What Violence Means to Perpetrators: An Introduction

Jane F. Gilgun

Summary This article summarizes what I have learned through 30 years of research on perpetrators and survivors of interpersonal violence. I discuss the meanings of violence to perpetrators, the development of violent behaviors, accountability, and the prevention of violence. It is a preface of a book of readings available on Amazon. About the Author Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. She has many books, articles, and children’s stories available on Amazon and at internet booksellers such as iBooks, Barnes & Noble, & Kobo.

What Violence Means to Perpetrators: An Introduction


or more than 30 years, I have interviewed perpetrators and survivors of interpersonal violence. My purpose was to understand violence from their points of view. This essay gives an overview of what I have learned about the meanings of violence to perpetrators, the development of violent behaviors, and the prevention of violence. This article is the foreword of a collection of essays called The Logic of Murderous Rampages and other Essays on Violence and its Prevention. The collection is available through Amazon. Meanings Acts of violence that mystify outsiders not only make sense but often are compelling to those who commit violence. Lawson, for example, found in her review of qualitative research on sex offenders’ views on child sexual abuse that sex with children brought intense emotional gratification, sexual pleasure, and a sense of intimacy and even love. Some offenders reported a powerful and almost overwhelming desire to be sexual with children. Research has identified a sense of entitlement as elements in many forms of violence, such as physical aggression against women, child sexual abuse, rape, murder, and attempted murder. In my own research, I found that some sex offenders view themselves as entitled to having sex with others without including others in their decisions. A man, “What’s the big deal about rape? I raped my wife all the time” (Gilgun, 1998). Another man said, "If I can't get them this way [through mutual consent] then the other way to get them is, you know, to just grab them." Drawing from ideas about "loose" women for whom rape supposedly has no meaning, his account of his rapes is permeated with an ideology of supremacy and beliefs about women as sexual objects for men. A desire to control family members to the point of physical aggression and murder is a common experience for perpetrators. Violence as a means of gaining respect of violent peers and the fearful respect of those whom they terrorize are other meanings that violence has to perpetrators. Katz identified a sense of righteousness, thrills, enjoyment and satisfaction of getting away with a violent act that was difficult to pull off, being a badass man, and maintaining power and control over others as the meanings that the men he interviewed attributed to the violence they committed. The violence women commit is far less researched then men’s. Women appear to commit far less physical violence than men. For example, compared to men, they rarely appear in news stories and statistics about violent acts. In addition, there are beliefs about female non-aggression that may actually foster less violent behaviors as compared to men. On the other hand, women do commit violent acts, but often their violence appears to be a function of the socialization as women. A 32 year-old woman I interviewed, for example, was a youth minister who had a sexual relationship with a teenage girl who was part of her youth group. The woman said the girl wanted to have sex with her and to turn her away would have hurt the girl. The woman elaborated,

I didn't want to abandon her. I will take shit to kingdom come before I will bail out…. In some ways that is very, very strong to my religious point of view. It's very strong that you be there for people. It is very strong that that's the spiritual connection and understanding of who Jesus Christ was. He didn't bail out. He didn't go when he, and he didn't maybe have his self protection up either, when it really comes down to the story. And so religiously and morally, it, it, yeah, that's where I'm at. Other researchers, too, have noted that meanings that women attribute to their violence are related to a sense of caring, as distorted as this caring may be. Women’s identity as women is far less tied to aggression and being in charge. Sometimes women’s violence is in reaction to male physical aggression. Women and men may be similar in terms of how they use words and exclusionary actions to control and dominate others, however. In summary, violence has many possible meanings to perpetrators and to those who are survivors of violence. Many of these meanings could be connected to gender role socialization and internalized beliefs that are widely held in U.S. culture. Whatever the analysis proposed in this present research might produce in terms of a model of the meanings of violence to perpetrators, the results will make important contributions to effective policies, programs, and interventions. The understanding the meanings of violence to perpetrators is fundamental to prevention and intervention. Development of Violent Behaviors Persons act out in violent ways because they have belief system that tells them acts of violence are what people do to accomplish their goals and they have no competing belief systems that guide them to think long and short-term about consequences for themselves and for the persons who are the targets of violence. Their developmental histories have nothing to do with their acting in violent ways. I have interviewed many survivors of violence who do not act out violently. They like anyone else may think violent thoughts but short and long-term consequences immediately come into awareness. They choose not to be violent. In my research, I have found that the common developmental factor in persons who commit violent acts is a belief in violence and a lack of beliefs that lead them to rein in actions that follow from their pro-violence beliefs. Many people come from abusive families. Most of them do not become abusive. Many people who commit violent acts, however, have minimal abuse in their backgrounds. Some have fewer risks for violence than I do. They, however, have pro-violent beliefs, a lack of beliefs that counter the pro-violence beliefs, and a life-long history of not sharing personal, sensitive information, an incapacity to reflect upon the events in their lives, and a lack of imagination in terms of thinking about what their actions might mean to others. They also do not identify with pro-social others and in fact may admire others who get away with putting one over on others, beating others out of a buck, and in general going their own way without regard for others. It can take a lot to get them to face the harm they cause and they may believe until they die that what they did is just how things are. In addition to pro-violence beliefs, the difference between people with abuse in their backgrounds who become violent and those who don’t is the capacity to confide personal, sensitive information to other people and find it helps. These confidant relationships are long term and provide persons who have experienced abuse with role models, value systems, and often personal and vocational skills. They usually reflect upon their own actions and have the

imaginations to understand what their actions might mean to others. They are willing to change their behaviors when they realize their behaviors are harmful. Gender comes into play in these factors, which researchers label “protective factors.” Boys and men, more so than women and girls, learn through wide-spread belief systems that they are supposed to be strong and not show weakness. Many boys and men have learned to feel ashamed of such emotional states as sadness, hurt, loneliness, and worthlessness. They are afraid to talk about these emotions for fears of being labeled weak sissies. They make take on a mask of toughness and impermeability which can limit their capacities to empathize with others, to develop the imaginations to think through consequences for themselves and others, and to care about others and themselves. Such persons are on the brink of acting out proviolence beliefs that all of us have because they have not developed the foundations of belief systems that counter pro-violence beliefs. Accountability I also have found how important accountability is, and accountability is part of the present book. We all do things that hurt ourselves and others. This is part of being human. Accountability, admitting what we have done is wrong, apologies, and changing are ways are key to living in harmony with ourselves and others. Accountability leads to re-building relationships after a breakdown that harmful behaviors cause. Accountability rests on values, such as understanding the value of honesty, truth-telling, and harmonious human connections. Without such a value system, accountability and building bridges are not possible. Prevention I have drawn strategies for the prevention of violence from what I have learned about violent, about why people don’t become violent when they have risks to do, and from what I have learned about accountability. Children require long-term relationships with people who love them, who are there for them, and who show them how to form secure relationships with others. They require value systems, social skills, and vocational skills. Many people have the good fortune to be members of families and communities where these advantages are a given. Many others grow up believing that you take what you want from whomever you want and you do not owe anyone anything. That belief and value system is the bedrock of the development and commission of violent behaviors. References Athens, Lonnie (1997). Violent criminal acts and actors revisited. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois. Athens, Lonnie (1992). The creation of dangerous, violent criminals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Gilgun, Jane F. (2008b). Lived experience, reflexivity, and research on perpetrators of interpersonal violence. Qualitative Social Work, 7(2), 181-197. Gilgun, Jane F. & Alankaar Sharma (2011). The uses of humour in case management with high risk Children & their families, British Journal of Social Work, 1-18. Katz, Jack (1988). The seductions of crime. New York: Basic. Lawson, Louanne (2003). Isolation, gratification, justification: Offenders' explanations of child molesting. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 24, 695-705.  

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