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Revisiting Duluth as a viable model for explaining intimate partner violence

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

Back in 2009. a law student at University of Montana wrote a law review paper entltled "Beyond Duluth: A Broad Spectrum of Treatment for a Broad Spectrum Domestic Violence." Here is a link to it:


https://scholarship.law.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2027&context=mlr


It did not pick up a huge amount of attention, but it is by far the most even handed, scholarly critique of the model that I have ever found. On a tangential note, I have also not been able to really figure out what ever became of the articles author, Johnna Rizza. Its like she just vanished.


Regardless, if you drill down into the references of the article, you find the two most cited individuals in it are Drs Ken Corvo and Don Dutton.


https://falk.syr.edu/people/corvo-ken/ Ken Corvo

https://drdondutton.com/ Don Dutton


I've gone back and read some of their articles and other materials and I am struck by the total lack of attention they are given (by the mental health establishment) as they have been faithfully and objectively plodding along in their efforts to offer alternative hypotheses that might better explain the phenomenon of family violence. They are using all the known variables to account for the variance. They offer subtle, sophisticated explanations based on personality psychopathology, family of origin, genetics, generational differences, substance abuse, even borrowing from social psychology and game theory. They ask inquisitive questions about various conflict resolution styles and subconscious psychological processes that may be in play in these relationships.


I won't try to deconstruct Duluth here. Its too big a topic to cover in one article. But I would give a brief description of the model, and then write a bit about what I think could be done with this problem to improve outcomes.


First, a little about my expereince with the model. When I was in graduate school, I spent about three years as a facilitator for California state mandated domestic violence batterers intervention programming. I worked for a private agency that delivered the programming to convicted domestic violence offenders over a fifty-two week manulalized protocol. It was one hundred percent informed by and compliant with the Duluth model. The program posits that all inter-partner violence is accounted for by socialized gender roles which teach men from an early age to dominate and control their wives with obnoxious, passive aggresive (or just plain old agressive) tactics. These tactics are a civilizational-level consipiracy desiged to perpetuate and maintain a position of privilege and prerogative for men individually and collectively. The programming, therefore mandates that the faciliator(s) of the group directly confront men who are more or less incapable of being accountable for their controlling behavior unless an authority forces them to. The manuals explicity fobid the facilitators from discussing diagnosis, substance use, or anything outside of the social learning model. You learned to control your wife using these tactics in a patriarcal society, and we have to deprogram you. That's it. I was perfectly happy to provide that role for the money it paid. After all, what did I care? I never hit any woman in my life. I was fully invested in the dominant theory of bad men being wife beaters. What I didn't understand was the context under which this dominant perspective ascended. It takes a long time for a cultural norm to become such. Most of us take them for granted as we walk through life.


Regardless, I started asking questions that my bosses didn't want me to ask. I wondered if maybe the spectrum of "violent" acts these men had committed was significant. For example, there was a guy in one of my groups who had yelled at his wife and thrown a bag of frozen peas down in the kitchen. She became frightened and the police were called. That's it. In that same group, another man disfigured his wife's face on the night of his incident by biting the side of her cheek so hard she needed surgery. Everything I had learned about group dynamics told me these two men did not belong in the same group together, because they were not homogenous on any meaningful dimension. No matter, they were men.


I wondered about the women batterers. At the agency, we had womens groups. How did we apply the model to them? I was never allowed to run one of those groups, and never had that part explained to me. Meanwhle, the LGBTQ literature was producing studies suggesting that women in lesbian relationships were the most violent of all! How does that work, I wondered.


Back to Johnna Rizzas article. The most damning piece of evidence she found in her research of the topic is that Duluth has an abysmal track record for recividism reduction. I have some experience in the corrections world and recidivism is the gold standard when they talk about effectiveness. Its all that matters. So why would the Duluth proponents never budge on looking critically at their model? Why not allow other disciplines like psychology, psychiatry, sociology and so on examine it from their perspective? (The model is basically advocated and perpetuated by social workers).


She cites study after study demonstrating the failure of the model to comprehensively integrate all of the possible dynamics that create violent intimate relationships. Yet again, the article went down the memory hole, and I presume this is because the Duluth model is so dominant, so easy to digest, and so ingrained into our collective society that examining it critically is just a pain. There is also quite a bit of money involved. The model for delivering Duluth batterers intervention like I did in California is the norm. A for profit agency collects fees from the offenders who are made up of a captive audience and they can be violated back to probabtion for totally subjective reasons by the agency. Kind of sweet deal and who wants to rock that boat?


Rizza gets into the weeds on the efficacy and monetary issue and finds that the most promissing way forward is to basically invite all the interested parties to the table, drop the ideological presuppositions of Duluth in favor of a pragmatic scientific approach and allow whatever hybrid and protoype programs to develop as they will. Do things like seperating the garden variety "relationship stuff" from the psychopaths. Evaluate these programs on dimensions that people care about (like recidivism) and let the chips fall where they may.


Culturally, we have been moving in the direction of blaming men and traditional masculinity for everything that ails our society for most of our lifetimes. It has been pretty subtle in some spheres, and more obtuse in others. The association that represents my own profession, the American Psychological Association has declared that the things most men like myself were brought up to emulate to be pathological. Accountabilty, calclutating risk, developing and maintaining hierarchies, respect for authoirity, tradition and rules, controlled strength, sacrificing for a larger cause, perserverance, justice, and a host of other traits that we purposely developed under the guidance of of our fathers are now seen as absolutely unbearable and cruel when applied to boy training.


And for taking on all those traits, we die younger, we commit suicide more, we sedate ourselves with drugs and other pursuits. I'm not sure if what is needed is more of the same.


As for me, I can't really control the direction our justice system will go with this. But on an individual level, I propose a different approach to doing therapy with men. The time has come for us take a look at how we got here and ask if this is the egalitarian outcome we were looking for when we threw out all of our traditions and norms in favor of a values-free therapeutic environment.


If you are a man struggling with frustration, anxiety, depression, wanting to be violent with your wife or kids, I want to hear from you.




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