Why do men abuse women? It's probably not what you think

Gender justice specialist Natalie Collins has written 'Out of Control: Couples, Conflict and the Capacity for Change'  to guide Christians through issues of domestic abuse. It's a challenging, insightful and at times even amusing look at why men abuse women – and how they can be stopped.  She spoke to Christian Today about her book. 

CT: This feels like a really significant book. What made you want to write it, and who's it for?

NC: My main concern was that as people become more aware of male violence, there is a likelihood that more people will want to write about it and I was concerned that people without significant expertise could end up writing books that could do more harm than good. So my motivation for writing it was more about ensuring there are good books out there about abuse.

Domestic abuse affects 30 per cent of women.Pixabay

It's primarily for Christians, particularly those who are helpers – church leaders, pastoral support staff, friends and family members of someone who is being treated badly by a partner. However it's written to be accessible for non-Christians too, and also for those who are currently dealing with an abusive partner or are in the process of recovering from a relationship with an abuser.

CT: You might not be able to generalise, but – how do churches tend to approach the subject of domestic abuse?

NC: Churches most often approach domestic abuse as a relationship issue, and often that is how the situation will present itself. Most people who have an abusive partner will not self-identify that their partner is abusive. Instead, they will see their situation as being about conflict, his issues or wider stresses. But relationship-based solutions will not help and may make things worse – and referring an abuser for either traditional forms of counselling or anger management will definitely make the situation worse. Counselling tends to focus on 'my feelings' and just gives men more excuses to abuse – and anger is not why abusers abuse.

Instead, churches need to have robust procedures in place – and effective training for church leaders and congregations – to discern whether a pastoral situation involves general relationship issues or an abuser.

CT: Are churches worse at dealing with this than society at large?

Theology around forgiveness, repentance, divorce, headship and submission, gender, and sex all contribute to a culture which does not account for ways these ideas can be abused and manipulated. Alongside this, the overarching redemptive narrative of Christianity leaves us with much more clarity on how God views the sinner than the sinned against, the abuser rather than the abused. Our theology is often one in which sin primarily, or even solely, affects our relationship with God, and the consequences of our sinful behaviour on others is either diminished or ignored.

For someone who is being abused by a partner, the Christian message will often leave her focusing on her own sinfulness and unable to properly identify the abuser's sin towards her. Similarly, the abuser's behaviour becomes something that needs to be resolved between him and God, and the impact of his abuse on his partner and children is neither fully understood or recognised.

Forgiveness in and of itself is not a bad thing, but when it becomes used to either implicitly or explicitly insist someone remains in a relationship with an abuser, it becomes toxic and dangerous.

But society at large is not doing a whole lot better. While the church has huge issues with its response to male violence, so too does wider society. The #MeToo movement was created due to the way society shames and blames women for what men have done to them, and gives those men a free pass.

In the UK, it only became illegal for a man to rape is wife in 1991. Globally there are 43 countries which do not recognise marital rape as a crime. Some activists have even begun refusing to advise women and girls to report male violence to the police due to the likelihood of additional trauma caused by the way the criminal justice system treats women who have been subjected to abuse. So although it would be great to believe that wider society is much better than the church, it's much more complex than that.

CT: Why do men abuse women?

NC: There are a lot of myths about why men abuse women. Some of these include stress, mental health problems, sexual frustration, unemployment, communication difficulties, low self-esteem, religion, alcohol or drug use, and childhood trauma. However, none of these cause someone to become abusive. For instance, while alcohol may lead to an escalation of someone's abusive behaviour, one expert in domestic abuse explains that alcohol does not make an abuser, and sobriety will not cure one – physical, alcohol-fuelled abuse is always part of a wider pattern of abusive behaviour.

There are two elements motivating an abuser's behaviour: his beliefs and the benefits of his abusive behaviour. Fundamentally an abuser believes that he owns his partner and children, and that as a result of this ownership he is entitled to do what he wants with her. It's not surprising that these beliefs are prevalent in society. Until very recently men did in fact own women (the Bible offers many examples of male ownership of women).

The benefits of being abusive cannot be understated. There is this perception of abusers as tortured souls, living miserable lives as they harm their partner and children. This is not how abuse works. An abuser gets what he wants from life; his partner never argues back, he gets sex on demand, he has the status of being a good partner and parent without actually having to be one, he is the king of his castle. Yes, this comes at the cost of intimacy and mutuality, but generally abusers are mostly satisfied with their lives. They reduce their empathy levels for their partner and children, seeing themselves as 'only doing what is best, as my wife is irrational and needs me to make decisions for her'.

The parts of the Bible where women are described as weaker are seen by some Christians as glorious and beautiful, because they encourage men to see women as needing greater care and love. But that's not how it works in practice. When women are believed to be weaker, it is much more likely that a community will assume that men need to be in charge of women, to tell them what to do. Women's gifts, skills and talents become ignored and diminished, and they are relegated to supporting roles. Their weakness becomes the stick to beat them with – and with 30 per cent of women abused by a partner, being physically assaulted is a reality for many women and their children – not an opportunity for men to become more sacrificial and caring.

There will be those who would argue, 'Well that's a distortion and it's sinful, but it doesn't make the original idea of women being weaker wrong.' In a society which has property based laws, where contraception is not available, physical manual labour is required to survive and men are able to rape and abuse women with impunity, of course women are weaker. But, as is the case in much of the West, when society shifts to one in which manual labour is rare, laws protect women and children from men's violence, and contraception enables us to no longer risk pregnancy every time we have sex, the idea of women as weaker does not hold water. As we advocate for women as strong and competent, we challenge abusers' ideas and beliefs that men must dominate women and children for there to be order in the world.

CT: Can violent men change – and can women trust them again?

NC: This article  article from Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland explains that abusers are not like leopards – they can change their spots. Leopards are born with spots, nobody is born as an abuser. If abuse is understood to be about beliefs and benefits, then challenging an abuser's beliefs and preventing him benefitting from his abusive behaviour are key to affecting change.

Kelly and Westmarland worked on Project Mirabel for six years, assessing whether perpetrator programmes were effective in enabling abusive men to change. They entered the study cynical about the possibilities, but the data spoke for itself: perpetrator programmes did indeed create environments where abusers could learn to make different choices. While it is possible for violent men to change, this requires particular types of intervention. Group perpetrator programmes are effective, while counselling, anger management programmes, marital enrichment programmes and other resources are not only unhelpful, they will often encourage and collude with an abuser.

Can women trust an abuser again? This is a difficult one. It has been found that if abusive men attend perpetrator programmes and begin to change, this may lead their partner to leave them. Until he begins to change, she knows it is not safe for her to leave him because he is likely to hurt or kill her or their children. Once he begins making different choices, she can leave safely.

The damage an abuser does is usually so great that even if he changes, it is impossible for the relationship to survive. That is not someone being unforgiving, but when someone has violated us, raped us, isolated us, destroyed our confidence, made our children hate us, exhausted us and generally stripped us of our personhood, the consequences are so great that trust can never be restored. And if an abuser has changed, he will understand that and support his partner and children to do whatever they need to recover and heal. Even if that means the end of the relationship.

In terms of future relationships, if a woman begins a relationship with someone who has a history of abusive behaviour, then it is important that she put appropriate safeguards in place to measure whether his behaviour remains respectful and honouring towards her. If he has not attended a perpetrator programme and consistently avoids responsibility for his behaviour (through minimising it, denying it, or blaming his ex, his circumstances or anything other than himself), then he is not to be trusted. If someone wants to find out where there is a perpetrator programme local to them, they can contact Respect.

CT: How can parents/society raise boys who don't abuse women? 

NC: There are a number of factors at work. Some of it is about personality and temperament. Any boy who is not naturally inclined towards football, competition and leadership learns very early on that patriarchy and masculinity don't benefit all men. For boys who are more sensitive, emotional, arty, caring or quiet, they will either reject a lot of these masculine ideals about owning and dominating women, or they will blame women for the problems they face. Within the book I outline some of the protective factors that can 'dilute' the influence of patriarchy and toxic masculinities on boys and men. These include:

– being brought up within a family where men treat women and girls with respect and empathy
– having a peer group that encourages them to develop non-patriarchal values
– having access to strong, diverse female role models
– experiencing serious consequences for harming others – eg does he get away with sexually harassing girls in school or bullying other boys? Has he been charged for every offence committed against a woman?
– being encouraged to take responsibility for bad choices, eg not being able to lie his way out of consequences
– being given opportunities to build emotional literacy
– not being celebrated for abusive or damaging behaviour
– having gender stereotypes challenged
– seeing male role models who don't conform to patriarchal expectations
– living in a society where girls and women are encouraged and able to challenge a male partner who is behaving badly
– being taught empathy and having it modelled
– being taught about the challenges women and girls face
– being taught to be a critical consumer of media

There are no absolute guarantees that someone will not become abusive – indeed some women are abusive to their partners or children – and abuse is always a choice. There is a tendency to 'monster' abusers and see them as some other type of creature that is not fully human. We don't really consider that Ian Huntley was once a small boy, or that Fred West was a baby. It's why the time travel dilemma of whether you would go back in time and kill baby Hitler is such an ethical minefield.

We see these people as fully formed monsters, and are often unwilling to consider how they came to make the choices they did. These men were not 'born evil', but rather developed beliefs of ownership and entitlement, where their empathy for women, girls, Jewish people, disabled people, black people and others was diminished to such a degree they felt guilt when harming them.

CT: What's the difference between boys and girls?

NC: The difference between boys and girls is biological. It is about what reproductive system you are born with. As we have further understood the way the brain works, we now understand that the brain is neurally plastic and as neuroscientist Dr Gina Rippon explains: 'Nature is entangled with nurture. Being part of a social cooperative group is one of the prime drives of our brain...The brain is a rule scavenger and it picks up its rules from the outside world. The rules will change how the brain works and how someone behaves. The upshot of gendered rules? The "gender gap" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.'

Of course, there is much to be discussed about how the biological differences between boys and girls impact other aspects of life. But most physical differences do not emerge until puberty, for instance increased muscle mass and strength. The issue in society is not the biological differences between boys and girls, but rather that those differences are not value neutral. People with penises will dominate positions which involve being in charge and well paid. People with vaginas will dominate professions that are low paid or unpaid with little or no power.

The toys we give to children and the expectations we have of them are because we have created particular values around the biological differences. These sex role stereotypes leave men and women unable to fully flourish as their capacity is limited to pink or blue, caring or dominating, object or subject.

CT: Given that churches can be so unhelpful in this area, have you ever felt like walking away?

NC: Quite recently I had a faith crisis which I have written about here, but overall my Christianity is rooted in my relationship with God. I am alive because God saved me, I am whole because the Holy Spirit healed me, everything that I do and everything that I am flows out of God, through Jesus and enabled by the Holy Spirit working in and through me.

The fact that women remain Christians, despite all the sexism, misogyny, collusion with abuse and everything else that we have to deal with is not because we are have some sort of some cosmic level Stockholm Syndrome, but because this God we have met and this Jesus who has transformed our life outweighs all the awfulness. If anything, that women remain Christian despite all this stuff is surely evidence for the power of God being stronger than even the patriarchy!

Out of Control by Natalie Collins is published by SPCK on March 21.