Hotline helps men navigate their toxic masculinity. But can it effectively address gender violence?

EXCLUSIVE: On "The Calm Line," psychologists take calls from men struggling with violence and controlling, jealous behaviors and offer them healthy advice.

Gender violence is estimated to affect one-third of the global population of women and female-identified persons. Some of the patterns of coercive behaviors that fall within the spectrum of gender violence are domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, intimate partner terrorism, and stalking. 

While these behaviors can be committed by people of any race or gender identity, patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism, and misogyny embedded in societal norms lead to a disproportionate number of women victims. 

Recent studies show that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with a spike in calls to domestic violence hotlines in the United States. Hotlines have typically been expressly formed for victims and survivors; however, a recent New York Times article highlighted a new hotline created specifically for perpetrators of violence in Colombia. 

Psychologists take calls from men struggling with violence and controlling, jealous behaviors and offer them advice on healthily addressing their relationship challenges. Named “The Calm Line,” it was launched nationally in September 2021 by Claudia López, the mayor of Bogotá, the first woman and first out, queer mayor of the capital of this conservative, Catholic nation. 

Bogota’s mayor, Claudia Lopez (Photo by Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

With a budget of $300,000 per year, it serves a population of 8 million people. She has also launched the “Men in Care” educational program that seeks to address “machista” culture by shifting social norms around the caring economy within the home by teaching men to step up and assume more responsibilities within a sphere of life considered to be the domain of women. 

People who adhere to traditional gender roles are more likely to be victimized or perpetrate domestic abuse. Men in Care is a free, mobile classroom-on-wheels that offers 24 sessions in modules that deal with four care areas. It also includes the option for men to engage in sessions with their wives or partners. 

Lopez has made addressing “machismo,” a Latino concept of hypermasculinity and patriarchy strongly tied to familial roles, a central part of her platform. Men in Care is intended to work concurrently with the hotline to enact much-needed social change; however, it remains to be seen if there will be buy-in for its programs. 

The Calm Line answers on average twelve calls per day; it remains to be seen how many people will attend Men in Care programs since it only launched in September 2021. Still, not everyone is convinced that The Calm Line is helpful, particularly if used as a stand-alone intervention rather than a point of entry for the resocialization of violent men.

Ted Bunch is the co-founder and Chief Development Officer for A Call to Men (ACTM), a national nonprofit organization whose vision statement is “Helping to create a world where all men and boys are loving and respectful, and all women, girls, and those at the margins of the margins are valued and safe.” 

Through trainings, workshops, and community organizing, ACTM works to address all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination while promoting healthy and respectful manhood. 

Bunch, along with co-founder and CEO Tony Porter, established A Call to Men over two decades ago in response to the challenges they encountered while working with abusive men. In an exclusive interview with theGrio, we discussed The Calm Line and if he believed such a project is an effective way to address gender violence.

“The solution to addressing misogyny and violence against women in the United States is educating men around the harm of unhealthy manhood. I’m glad to hear that they may be calling and getting some support because we need support as men,” Bunch tells theGrio

“Patriarchy harms men as well as women, girls, and the queer community. But honestly, we believe the solution is not going to be a phone number a man can call to stop the violence or to stop being abusive. That’s just not going to be the solution. 

“The solution,” he added, “is ultimately going to be a shift in social and cultural norms that promote healthy manhood, and that will reduce domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, bullying, gun violence and many other social ills that unhealthy social norms create.”

Before co-founding ACTM, Bunch ran the largest batterers intervention program in the country for a decade and coincidentally also ran a NYC-based batterers support hotline. From first-hand experience, he witnessed how a hotline for abusive men cannot be effective on its own. 

There has been a shift away from treating abusers within the anti-violence movement. Dismally high recidivism and poor community support led to the realization that the issue of violence against women is not an individual problem but a societal one. The collective socialization of men and boys to see women and girls as having less value provides the foundation for individual acts of violence that are largely ignored.

Man in anguish domestic violence
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

In a society that reifies whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity, Black women and girls, particularly Black trans women and gender-nonconforming persons, face disproportionately higher rates of violence at men’s hands. 

“Domestic violence within the Black community has often been addressed from a different perspective than in white communities. In the beginning when we were doing this work we saw that white women wanted the police to come and take the man away,” says Bunch. 

“Black women wanted the violence to stop as well, but they didn’t always want the police involved because they were worried that they would do much more than just take him away.

He continued, “In a white male dominated, heterosexist society, Black women are seen as the least valuable, Black trans women in particular. That’s why harm against them is not taken seriously because the value of Black women is viewed as not being as important as that of white women.”

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Still, Bunch said he remains hopeful for change. “The majority of men are not violent but are too often silent about those who are. That silence is as much of the problem as the violence and abuse. We must break the silence. It will benefit all of us. 

“These gender norms are harming women and girls, but also men and boys. The men who wind up calling that phone number and hopefully doing other things that help them become healthier, more respectful human beings are taking a step closer to their authentic selves and to their own humanity.  

He added, “At ACTM, we would like to think that this is what all men want, but have been misinformed. We keep passing down these [harmful] beliefs from generation to generation without interruption, and that’s what the work of A Call to Men. We are the interrupters. We do that not with an indictment but with an invitation to men to be different. We are less interested in calling a man out as calling men in. We really believe in men. We believe in hope and healing for men, but also in accountability.”

Sil Lai Abrams,

Sil Lai Abrams is a NABJ award-winning writer, gender violence activist, and Senior DEI Consultant at Jennifer Brown Consulting. You can follow her musings on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.

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