The facilitator, Kirk, spent the morning in familiar territory to me, looking at the role gender plays in control and violence and why men feel so entitled to do such horrible things.

Then, we came to talk about the men who control, rape and hurt those they claim to love. “You walk into a room to speak to him and there he is. The police report is in your hand. You know he broke her eye socket but blames her. What do you feel about him?” Kirk asks.

I walked straight into this one, channelling the wedding weekend. My hand shot up. “Disgust!” I yelled, “Hate! Loathing!” as fast as Kirk could write on the white board.

“So how are we going to make a connection with this guy, so we can work with him, help him, if we hate him?”

Bang. He got me. It was true. How can you engage with a man who is in the system, maybe locked out of his home, accused by cops and courts, if you’re the next one lining up to point the finger?

The job is to be curious enough, to ask the right questions, to walk the man to a point where he himself sees the need to change his behaviour and turns in a different direction toward accountability. So, what? We need to feel sorry for these vicious bastards? That was what ran through my mind in that moment. No. That would be to collude with the man, to go “Yeah, Mate, I can see how you were so angry that you lost control.”

You do have to be brave and smart enough to park your loathing and engage with him as a real person.

Twenty-five years of work, research and proven results by NTV, shows there’s a way to effectively connect with men who use family violence, by walking a gossamer line between collusion and accusation.

Through all the patterns of justification and denial, there is a way forward. If we do not engage with men who have done horrible things, they will disengage from a positive process of change, and making change in men is the endgame.

During my immersion, I spent time chatting with the men who work in NTV phone room with the Men’s Referral Service and work directly with groups of violent men. “Can these blokes really change their attitudes, become more self-aware, turn around, stop using violence?” I asked.

The answer is, thankfully, yes.

It’s not easy, it takes courage, commitment and lots of training to do this important and unique work, but the practice is effective. The men doing the work know men can change. They’ve seen it.

There’s no quick fix. NTV is only part of a solution, working with men alongside women’s services. But knowing that working and engaging with men can change their behaviour and increase the safety of women and children, paves the way forward.

I think about Andy, in his wedding suit, now. I don’t hate him anymore. I know how he could have been helped, all those angry years ago. That’s why I’m honoured to talk about the work of NTV. I’m a man and I want to work with men, in my own way, to help create some sort of change in the world.

I needed one thing, for him, for me, for us all, and I have it.



*Names have been changed for legal reasons.