By Mark Banks, Clinician, SVS – Living Safe
I grew up in Timaru in the 1990s when there was a known element of violent club life. For a time in my youth and early 20s I was an associate of members of a club and spent time socializing in the club.
In my work as a specialist family violence clinician, I use my background, as well as my education and training, with clients who are involved on some level with club life, whether it is men or women. Looking back all those decades ago, I now see many of the people I knew then came from families where violence as discipline was normal. Families in which children were bullied or abused and marriages were strained or broken. These people I knew who got involved in club life often felt more safe there than they did in their own families. Their club became their family. But the effects of club life have not helped them with the toxicity of handling relationships and understanding patriarchy.
What club life teaches men
Club life contributes to the idea of toxic masculinity in many ways. There’s the competition to be stronger, the abusive behaviour towards women or weaker people, the violence and the use of violence as a normal part of life.
As a young man, the indoctrination into the rules and norms of club life often begins with binge drinking. Be the last man standing or face ridicule if you can’t drink as much as the next man.
Even if you are taught that violence is normal in your family, club life can often take violent behaviour and find ways to reward it. So men who are more violent or the most violent get ahead in different ways; members who are good fighters are given jobs that involve using violence. This reinforces the idea that violence solves problems.
The treatment of women is often about women being objects for the pleasure of men. Women could not become members of the club I associated with (and this is true of nearly all clubs even now). They could either be in relationships with members or associates or they were working girls who were often abused and objectified.
I remember a time when an associate was giving one of the strippers a hard time in the clubroom. He was drunk and she was part of a group that had come in for the evening for what was a strip-only event for members. Sometimes the strippers were there just to strip, other times they were there to provide additional entertainment, favours and ‘add-ons.’ This associate was trying his hardest to get the woman to do a favour for him and she was not interested. Another member saw what he was doing and told him to stop – the rules were well understood, this was a strip-only event. But he was drunk and, although he stopped for awhile, he started talking to her again only a short time later. This was against rules and he was removed from the clubhouse, given a beating and thrown out the gates. In club world it was more of a reminder of what would happen if you didn’t respect club lore rather than disrespecting the woman.
Some men do start to question club life. Of the men I have worked with in my specialist clinician role, many come to me in a place of contemplating whether they still want to be part of it anymore. Those serious about change seem to be triggered by the thought of how their children, especially their sons, will fare in life if they chose to be a patched club member.
Some of the women I’ve worked with also think about how club life affecting their own relationships with club members. They worry about the threat of losing their partner because he spends too much time with the club or in jail.
Often those who are contemplating change are tired of the drama and the intrusion of different systems into their lives such as repeatedly being pulled over by the police multiple times during a week and charged with minor offences.
What they don’t consider is the affect this patriarchal system has had on their behaviours and how they treat others. Being able to work with club associates and members means I can present them new ideas on the idea of patriarchy and new norms and challenge their world view.
How I use what I experienced with my clients
I draw on my experiences with club life to help men and women who come to SVS – Living Safe. For the men, trust is a huge factor in our work. Often trust has been breached in their lives well before they became involved with the club. It can take many sessions before they come forward and open up to me even just a bit. And even then, they often remain guarded for some time.
If I judge them on their life choices or on their friendships, I will get shut down. Speaking to them in a way that mirrors the language that they are used to often helps with conversation, and this is where my experience all those decades ago comes in handy. If there’s even a whiff of mistrust, they won’t give an inch or will skirt around topics rather than work towards openness and honesty.
Sometimes I find that even the way I look plays a part because a couple of clients have commented about how I dress (a vague generic biker/bogan look with jeans and hoodies). This is useful for me, but is also who I am and that’s a good thing because these men really require me to be honest with them. Many of them can smell bullshit a mile away and my appearance can be a good first hint about who I am as a person. Sometimes when I am getting to know the client in the early stages of the program, I have found it helpful to let them know where I was raised, as Timaru has a known reputation in the 1990s. I don’t tell anyone which club I associated with because if there are historic club rivalries, they may find that to be a trigger and they will shut down progress.
Confidentiality is critical. My clients need to know they can talk with me and feel safe. After we get through initial impressions and appearances, and after they feel more relaxed by knowing a bit about me, they can start to trust in our relationship. To exhibit trust, honesty, and respect towards my clients whoever they are and to treat them with no judgement and to come from a place of unconditional positive regard is my chief goal in developing a relationship.
Ultimately, whether it is a client who associates with a club or a client coming from a more normative social group, all of my clients have been trying to do the best that they can with the tools they had available to them at the time. My job is to help them learn new tools so they can learn new behaviours and new skills to have new choices in front of them to lead violence free lives.
Mark mostly works with non-violence programmes and with youth and specialises in anxiety, stress, and self-belief. He brings 11 years of group experience and nine years of counselling experience in the field of family violence to his clients. Previously, he worked as a crisis phone counsellor for Lifeline and as a mentor for the Timaru Grey Road youth drop-in centre. Mark has a Bachelor of Applied Social Science with a major in counselling from Waikato Institute of Technology.