AVI MOR AND MALKA GENACHOWSKI
ON 4/28/21 AT 10:34 AM EDT
We run a hotline for domestic violence, but it’s unique in one important way: it’s staffed by men and is aimed exclusively at men, including male victims of domestic violence, and men who fear they might be—or know themselves to be—violent abusers.
Here’s why. For decades, conversation about domestic violence rightly focused on women. When it comes to men, the conversation is mostly about punishment—how long should a perpetrator go to prison for, and so on. All of this is, of course, entirely appropriate, especially in extreme situations, up to and including like murder. But we also need to remember that only tiny proportion of domestic abuse actually culminates in murder. Much more of it remains hidden from sight.
In Israel, where we operate as part of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), official estimates say that about 200,000 men engage in domestic violence at any given time. This violence affects a similar number of women, together with some 600,000 children. That’s close to a million people. At the same time, 13 to 18 women are murdered by their partners in Israel every year. Which is terrible—even one is too many—but should give you an idea of what a vast proportion of domestic abuse goes undiscussed in the public sphere.
Women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of domestic violence, and over the last 30 years or so there’s been tremendous work done on that front. But we know that it’s harder to resolve a domestic violence situation if you only ever work with one gender. We know that abusive relationships can last for years and decades—people overwhelmingly tend to stick together, despite the violence: some for emotional reasons, others for practical, social or financial ones, and many for a mix of the two. We know that even divorce doesn’t necessarily remove violence from the equation. So there’s an urgent need to bring men into the conversation and make them part of the solution.
But there are many obstacles along the way. One is the fact that only the most extreme violence gets media coverage. So some random guy engaged in some less lethal form of violence—physical or psychological—toward his partner can be sitting in a bar, watching the news of yet another murder on TV, and saying to himself—phew; that’s not me. I’m not like that; I’m fine. He minimises his own violence.
Another is an indirect result of the fact the public conversation overwhelmingly concentrates on women and what they can do to protect themselves against domestic violence—where they can get help, how it’s up to them to spot the red flags and warning signs of an abusive partner, and so on. This is all important and useful, but men watching this can all too easily tell themselves it’s not their responsibility to monitor their own behaviour.
A third factor—alongside many men’s difficulty in sharing their pain and their anguish—is fear. They often assume that support networks are run by women and for women, and may therefore not be inclined to help a caller who’s a man. And they also fear that even tentatively admitting any sort of damaging behavior will have them lumped together with murderers and result in them getting arrested, losing their families, or, at the very least, being publicly shamed.
So crucially, when men reach to existing services it’s almost exclusively only when they have already harmed someone and/or gotten into trouble with the law. The treatment could be a parole condition or part of a sentence, for instance. It’s still about rehabilitation; not prevention.
But you can actually help men before they’ve caused irreversible harm. We started thinking about a hotline just over a decade ago, but it only properly took off about 6 years ago—thanks to the WIZO in New York, who, despite being historically an organisation by women for women, fully understood the need for this service and offered us their support.
We always thought that if there was a solution specifically designed for men they would in fact reach out, even without being forced to by the authorities. So we set out to change the conversation, to normalise discussion of therapy among Israeli men. We do this through relentless advocacy—everything from stickers on walls to workshops at conferences. We work with lawyers, police, courts, government ministries to get them to see the male parties in the domestic violence crisis as a target audience for help and for preemptive therapy, not just for penalty and post-conviction rehabilitation
The hotline plays a key part—this is where we practice what we preach. It is the only one of its kind in Israel. It’s completely anonymous. No one is asked for their name or other personal details, and none of the conversations are recorded. It’s run by trained volunteers, all male, on 12-hour shifts, 8am to 8pm, and there’s a voicemail system operating on weekends and overnight. Most conversations are in Hebrew, but we recently expanded to Arabic and Amharic, and we’re looking for Russian-speakers too. There’s also an online chatroom for those who prefer to text rather than to speak. And all of this is built as a bridge to bring the caller to therapy, and to get men out of that circle of loneliness and isolation that often fuels violent behaviour.
In the past year alone—the year of the pandemic—we got over 1,000 calls, from on the receiving end of domestic violence and from men concerned about their own behavior, as well as from family members, partners, concerned colleagues and so forth. That’s almost double what we had the year before. And we make a particular effort to reach wider social circles—so that men who see a friend being abusive or violent will have the resources to say, bro, this wasn’t right, why did you do that? do you want to talk to someone? I’ve got a number you can call, discreetly. We find it very encouraging when men call and say, I’m alright, but I’m concerned about a friend’s behaviour toward women, or toward other people in his life. This means the wider conversation is changing.
The volunteers operate on two frequencies: one is understanding, compassion, containment, support for the man on the line. The other is zero tolerance to violent behavior. And it’s a challenge—to be as empathetic as you can be but to also tell the guy that a particular behavior or pattern he’s describing is indeed violent and beyond the pale. The longer-term goal is to allay their fears about therapy and get them to lower their defenses enough to get help, which naturally takes more than one conversation—the volunteers strive to build a relationship with the men, making sure they speak again and again. It’s all the more important because some perpetrators have also experienced abuse, which naturally compounds trust issues even further.
“I scare myself”
Some times men call and actually begin by casting themselves as the victim and their wife as the abuser, and only gradually admit their own violent behaviour—often while minimising: “So yeah, I threw something at her but I missed. That doesn’t count, right?”. But the very fact he’s calling our hotline means he recognises on some level that what he’s doing isn’t right. Sometimes they call to be reassured: my friends or my wife told me to call because they say I’m abusive, but I’m not, and I want you to confirm that. Or they call to inquire what’s even considered abuse. Does yelling at her make me abusive? What about taking away her credit card—I’m not trying to hurt her, I’m trying to teach her to be more responsible because our joint account is overdrawn! So she can to ask me for money once a month—is that violent? Then the conversation then becomes about what’s violent in this behaviour and about other options to address what he perceives as the cause; men often call us with a straightforward request to help them solve this or that situation or dilemma without hurting or controlling someone.
Other times men call us saying, I’m terrified of my own temper, I’m afraid I’ll hurt someone, help me. Or a man will call us sobbing, saying he’s scared of becoming part of that statistic of men who assault their partners. “I love my wife, I love my kids, I don’t want to hurt them, I don’t know what’s coming over me.” “And then they sometimes double back, asking us to promise we won’t pass their confession to authorities and won’t get their kids taken away. Which we won’t; our purpose is to build trust and to get the caller to seek therapy. We will be very forthright in condemning violent or controlling behaviour, but we will also aim to reassure the guy that he is safe with us, that we see him as a person with a solvable problem rather than a monster or a would-be murderer.
Many of our callers are driven by pain and anguish. At the same time, fear of losing one’s relationship or one’s family is also an important motivator for people to open up to the possibility of treatment. Men in Israel, like in most places, are far less likely than women to seek therapy. But their fear of alienating their children or hurting their spouses emotionally in some irreparable way—not to mention the fear of their own physical violence— is what allows many men to access their own need to seek help. The toughest calls can often come from men in the midst of a painful divorce, who confront themselves and their own behaviour out in the open for the first time and want to change for the better, if only to retain or renew a relationship with their kids. Fatherhood is a very powerful motivator.
Some might ask—well, what about if someone calls you when they’re about to hurt someone? Or themselves? Well, while we hope we’ll never have to face it, if, God forbids, we have someone on the line who is clearly an immediate risk to others or to himself, we’ll act in accordance with the law. But thankfully, there are suicide prevention helplines in Israel where such calls are far likelier to go.
To our mind, our hotline proves that if you provide a support service for men, they reach out. It works. You can’t look at what we do and say no men can be helped, or want to be helped. We even see that numbers of calls rise in direct proportionality to our advertising—every time we get the word out there, the calls increase. It can take time—some men might take our number and have it burning a hole in their pockets for weeks before they pluck up the resolve to call. But they do. And from all our experience of years of fighting domestic and gender violence we are absolutely convinced you can never truly address this violence if you only talk about men but not with men.
Women need support; men need support; and men need to be taught to take responsibility for their own violence, as well as to get help, if they themselves are victimized. Men need to learn to talk to each other about their own violence, to discuss their own behavior critically with their mentors and their friends. But as a start, they can call and speak to us.
Avi Mor is a family counsellor and therapist, who runs WIZO’s hotline for men and facilitates workshops on masculinity and fatherhood. Malka Genachowski is social worker, lecturer, facilitator and therapist, and the current director of WIZO’s Janet Burros Center for the Treatment and Prevention of Domestic Violence in Jerusalem.
As told to Dimi Reider.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.