Free thinking

The thought processes behind male-on-male violence and domestic abuse are similar, say experts. A new course aiming to break the link by challenging the attitudes of young males is proving successful

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“Every male has the slight feeling of wanting to be the alpha male and this is what causes a lot of violence within males. This is how I first got into trouble with the police. I wanted to be the biggest and toughest male where I lived,” says Samuel Bates, aged 19.

Three years ago at a GCSE results party Bates punched another male, knocking him unconscious and lacerating his lip. He was arrested for grievous bodily harm and pleaded guilty straight away. As it was his first offence he was placed on a 18-month referral order, meaning weekly meetings with his youth offending team worker at Warwickshire youth justice service.

“Boys and men can feel belittled and embarrassed, and strike out to control it.”

“She tried to get me to isolate what made me turn to violence on that night and how I could prevent it from happening again in the future,” he says.

She suggested that Bates attend FreeUp, an eight-week group programme which boys can be referred to when they have committed violent offences or when they express unhealthy attitudes towards women and girls. Tony Begley, operations manager at Warwickshire Youth Justice Service, says he has noticed significant changes in the attitudes and beliefs of people who have attended this programme, and more specifically in their views of what it means to be a man, what constitutes a healthy relationship and the links between what it is to be a man and violent behaviour. Begley believes this could reduce future relationship abuse.

“We are very much supportive of FreeUp and it would be good to see the principles behind this programme be shared with all young people,” he says.

Sessions in FreeUp include discussions on power and privilege, gender socialisation, sexual bullying and assault, domestic violence, teenage relationship abuse, consent, objectification in the media and healthy relationships. The programme is also delivered in 20 other settings across Worcestershire including a primary school, secondary schools and youth centres with one of its key aims being to challenge male stereotypes.

Kay Clarke, founder of A Call To Men UK, the community interest company that devised the FreeUp course, says the thought process behind the assault can be the same whether it’s domestic violence or male-on-male violence. That’s why boys who do both are referred to the same course. “The same power and control,” she says, with Bates agreeing. “Wanting to be the alpha male can then link into how violence against women occurs.”

Bates is insightful. “As soon as a female challenges these alpha male characters, boys and men can feel belittled and embarrassed, and strike out to control the situation.”

These feelings and emotional mindsets, he adds, are “dangerous”. According to a 2009 NSPCC survey one quarter of girls aged 13-17 reported experiencing intimate partner violence; one in nine female respondents had experienced severe physical violence; and almost three-quarters had experienced
emotional abuse.

When he first got into trouble with the police Bates didn’t have anyone to talk to. “I was never really brought up to talk about how I feel and being a man I’m still quite nervous to talk about it now. The problem with a lot of boys my age is that we don’t know how to talk and communicate our feelings and instead we keep them bottled up as we’re afraid that nobody will understand.”

sam bates
Sam Bates: boys can feel threatened when women threaten their alpha male status

Although initially reserved about attending FreeUp it significantly challenged his reservations about expressing his feelings. “Attending the programme was the first step for me to realise that there are ways you can talk about stuff and you don’t have to keep it bottled up as people will understand.

“I am so grateful that I broke this thought process at such a young age. Now I no longer have the feeling of wanting to be the toughest alpha male and instead I am redirecting my energy into being the best that I can be in my career, which is acting.”

Three years after his conviction Bates has just completed training to be a FreeUp coach with A Call To Men UK as he wants to share his newfound knowledge with pupils at his former secondary school. “Hopefully now I am a FreeUp coach I can help boys and men break out of the poisonous alpha male frame of mind and help them to focus their feelings, emotions and energy into something productive and helpful, not just for them but for the community that they live in.”

Robert Chadwick, director of the ContinU Trust, a charity formed by schools in the Wyre Forest area, was instrumental in getting 25 staff, teachers, teaching assistants and pastoral leaders to train with A Call To Men UK to deliver FreeUp. He says the FreeUp programme allowed boys to question representations of what it means to be a man, both from amongst their peer groups and from messages they receive from the media, advertising and computer games. “Too many young people grow up in homes where violence and aggressive behaviour is the typical quick and easy method for conveying routine anxieties and frustrations. That norm has to be challenged if a generational change is to take place.”

Michael Conroy, development manager at A Call To Men UK, adds that the pressures on young men can be immense. When he delivers FreeUp and asks students what constitutes being a man he is repeatedly met with identical answers: be tough, dominate a space physically, rein in emotions except anger, have the last word, be sexually active early and often, deny creative or emotional influences for fear of being seen as weak or feminine.

“These rules result in a pressure to conform to a version of being a man which isn’t much good for anybody. Let’s not forget that 5,000 young men a year are taking their own lives. We have to change the script and give our young men permission to be complex, sensitive and happy human beings.”

Bates delivers a powerful and confident talk about violence against women to over 100 people at a conference held by A Call To Men in Birmingham. An engaging public speaker he holds eye contact with his audience throughout and says outside the venue that although he was referred to FreeUp for a violent offence against another boy what he gained most from the programme was an appreciation of the oppression that women and girls are under.

“Prior to attending FreeUp I had never once considered my privileges as a male in a male dominant world. It was really weird for once to be stopped in your tracks and be like, check your privileges here. I think everyone needs that moment to stop and think.”

Since attending the course he now actively challenges how other boys speak about girls if they are being disrespectful. “I want to make these people feel bad about what they are saying because it’s completely wrong to hear boys talking about girl’s specific body parts and to hear what they have done with them sexually. I think to myself when I hear them – where’s the respect?”

Before to the course Bates had never wanted to talk about his problems. “I handled them on my own until I started to experience depression. It was difficult because I didn’t know how to talk about how I was feeling. I’d just avoid people so I wasn’t asked a question or spoken to but going on FreeUp has allowed me to express myself emotionally in a way I have never done before, and it has given me the ability to understand myself.”

Illustration: Laura Turner

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