If men were conditioned to become oppressors, the only way to change them, Pence reasoned, was to denaturalize this arrangement. Inspired by the work of the Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire—who, in his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed, described educating peasants by posing questions that foster dialogue—Pence wondered whether she might be able to challenge, through conversation, the ideas motivating domestic violence. Along with a Duluth City Council member named Michael Paymar, she drew up a curriculum for a series of support groups meant to help men come to terms with their destructive behavior, take ownership of their actions, and, with luck, stop injuring women.
Launched in the mid-1980s, Pence and Paymar’s program was not the first men’s group for batterers—several other programs, using different techniques, had already sprung up in other cities—but it proved the most influential. The Duluth curriculum’s innovation, of attacking the societal roots of abuse, met with approval from activists and victims’ advocates. Lawmakers found in the groups a convenient means of dealing with the new wave of domestic-violence arrests. Over the next three decades, the curriculum spread rapidly, until programs advancing the theory that domestic violence was underpinned by sexism had been established in every state in the country. Over time, the “Duluth model” would come to refer to those specific gatherings, and their pedagogical focus on dismantling patriarchal norms, rather than to its original plan for coordinated community action.
But as their popularity grew, Duluth’s men’s groups faced a backlash. As researchers began conducting more studies, they found that the early psychologists who had ascribed domestic violence to individuals’ underlying problems, such as addiction and trauma, were, to an extent, correct.