Class Teaches Respect for Women to Batterers

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In New York City, police respond to more than 200,000 domestic violence calls a year. The majority of the perpetrators are by far men. Only a small fraction end up getting convicted for abusing their partners. An even smaller fraction serve jail time. The rest are given other types of punishments. Some do community service, others pay fines. And hundreds are sent to batterer’s programs. One in Brooklyn rejects the idea that abusive men need counseling or therapy. Instead it views domestic violence as unabated sexism and attempts to challenge common assumptions about male and female roles. WNYC’s Cindy Rodriguez visited the program and has this report

REPORTER: Each day dozens of men show up at a nondescript office building in Downtown Brooklyn to attend a so-called “domestic violence accountability program”. As they step off the elevator, the place resembles a doctor’s office. There’s a leather couch, a comfortable chair and a front desk.

The men are told to arrive early. Being late is not tolerated.

A class is about to start and some men talk on cell phones or with each other. Others sit slumped with crossed arms.

On a recent Thursday evening, about 10 men showed up, the typical size of most classes. Nearly all are black or Latino. Several look young and wear baseball hats and T-shirts. Rehabilitation is not the goal here. Brooklyn prosecutors says the program is a way to monitor the men. The classes are lead by two instructors — at least one must always be a woman. Showing respect for a female authority figure is among the lessons to be learned.

INSTRUCTOR: OK, I know I don’t see a phone out. Put it away.

REPORTER: Recording the class is not allowed. Nor is interviewing the men. The program director is afraid they might use the interview to convince their partners they’ve changed. If they haven’t, it could be dangerous. Dolores Hunter is today’s female instructor. She is tall and attractive and one cannot help feel tense watching her in class as she challenges this room of men. When one man referred to a woman as a “broad” she stopped him, when another insisted on calling all females girls, she questioned him.

HUNTER: And he was really struggling in trying to give me a definition of who is a women in his eyes and it would have to be somebody who is much older, so they never get the privilege of being called a woman. They are always a child in his eyes so that gives him the opportunity to treat them anyway he wants to because he’ll always have that power over them.

REPORTER: This once a week class lasts an hour and 15 minutes and the men are expected to attend it for six months. The program only accepts men forced to come by the courts. Ted Bunch, the program director says that’s because men who come on their own tend to use the program to get a wife or girlfriend back.

BUNCH: So they are doing it to get out of jam and once they’re out of the jam once she comes back with the kids and guess what, they stop going to the program. So we found men do it as a tactic of control like that or they do it to circumvent the system. In other words they know that "OK, I have a court case in three months, let me get into a program now and the judge will be more lenient with me" and of course that’s what happens, so that’s why we only take mandated men because we don’t want to be a part of them manipulating the system.

REPORTER: On the side, Bunch has been running the nonprofit “A Call to Men”. It will soon become his full-time job. The group is a men’s movement to end domestic violence. Bunch says the crime has always been couched as a woman’s issue and it’s time to change that.

BUNCH: Calling it a woman’s issue serves men because then men don’t have to get involved in it. We need to start re-framing it, holding men accountable, changing the language so we have to start looking at our statistics in a different way like what you’ll see if you Google "domestic violence" is “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women.” That talks about the victim, but it doesn’t say anything about the perpetrator.

REPORTER: Bunch suggests it should read, "the leading cause of injury to women is men’s violence."

During the class, what the men did to be arrested is never discussed. The instructors say it’s irrelevant because the program is not about counseling. And individual circumstances don’t matter. Getting the men to understand sexism is their main task. And so they lead the class through a discussion on why catcalling is harassment. There is laughter as they describe their favorite lines. Some refuse to see it as anything more than a compliment to women. Dolores Hunter surprises a stocky man named Patrick by getting up close and demanding several times that he give her a smile. She makes another man who looks more like a teenage boy stand up and turn around so she can take a look at him. He gets up slowly after his class mates pressure him but looks awkward and unsure.

HUNTER: I do that a lot because it’s not until they are actually feeling it can they understand what you’re going through. I want them to experience it because sometimes that’s what penetrates ... they’ll never understand it the way we as women do, but it’s close.

REPORTER: A male instructor tries to drive home the point by comparing the harassment a woman feels to the harassment that young black and Latino men feel when approached by the police. He circles one young man wearing baggy clothes, corn rowed braids and two earrings and asks, when a police officer says good morning do you think he’s really wishing you well. In a low voice, the young man answers "no." Both instructors often compare sexism to racism. During the lively discussion, the men agree that both are about domination.

Outside in the waiting room a second class is about to begin. One man is two minutes late and begs to be let in. Ted Bunch sticks by the rules:

BUNCH: I came all the way from... I understand. We’ve been talking 5 minutes. You’re still not going to get in. So I need to ask you to leave. I am going to close the door. Come back next week and if you do that there’s no problem. No there is. It’s no problem for you but it’s a problem for me.

REPORTER: Most men are taking these classes instead of going to jail. If they miss more than three times, they are supposed to serve 15 days. Last year fewer than 60 percent actually finished the six month program.

Bunch says the strict rules probably have more of an impact on the men than what they learn in class. He is a strong believer in holding men fully accountable and feels too many excuses are made for batterers. Yet he hesitates when asked if men should go directly to jail.

BUNCH: I have mixed feelings about it because they are mostly brown and black men and they are already getting more of a consequence then most white men get for the same crime, and I would not want to further penalize them in the criminal justice system.

REPORTER: Before class comes to an end for the night, the men are asked to define a man in one word. They struggle at first and then one throws out “accountable”. Protector and provider follow. One man chuckles when another suggests respectful. To define a woman, the men offer baby sitter, kind, pretty and head of the kitchen. Hunter says in each class the answers are always the same. And so is her response.

HUNTER: Those roles are not working. None of us are all those things that we said in those roles in those boxes. We’re just not. None of us. But if we expect people to be or expect these things this is where we keep running into trouble.

REPORTER: The men agreed doing more housework and taking care of the kids is part of what men do these days. Some of them argued over how far women have come. At the end, some kept up the discussion, others couldn’t wait to leave and quickly lined up to get a paper signed. It’s proof to a judge, they’ve attended. Dolores Hunter says at first she felt angry at the men. Now, she says she treats them with patience and hopes for mutual understanding. As they filed out, it was impossible to tell whether their views about women had changed.

The program works on the assumption that the men likely won’t stop being abusive. Ted Bunch's advice to women - assume you are getting back the same man not the one you hoped or wished he would be. For WNYC, I’m Cindy Rodriguez