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Sex, Pain & Politics

Geoffa Soukup
Robert Scheer

Batterers Up: Probation officer Geoffa Soukup recently joined Santa Cruz County's only domestic violence unit.

California lawmakers have adopted an aggressive feminist agenda to make men who abuse women Public Enemy Number One

By Ami Chen Mills

JUST A FEW TABLES FROM WHERE SHE sat in a diner in Shreveport, Louisiana, Karen Byrd* could see two state troopers drinking coffee, escaping a muggy summer day. Byrd wondered if she should make a break for it and throw herself on their starched blue mercy. Mike was out in the car, glaring at her through the window.

She let her head sink. She'd been living in terror ever since she and Mike left California on this road trip. One minute, he'd be in a dismal funk, then he'd be angry and threatening.

She decided against talking to the cops.

Three weeks later, as Byrd tells it, back in the Campbell home the couple shared, Mike Mitchell*, a Silicon Valley accountant, slugged her with so much force she crumpled in a heap. On the floor, with her eyes shut, Byrd felt Mitchell yelling into her face. All she could say was, "Oh, Mike." It was a sigh of resignation.

A couple of hours later, as she nursed her wounds in their locked bedroom, there were three taps on the door. Mike wanted to talk--he was calm now. Byrd told him to wait downstairs and followed a few minutes later, holding a towel to her face. He promptly started screaming, calling her a bitch and a whore.

"It was pure fury," Byrd says. She reached for the telephone to call 911, but Mitchell slammed it down, still screaming. The phone rang at that moment, and as he picked it back up, his demeanor shifted abruptly. Suddenly he was charming and genteel--the man Karen Byrd had fallen in love with a year ago.

Terrified, Byrd yelled so the person on the line could hear: "He's attacked me. Call the police!"

"When he got off the phone, he had this predatory look," Byrd says. "His face turned gray and I knew he was coming for me. I just started to run."

When police arrived 15 minutes later, Mike was welcoming, gracious, almost jovial. The officers shone a flashlight on Byrd, trembling in the dark. "Doesn't look like any damage," one said. They took Mitchell to a local hotel.

"What if he were caught drunk driving?" Byrd wonders. "He would have gone to jail. Instead, he got escorted to a hotel and told he could come back to my house!"

Byrd tells this story in the sunlit employee cafeteria at the Santa Clara County Social Services office almost a year later. She says her attacker is still on the loose and has violated an emergency protective order eight times.

She claims her dealings with Campbell police and the judicial system have been "bewildering, insensitive and in some cases blatantly hostile." She bears the countenance of a woman hounded. She has already changed her telephone number, and now she thinks she might move. "He's right where I live and it's been one thing after another," she says. "But why should I have to move? I didn't do anything wrong."

System Failure

THE EXPERIENCES of women like Karen Byrd have given birth to a new way of looking at a problem that plagues Campbell, Santa Cruz and every other city in America. "Domestic violence is a man's issue," says Pam Butler, Byrd's Santa Clara County victim advocate and a national spokeswoman on the issue. "It's all about power and control.

"Men do domestic violence because it works, because they can. Five million women are battered by their husbands or boyfriends every year. That's a woman battered every nine seconds. We need to hold men accountable for what they're doing."

Butler's view reflects a national revolution in thinking about violence against women. This revolution has staked out territory in California and has emerged as official policy in Santa Clara County--which is now being viewed as a model community for the state and the nation.

Here in Santa Cruz and in many cities across the country, batterers' treatment programs are shifting to embrace a feminist-informed, gender-based analysis: one in which men beat women because of "male privilege" and because they sit on top of a patriarchal "power pyramid."

While almost completely abandoning traditional approaches to domestic violence, such as relationship and family dynamics, couples counseling and anger management, the male-patriarchy view of domestic violence focuses instead on re-educating men until they relent and admit that they are responsible for their violence--and almost all social violence.

Some researchers say no study has ever shown any batterers' intervention program to be effective at all. Nevertheless, California lawmakers are heeding women's advocates and enforcing the Santa Clara Valley model.

For years, the treatment of batterers in California had been left to a hodgepodge of agencies and groups, whose techniques varied widely. Now the state is attempting to achieve some consistency. In 1993, the Assembly passed a bill drafted in part by Alana Bowman of the Los Angeles City Attorney's office and introduced by then-Assemblymember John Burton (Democrat­San Francisco). That law gives county probation departments the power to certify batterers' programs and mandates that "gender roles" and "the dynamics of power and control" be included as program topics.

The law also gives county agencies the authority to decertify programs, and that has caused a furor over the hill.

Eric Towle, a Scotts Valley therapist, headed up a group for convicted batterers in San Jose until his operation was shut down because it did not fit the new criteria.

Towle says he was a victim of a political purge. He says public officials in Santa Clara have "used their positions to further their own radical political agenda.

"They have instituted a set of standards for treatment which force any individual entering these programs to pledge allegiance to radical feminist social philosophy."

Heterosexist Guilt

ALANA BOWMAN, who was appointed by Janet Reno to the National Council on Violence Against Women, wrote a document in 1994 for the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence. Bowman's "Model Guidelines for Batterers Programs" got into the nitty-gritty--defining abuse as an attempt "to undermine the will of the victim and to substitute the will of the perpetrator for the will of the victim." It encouraged a "challenge of attitudes which promote the use of abusive behavior," including "rigid sex role stereotypes" and "gender superiority."

Santa Clara County adopted the rigorous alliance guidelines, and its probation office seems to have taken them a few steps further. While the guidelines describe traditional therapeutic approaches like anger management as "inappropriate if they stand alone," Santa Clara standards state those approaches shall not be the focus of intervention.

Probation officers there added topics like "misogyny" and "heterosexism" to their themes for discussion. Other themes include "the connections and similarities between domestic violence and racist oppression imposed by the dominant culture" and "superiority and privilege based on gender."

The standards imply that batterers are not insecure, pathologically jealous or perhaps deeply damaged individuals, but are calculating and controlling men who believe in their superiority over women and who take advantage of their greater strength to keep women in thrall to their whims.

"Batterers do not 'lose control,' but carefully select the targets of their abuse," the Santa Clara guidelines state. Abuse is "deliberate behavior" used to "control and restrict the behavior ... of another." Individual analysis is discouraged, because it might serve to "support the defendant's [false] belief of uniquely different reasons for employing violence."

Towle is a therapist with Family Violence Counseling Associates, a San Jose agency which was decertified last year along with nine other programs. He's seeking the help of the ACLU, which has agreed to review his complaints.

According to Towle, objections raised by therapists to the standards last year led to charges that therapists were "colluding with batterers."

Towle says he was silent at first because "any information, no matter how truthful, that leads anyone to believe that women are involved in the violence can confirm old notions that women who are beaten are asking for it in some way and are therefore unworthy of attention and help."

On the other hand, Towle contends that "the 'battery-is-masculinity' argument is akin to saying that selling crack is not the outgrowth of poverty and desperation, but a natural feature of African-American culture.

"Male abuse should be understood as a pathological deviation, an act not of the strong male, but of the morally impoverished, emotionally weak and insecure male."

The Feminist Mistake

OTHER THERAPISTS echo Towle. Pat Cibart's San Jose­based program, "A Men's Group," was decertified by Santa Clara probation last July. Cibart says her group will fold this month.

"I will not support male-bashing," she says. "I believe we need to address the issue of family violence, and that's not something probation seems to have an interest in. They are very sincere and want what's best, but their perspective is narrow."

Cibart says she was criticized by probation for suggesting in her group that women have their own forms of "power and control" and that men sometimes were not controlling.

"There are some men that are deliberate and intentionally controlling their wives, and those are the guys you've got to watch out for. They are dangerous," Cibart says. "But the majority are men who are terribly insecure and dependent."

Dee O'Brien, director of the Walnut Avenue Women's Center in Santa Cruz and professor of psychology at UCSC, was instrumental in developing Santa Clara County's standards. She still sits on the certification committee there and has led trainings for Santa Clara therapists seeking certification.

O'Brien--a trained psychologist and a self-described feminist and humanist--acknowledges that many batterers do have difficult, individual psychological issues. But she points to a tendency among therapists to empathize too much with batterers and neglect victims' health and safety.

She says a "fair share" of Santa Clara therapists "were absolutely unwilling to bend" and adopt new approaches. She says agencies were de-certified for valid reasons.

In Santa Cruz, efforts to codify batterers' programs have been stymied by lack of staff. According to probation officer Ken Warwick, he was recently joined on the county's only domestic violence unit by Geoffa Suokup.

Soukup, who worked for three years as a volunteer on a crisis line before joining the Santa Cruz County sexual assualt response team, says she welcomes the opportunity to deal with batterers. In her other jobs, she says, "we were only able to work on one half of the relationship. In my new job, we work on the other end of it."

Soukup says the men she has to work with are hard to read. "They're polite, and have reactions from remorse to total denial," she says. "They just want to get this over with. It's hard to really know how they're feeling about their crime."

With a caseload of 380, Warwick says he's only been able to conditionally certify six programs in the county. No group has yet been de-certified. Warwick says Santa Cruz standards will be patterned after Santa Clara County.

Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program in Rhode Island, says Some California communities are jumping the gun. Efforts to legislate treatment programs at this time are misguided, he says.

"The bottom line as we speak is that there are no scientific evaluations that can tell us what works for what men and under what conditions," Gelles says. "Any attempt to impose standards is based on marketing and not science."

Gelles says only one treatment really works--couples' counseling in which both parties participate voluntarily.

Women Who Don't Believe Women

A WOMAN WHO COMES to the County Attorney claiming some responsibility for the violence in her relationship is generally seen as either "in denial" about the violence or coerced. Sometimes victims testify for the defense.

But it's difficult for law enforcement officials to figure out who's in denial. Ninety percent of women who call in complaints of abuse recant--or "go sideways"--when charges are pressed.

"I spend half my day talking to victims who are telling me, 'I slipped on a banana peel,' or 'I hit him, too,' or 'I had an epileptic attack,'" says Rolanda Pierre-Dixon, leader of the Santa Clara DA's Domestic Violence Unit. But Pierre-Dixon says once a woman has called police, violence has usually happened. And she has an idea as to why.

"I believe most misdemeanor cases have to do with power and control," she says. "I see too many cases where the guy comes in screaming, 'I'm the king!'"

But Judge Jerome Brock, who sits on a municipal domestic violence court, says that while there's "a component of control--certainly with some personalities--frequently, the violence is not calculated at all times. It's often isolated--an inappropriate reaction to stress. You get people who aren't educated and have poor relationship skills. I'd feel better if they were in a program about anger management or communication."

There is also a definite tendency for batterers to worm out of culpability. But by the gender-role model, no batterer can be telling the truth if he claims his partner had some involvement in the violent dynamic.

According to critics of the gender-role model, tracing the roots of the problem does not mean retracting blame, or shifting blame to victims. They say they want to understand violence while condemning violence--and keep victims safe at the same time.


*The names of the victim and the alleged perpetrator in this story have been changed.

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From the April 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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