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Men are calling domestic violence helplines more than ever. This is what they're saying.

This story deals with family violence and could be triggering for some readers.

It’s a quiet day at the Men's Referral Service (MRS), run by the organisation No to Violence in Melbourne.

Normally, around 35 counsellors are at the ready to receive calls from men around Australia in order to assist them with taking responsibility for their violent behaviour.

Today, there are just a handful of counsellors scattered about and socially distanced as they make a gradual return to the office from home. Chatter hangs in a friendly lilt, while others are engaged in their screens and the conversations from their headsets. 

'How many more women have to die?' Lisa Wilkinson’s on-air plea to tackle family violence. Article continues after video.


Video via Nine.

7,529. That's the number of inbound calls the MRS received from men between 2020-2021.

And there are also the 58,065 family violence referrals they obtained from police for outbound counselling. A referral would normally consist of a police report from an incident that occurred where the police were called. 

One scenario might be a husband’s violence towards his wife when confronting her over an alleged affair. That was the context of a training call I listened in on. 

The husband’s tone see-sawed from agitated to self-pitying; angry to upset, as he described how he took his wife’s phone. When she tried to get it back from him, he shoved her and she fell. He smashed the phone, burned her wedding dress, and threw her belongings on to the front lawn, calling her a “f*****g b****h and a sl*t wh**e. 

The counsellor listened throughout calmly, finding the right opportunities to offer guidance. He acknowledged the man’s pain, but proceeded to inform him of the legal and ethical breeches.

“How do you think your wife might have felt when you did this?,” he posed. 

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Silence. Excuses.  

The counsellor persisted with his message: You cannot control the actions of others, but you can control your own. You are responsible for your behaviour. And it needs to be addressed.

Family violence is beyond crisis point in Australia. Last year, 43 women were killed. So far in 2022, 14 women have lost their lives.

Meanwhile, one in six women have experienced physical or sexual violence by a former or current partner. 

“Family and domestic violence is everyone’s problem. But it begins - and ends - with men,” says No to Violence CEO, Jacqui Watt.

It’s a multi-layered, complex issue, and the MRS are on the frontline. 

These are the stories of what happens at the other end of the phone line. 

Inside the MRS. Image: Rebecca Davis/Mamamia.

Martin* and Ann* are counsellors. This is what they hear.

Martin is a counsellor at MRS - and the impact and purpose he derives from his job doesn’t get much more personal. 

Even now, it’s raw to discuss. His eyes pan the room uncomfortably as he touches on the “issues” in his family home growing up with his father.

“I won’t go into much detail, and it wasn’t physical violence, but his use of power in a situation…” his voice trails off.

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As Martin grew older, he became aware of family violence work, and the dire need for addressing the behaviours of abusive men.

“And I guess the idea drew me in; that by helping someone to make a change with these kinds of behaviours has impact through the generations - for their children and their children's children - and the whole family.”

Ann has been a counsellor and supervisor at MRS for the past eight years. It’s her second career after working for 20 years managing hotels until she “just got over it”.

She is driven by the same ideals as Martin, but her motivations are entirely different.

“My father was the calmest and most peaceful man ever. As I grew older, I realised, oh, some men are abusive and angry? What’s going on? I didn't get that memo. I just had this curiosity and I wanted to get to the root of why men are aggressive and controlling.”

Even though Ann is a supervisor, she keeps her feet firmly on the ground, being sure to handle at least one call every day. Separate from her work at MRS, she is a facilitator of a men’s behavioural change program that runs one night a week over 20 weeks. 

She herself has encountered situations where her safety feels threatened. 

Image: René Ranisch/Unsplash/Mamamia.

One incident concerned a participant who made a vile comment to the group about Clementine Ford, “so bad, I won’t repeat it”. He was asked to leave, and became aggressive. He got in the face of Ann’s co-facilitator and threatened to punch him in the head. Instead, he punched the wall. 

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“Yeah, that was a bit scary,” she says. 

Despite MRS being a service for men, “the hardest stories are when you hear from women,” often through sheer desperation, says Ann. 

“Those calls are really tough, because you hear about how she’s trying to help him. She makes excuses for his behaviour and how much she is willing to stay in that relationship. As a woman, I find those calls to be quite heartbreaking.”

Martin only graduated last year, and is just four months into his role and MRS. It’s powerful, but also evokes a lot of “mixed emotions,” he shares. 

“Some calls make you feel like you get nowhere. But we need to remember that we are a small part of a big system: we’re only having a short phone call with them, and there’s only so much you can expect to achieve in that time.”

He explains some men are in complete denial, and will not admit to any wrong; deflecting and claiming they are falsely accused. He has already developed a strong “gut feeling” with those though, because, “nobody is perfect, right?”. 

Meanwhile, there are other callers where Martin can feel steps towards positive progress being made. There is reflection, and accountability.

Ann says that it’s quite distressing to see how often the callers have zero idea of the impact of their behaviour. They frequently tell her, it wasn’t their “intention” to hurt their partners.

“I say, ‘I'm not actually bothered about your intention. I'm bothered by the impact on your family who witnessed this; That’s what I'm bothered about. I really want you to think about what that was like for your children and for your wife’.”

“It’s just really trying to tie back to there by making sure we centre the voices of women and children.”

It’s either met with denial; or shame, remorse and guilt. 

MRS counsellors at work. Image: Rebecca Davis/Mamamia.

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“They might say, ‘I’m not a bloke that uses family violence. That’s not me’. They really struggle to integrate that into who they see themselves as being. They don’t want to see themselves as the bloke who beats up his missus every Saturday night. They say it was a one-off. I say, ‘Yeah, but we’re having this conversation, so clearly it was you on this occasion'."

How does Martin tend to veer them towards responsibility? 

“It’s difficult, because everyone is different. I generally tend to not be a very confrontational person. And I feel like being non-judgmental makes the person feel comfortable to talk more.”

For Martin, the toughest calls are the ones that remind him of his own personal history; having to stay focussed with the conversation while dealing with any emotions that arise. 

But he credits the good relationship with his supervisor in assisting him in debriefing after a challenging call and keeping check of compassion fatigue. Sometimes it just helps to acknowledge that a call was a bit difficult, and being able to go for a little walk. 

There is his bicycle too. He rides it to and from work and it helps to create a “mental separation”.

Ann says once she leaves the office, she refuses to consume anything to do with family violence: books, TV shows, podcasts - anything. 

“If you do this work, it’s easy to burnout. You've got to have strict boundaries and your own self-care strategy.” For her, that’s getting her hair styled at the hairdressers, having a massage or going for a long walk. 

While the numbers of women who have lost their lives to family violence continue to rise and worry Ann deeply, she says that she has to believe in the capacity of abusive men to change for the better. And she has witnessed it herself.  

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“Working here, we all have to have the fundamental belief that change can happen on various levels. That might be just a small change, but hopefully it adds up to the safety of women and children, because that’s why we do the work.”

Image: Kato Blackmore/Unsplash.

For CEO Jacqui Watt, family violence is close to home.

There has been quite a reckoning in the family violence space since No to Violence CEO Jacqui Watt took the helm in 2015: Rosie Batty became Australian of the Year, and the Victorian government launched a Royal Commission into Family Violence. 

There’s been the arrival of #MeToo, and Brittany, Grace and Chanel too. 

It’s an acknowledgement that, “We’ve got to actually do something with the men; otherwise, it’s just ‘ambulances at the bottom of the cliff’,” she says.

We sit together in a small meeting room. She is bustling with energy and speaks urgently with passion - and a fierce Scottish accent. 

She was drawn to the organisation specifically because of MRS - “It’s actually talking to men each day. It’s real, not just a theoretical”.

Jacqui is can-do, no-nonsense and call-it-how-you-see-it. 

She continues with a wry smile, “And part of me, was intrigued to see what a men’s pro-feminist organisation looked like.”.

Jacqui reflects on her deep value for social justice, a sense that was developed as she grew up as the fifth child in a volatile family home in Scotland.

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“My father was a big drinker, and a very violent man. My mother also had alcohol and mental health issues.”

Her parents met during World War II. Jacqui’s father was in the Navy, and only in later years, did the family understand the extent of the grim reality of his service. “It doesn’t excuse the violence. But it’s a lot of context.”

He would come back drunk from fishing trips with friends. And then the fighting began.

“There were times when my mother ended up in an ambulance, but more often than not, it was a punching and a thumping, black eyes, and then we would call the cops.” 

“The police officer would come down, sit with my dad over a whisky, and tell him, ‘You really shouldn’t really be doing this’. The men would feel sorry for themselves, meanwhile, my mum was laying all bloodied and bruised.” 

Jacqui’s mother tried to leave many times, but she was trapped.

No to Violence CEO Jacqui Watt explains the evolution of the MRS. Image: Rebecca Davis/Mamamia. 

“She didn’t get a say. There was no refuge. And if you left your council housing (where they lived), you couldn’t get a job. And if you didn’t have a job, you couldn’t get housing.”

“I know for a fact that some of my parent’s experience was about class. Poverty does have an impact. Caring about poverty and housing and how people get treated is probably in my DNA. But wanting to be systemic and political about it, and make the biggest difference possible, is also probably part of my ambition.”

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Speaking on the issue of family violence itself, Jacqui expresses concern for the lack of nuance around the subject.

“Gendered violence is complicated. We know that there are many, many middle-class households right now - Judges, doctors, lawyers - who operate in patterns of coercive control, and where their partners are living in fear.”

And it’s true - there are wide-ranging circumstances between the men the service assists. There are some commonalities too. 

Jacqui describes a lack of accountability by callers. "The narrative goes something like: 'I’ve got to go to court tomorrow because they’re saying I breached the IVO, but it is all her f******g fault, and she pressed my buttons, and I don't know why the police are making such a fuss.',” she relays.

“That's the nature of the crap that comes down to the phone at us… We’re often dealing with angry men: Angry, justified and entitled men, who present to us as victims.”

It’s quite rare that men call the MRS “off their own bat”, she explains, rather, it’s at the insistence of someone important in their life - a parent, co-worker, or sometimes even an exasperated partner.

The call rate has risen in recent times too. In fact, since the arrival of COVID, Jacqui shares there has been a 20 per cent increase in people contacting the MRS. With the bushfires and floods, she anticipates more to come, explaining there is always a spike in family violence in the wake of natural disasters.

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In the recently released federal budget, $1.3 billion was announced towards the prevention of family violence with $10.5 million pledged to No to Violence for the MRS and their Brief Intervention Service program - “and that’s enough to keep the phone room going for four years, so we’re very happy”. 

But with the election fast approaching, NTV is imploring additional federal government investment in initiatives which address the root causes that enable men to use family violence in the first place: prevention, early intervention and men’s behavioural change - from the time of boyhood. 

That includes a more sophisticated understanding of how to better identify the “Rowan Baxters” and “John Edwards” (both of whom murdered their wives and children).

Citing a comment that arose from the recent Hannah Clarke inquest, Jacqui reiterates, the response to family violence needs to be a “whole of system, whole of community response”.

“And hopefully, in the next generation, we will be having different discussions about this issue, because people are calling it out much earlier.”

“It begins with every conversation. I deeply believe that every conversation gives us an opportunity for change: It doesn't mean that every conversation will lead to change, but it's an opportunity.”

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on Instagram, @rebeccadavis___

Advice and counselling for men concerned about their use of family violence can call Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit the No to Violence website at https://ntv.org.au for more information.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Unsplash/Mamamia.