Can you imagine the reaction from the majority in Britain if it were suggested that those arrested for rioting and looting should avoid court and prison but attend classes on “Why it is bad to loot and steal”, funded by the tax-payer. Think for a minute what would be said if those who set fire to cars, smashed windows with hammers, and stole as much as they could carry were told that if they signed up to a few session in which they explored the “issues” that led them to committing such crimes, they could stop worrying about punishment.
Much of the left and the right would unite in sniggers on this issue, and for good reason. Whether or not the crimes warrant a community service or probation order, fine, or, for the more serious acts, prison, we tend to believe that those who wilfully commit acts of violence and destruction that results in the harm of other people should face some degree of punishment.
Less so, it would appear, if you have beaten up your female partner and smashed up her property. Almost as soon as the phrase, “domestic violence” — which often includes rape, stalking, serious injury, psychological torture, and other despicable acts — is mentioned, it seems that someone pipes up about sending the poor men on a “perpetrator programme”.
Of course I accept that there are differences between court-mandated programmes and those run by independents, such as the horrendously woman-blaming Temper!, in which warnings are issued about a “feminist approach” to domestic violence, and maintains that men are the real victims.
Perpetrator programmes involve men joining up with other abusers and attending group sessions in which they discuss and are challenged on their violent criminal actions. But are they more supportive of the abuser than the abused? Do they in fact leave the women in more danger than if the men had been dealt with in the same way as other violent offenders?
Davina James Hanman, director of the London-based charity Against Violence and Abuse (AVA), insists that perpetrator programmes are not the “soft” option. “For most of these men — tightly trapped in traditional notions of masculinity — prison is the soft option compared with deconstructing your feelings and behaviours. Frankly I’d rather someone tried to change his behaviour towards women than he be banged up for 23 hours a day brooding on the ‘bitch’ that put him there.”
Maybe the problem is that “traditional sanctions” are a mere slap on the wrist? But this is also the case for rape, and yet we do not (yet) suggest that those thought to be guilty of such a serious crime attends a course to talk about his unhappy childhood rather than face the court: unless that rape is committed within a context of domestic violence, of course.
There is no reason why classes re-educating men about stopping their violence against women cannot be run from prison, and prison alone. You beat up a woman, you should do time. End of story.
These men are life-threatening. They ruin the lives of the children who witness it, and often end the lives of their victims. Why should we treat them as though they are “ill” rather than making a choice to inflict pain and misery on someone they profess to love? Do we really want these men sitting in a circle weeping about how their mother didn’t love them, and deciding which flower their penis best resembles?
Because perpetrator programmes are becoming so accepted (only for crimes involving forms of violence towards women, interestingly) the appeal is spreading. A recent government inquiry into stalking legislation posed the question as to whether “treatment programmes should be available for perpetrators and, if so, what should be their content?”
The most common form of stalking occurs after the end of a violent relationship, The largest-ever survey on stalking found that many of its 745 respondents fear that they will be killed, or driven to kill themselves. It is risible to even consider removing such dangerous men — most of whom are abusers of women — from the criminal justice system, and giving them a soft option.
So long as we think of domestic violence as being the odd slap and kick, and fail to acknowledge that it more-often-than-not involves sexual assault, horrendous, long-term harassment and, for two women every week in England and Wales, death, perpetrator programmes may sound reasonable to many as a way to change behaviour. But in reality, we are treating these men differently from other violent and dangerous criminals.
Julie Bindel is a journalist and feminist campaigner. She tweets at @bindelj