men, masculinities and gender politics

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A tribute to Ellen Pence. She changed your life, even if you don’t know it.

Ellen Pence, a pioneering advocate for battered women, died this week at after a long struggle with cancer. In the brief time that she was here, Pence changed the way that society understands domestic violence, and she shifted the ways in which we work to reduce it. Her efforts have had an immense impact. The model that she helped to create – widely known as the “The Duluth Model” – is used in countries around the world, and it influences research and policy development globally. While people might not be familiar with Ellen Pence herself, millions have seen the “power and control wheel” that she and her colleagues created.

The power and control wheel is a powerful visual representation of the highly manipulative nature of the often bizarre and seemingly inexplicable behaviors of abusive men. The critical contribution of the folks in Duluth, Minnesota was to show that domestic violence is not (and never has been) about anger or about some guy simply losing his cool. It is about one person (usually a man) abusing and terrorizing and dominating and holding captive another human being (usually a woman). The wheel clearly demonstrates the great weakness of anger management and other counseling-based forms of intervention for men who batter – because their battering is about so much more than anger. It is about so much more than just some guy being unhappy. As the researcher Lundy Bancroft has pointed out: Abusers do not abuse because they are angry. They become angry in order to behave abusively. And they also use a lot of tactics of control that are neither explosive nor physically violent – but are dominating and controlling all the same. And it was the folks at Duluth who first pointed these facts out to world.

Duluth: never just about batterer intervention. The work at Duluth has always been about so much more than just having classes for men who batter. But it is the classes that have been the most widely-replicated part of the work that Pence and her colleagues developed. Over the years some critics have pointed out that just providing psycho-educational re-socialization courses for men who batter is not an effective intervention because the classes by themselves do little to contain men’s abusive behavior. And my conversations with Ellen Pence and other people who have worked in Duluth showed me that they would be the first to agree with that analysis.

Coordinated community response. The realization that men’s abusive behavior requires a far larger response led to another of Pence’s remarkable contributions to the field of domestic violence intervention: the development of the “Coordinated Community Response.” The Coordinated Community Response attempts to bring all community service providers to the table in order to work in concert to ensure that abusive men are held accountable for their violence. Pretty much anyone who interacts with these men or with the women they victimize (i.e. the police, clergy, battered women’s advocates, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, batterer intervention providers, medical providers, etc.) is invited to the table in order to participate in the coordination of intervention/containment for perpetrators and services for survivors. So, whether you knew it or not, the work of Ellen Pence and her colleagues has probably changed the way that your community responds to domestic violence. And if their work has yet to come to your area, it no doubt soon will.

Ellen Pence’s work will have an enduring impact on our world.

The importance of culturally-relevant work. Ellen Pence also spoke to the critical importance of developing culturally-relevant interventions for men who batter. She and her colleagues understood that in order to be effective, work with men and women of different cultures must be based on culturally-appropriate understandings – and that interventions that rely solely on a White North American framework will be of limited use cross-culturally – and may actually cause harm. Her work in this area was another gift that Ellen Pence gave us.

Totally anti-violence, hugely pro male. Before I went to Duluth and met Ellen Pence and other DAIP staff, I had heard a lot of criticism directed toward the Duluth model – that it was “anti-male,” that it oversimplified the problem of domestic violence, that it blamed and shamed men without providing them with any real skills, that the “Duluth people” were far more interested in dominating and controlling men than they were in helping them. Much of this criticism was leveled by so-called “men’s rights activists” and by providers of batterer intervention services who themselves were not entirely supportive of women’s equality, so I took these critiques with a large lump of salt.

And then when I got to Duluth I found that these outsider critiques were in fact dead wrong. My experiences with the staff at DAIP and with Ellen herself actually left me a little bit surprised me at just how pro-male these people truly were. But when I thought about it, it only made sense: because she had such a deep belief in the goodness of men, Ellen Pence also had a deep awareness that men do not have to be violent. Ellen Pence cared deeply about men. And it seems to me that it was her deep love for men that led her to a deep desire to help them.

Personal experiences with Ellen. I was only briefly in Duluth, but I had occasional interactions with Ellen over the years. Most recently I worked to try to bring her to do a workshop in the town where I live. I found that even from afar work with Ellen was just like being with Ellen in person: she was totally impassioned, hugely intellectually compelling, and she always punctuated her efforts with a deep and profound humor that made you laugh out loud. Although it has been a couple of years since I last interacted with Ellen (my last email from her included a picture of her adorable young son), my world just doesn’t feel quite right now knowing that she is gone. In all the years that I have been doing this work, it was always with the awareness that Ellen Pence was over there in Duluth, doing the most amazing things in order to move our world forward – to help abusive men to end their horrific behavior, and to help women to escape violence and mistreatment.

She was a true inspiration. And I will miss her. Now that Ellen has left us, it is critical that we honor her memory by picking up where she left off, and continue to work toward achieving the goal of a world where men are no longer violent, and where women are no longer abused.