The initial call from Relationships Australia came 12 months after he first called, amid COVID delays. His first group session began six months later. By then, many of the other men who’d reached out for help had moved on; their court case had resolved, they’d met someone else, they’d decided what they’d done wasn’t that bad or that the problem lay with their ex.

Happily for Toby’s children, who now have a close relationship with their dad, his commitment did not waver. He did online courses in the United States and read books as he waited. He stopped drinking. His desire to change made him an ideal candidate for the program as without motivation, it would not have worked.

‘Some men enjoy having power and watching somebody squirm. Some get off on that power and control. At the end of the day, it’s a choice.’

Andrea, one of the program leaders at Relationships Australia

Men’s behaviour change programs are controversial. Some argue that the meagre funding allocated to domestic violence should not be spent on perpetrators. But others say they’re an important part of the solution because without intervention, the cycle continues; even if a woman summons the courage to leave, her abuser will find another woman to hurt, and his children will be more likely to be perpetrators or victims themselves.

“Men’s Behaviour Change Programs can be life changing for men who have used violence in relationships, as well as their family members, but the programs can only be effective where participants are committed and willing to change in the long term,” says the NSW Women’s Safety Commissioner, Hannah Tonkin. “They do not provide a quick fix and they will not work for everyone.”

Psychologists and domestic violence campaigners have long grappled with why men perpetrate violence. Over decades, two camps developed. One insisted it was due to individual psychological issues, such as childhood trauma or mental health, while the other argued it was the result of the patriarchy, and men’s belief that they were superior. Most now believe it’s both, and probably other things too, in different proportions for different offenders.

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Chuck Derry, from the Gender Violence Institute in the US state of Minnesota, once gathered a group of offenders in a room and asked them why they abused their female partners. The answers were blunt. So they could get their way, they said. So she wouldn’t argue. So they could feel superior. So she’d be too scared to leave. So they had total control in decision-making. So she would look up to them and accept their decisions without argument.

“They knew they could get away with it socially and they knew they were stronger than their partners,” Derry, who believes the threat of a criminal or family court response is the only thing that will get many men to consider changing, told this masthead. “The first thing that went through my head, when we first did all the benefits of violence was, ‘Oh my God, why would they give it up?’ There are enormous benefits to this violence and controlling behaviour.”

Researchers have also identified different types of offenders, although many don’t fit neatly into a category. So-called intimate terrorists are driven by control over their partners; it’s the most serious form, and underpinned by the desire for control.

Rowan Baxter was an intimate terrorist. He told his wife, Hannah Clarke, that she couldn’t wear shorts, short skirts or the colour pink. He didn’t allow her to have her own Facebook page. He’d accuse her of letting the house become a pigsty. When he was rude to Clarke’s mother, he’d demand Clarke make her mother apologise. If he was angry with her, he’d refuse to allow the children to eat breakfast. When she tried to leave him, he killed Clarke and their three children by dousing their car in petrol and setting it alight.

Simon Gittany was another. He kept his fiance, Lisa Harnum, under constant electronic surveillance. She was only allowed to leave to buy groceries. He had cut off contact with her family and friends, beginning by deleting her Facebook contacts. He wouldn’t let her go to the gym because other men might pay her attention. Eventually, when she made furtive plans to leave, he killed her by throwing her over a high-rise apartment balcony.

Hannah Clarke and Rowan Baxter with their children, Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey.

Hannah Clarke and Rowan Baxter with their children, Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey. Credit: Facebook

Intimate terrorists often escalate their attempts at control during separation. But another category of violence, separation-instigated violence, involves men who showed “lower levels of violence prior to separation, but in the context of separation [they] may be physically, emotionally abusive,” says Hayley Boxall, a leading expert from the Australian National University. “They may use systems to abuse their partner, [such as] dragging out family law,” she says.

Reactive and defensive violence is the form most often used by women to protect themselves and retaliate, says Boxall. And mutual violence, the rarest form, is when both use violence against each other in a power struggle. The reasons behind violence are important, as they influence the method of intervention. A key criticism of behaviour change programs is that they are not flexible enough to address the different shades of offenders.

In NSW, the 20-odd registered men’s behaviour change programs aim to address the dynamics of power, coercion and control. They work with groups of men for about four months. They must follow strict, government-set rules, such as monitoring the safety and wellbeing of victims, holding men accountable for their behaviour, and ensuring that the program leaders don’t collude with the participants by validating their excuses.

But there’s not enough programs to meet demand. Relationships Australia has 220 men on its waiting list, and receives four applications a day. The wait is now five rather than 18 months, but that’s too long, says chief executive Elisabeth Shaw. “We should be able to speak to a man within the week or at worst two weeks to seize that motivational moment,” she says. Funding lags, too. In Victoria Relationships Australia runs 20 programs a week, while its NSW counterpart has enough money for four.

Simon Gittany kept his fiance, Lisa Harnum, under constant electronic surveillance.

Simon Gittany kept his fiance, Lisa Harnum, under constant electronic surveillance.Credit: Sahla Hayes

Toby did an online, 18-week program. Before it began, facilitators assessed candidates’ desire to succeed. Toby had no problem there – “I hated losing my family. Hated not seeing my kids” – but identifying motivation among those forced to attend by courts or child protection agencies can be more of a challenge. Often facilitators have to help the man identify why he wants to change. If they can’t find anything, he won’t be allowed to continue.

“The biggest motivator we see for men is children,” says Megan Boshell, who runs programs for Mission Australia. Many want to be better fathers, some to be better partners. Girlfriends, wives, mothers of children and exes are invited to be involved, although they are supported separately.

Boshell’s team groups offenders with similar risk levels together; those who might have spent time in custody, for example, are separated from those considered lower risk. They also ensure it’s not a forum to share tips. “We’re not sitting there for two hours talking about what kind of tactics you use on your partner,” she says. “We’re more exploring the belief systems men have, what constitutes violence, what are their core values and where does that come from?”

During Toby’s course, men would gasp at each other’s stories. Then, slowly, they’d realise that what they’d done was just as bad. One man sat with his arms crossed over for months, then opened up towards the end.

That didn’t surprise Toby. He sees the struggle men have to talk about their emotions as a key part of the problem: “We’re all strong and bulletproof.” It was one of the aspects of manhood he was taught by his father, that ended up diminishing his adult relationships. He also learned that men should be the head of the household, the providers, the highest authority. The online program unwound those beliefs. “We were pretty close and personal by the end,” he says. “You could see the guys that have gone, ‘wow, I really did have something going on’.”

Even in this year’s Australian Man Box study of men’s attitudes, run by the Queensland University of Technology and funded by Jesuit Social Services, found 40 per cent of young men thought a man who talked about his feelings did not deserve respect, 42 per cent thought men, not women, should provide for their families, and 39 per cent thought a man should have the final say in relationships.

Susan and Andrea (they don’t want their surnames published) are two of Relationships Australia’s behaviour change program leaders. In their many years of experience, they’ve consistently heard these rigid beliefs about manhood from men who use violence (they prefer that descriptor to perpetrator; the American term “batterer” is not used in Australia). Many men had also watched their dads abuse their mums, too, but didn’t regard themselves as abusive because they didn’t raise their fists. They think, “I’m not as bad as him”, says Susan, and didn’t realise violence could be anything but physical.

Susan and Andrea have also seen the same phenomenon Derry noticed;the surface-level benefits for men who position themselves as king of the home. “Someone’s cooking, cleaning and running everything for you, and you’re just lying down when you want,” says Andrea. “Some men just enjoy having power and watching somebody squirm. Some get off on that power and control. At the end of the day, it’s a choice. Toby didn’t do it at work, or at his child’s soccer.”

They’ve also seen the toxic impact on families when men are unable to deal with their own trauma due to their rigid beliefs about masculine stoicism. Susan once ran a group in which four of the nine men had been sexually abused as children. Toby was abused as a child, too; he informed his parents as a kid, but they didn’t believe him. When the offender was eventually arrested years later on more than 100 historical charges relating to myriad victims, he didn’t tell them.

Eventually some, like Toby, do something that shocks even themselves, and that’s the catalyst for change. For one man Susan worked with, that came when he punched his partner and dragged her on the ground. Another sought help when he almost threw his partner over a balcony.

Sometimes, says Andrea, that reckoning comes when police are called and he’s thrown in the cells overnight, or faces a magistrate in court. “It’s like, ‘I’m not the sort of person who gets locked up’,” she says. “But [we say], ‘you are. You were in the lock-up’.” Much of the work involves gently challenging men’s justifications for their behaviour, as well as teaching them how to see things from their partner’s point of view.

A review of men’s behaviour change programs by Women NSW found support from current and former partners, who perceived a reduction in physical and sexual violence, and said the men were better able to communicate and navigate difficult situations.

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“You can actually see him stop for a second … it’s been a big change within the house as well because we’re not all walking on eggshells any more,” said one partner. “There was a point there in the beginning when he was doing the group where I was still feeling the blame; but it slowly seems to be wearing away now and he’s taking responsibility for what he did,” another told the review.

Boxall, however, is concerned that the present approach to behaviour change takes a one-size fits all approach. “We’re not doing that matching work, to say, ‘okay your offending appears to be related to these factors’,” she says. “The motivations people have are different, the role of childhood factors is important but it differs between individuals.”

Moreover, it’s group work, not individual counselling; “I’ve spoken to behaviour change practitioners who say [the group situation] would be confronting for anyone, let alone someone who has perpetrated abuse, who may feel shame.”

But Boxall believes addressing men’s behaviour is an important part of the solution. One offender can hurt many women and children. Her research identified one man who was in contact with police for violence against three different women within six months. “Until we address his behaviours, we’re not really going to see a change in intimate partner violence in Australia. We have to be more focused on him,” she says.

Elisabeth Shaw, the chief executive of Relationships Australia, agrees an 18-week group program is inadequate. But it’s a good first step. “There are lots of things in psychological services that are not enough,” she says. “You want to ensure people see reward in doing the work … and this is the beginning of the journey. We should see it as an absolute positive that men are wanting to do something about this.”

  • Not his real name.

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