Increasingly, people are talking about reforming masculinity in an effort to share this world with more kind, caring, balanced males who are better capable of managing their emotions and responding civilly to difficult situations. Implicit in this is the recognition that male violence is real and that it’s at least partly socially constructed through the negative aspects of masculinity. But you wouldn’t get this idea from reading the daily news. The media still portrays instances of male violence as the sole cause of some other factor – passion, heartbreak or mental illness. It’s still not socially acceptable to name male violence and male violence against women and girls is rarely described as the hate crime that it is. Women who simply point out the phenomenon – without threatening any violence themselves – are quickly punished.
Even when we do discuss the blatant reality that almost all violence is committed by males, however, a few notable things typically happen:
- The source of male violence is not adequately explored
- Masculinity is usually only critiqued in terms of extreme expressions e.g. violence
- The proposed solution is to reform masculinity, thus effectively maintaining it
In this article, I’m going to explore male violence and its root in masculinity, and then I’m going to take it a step further. If masculinity as we know it is toxic, what about it is toxic exactly, how do we change it, and ultimately, why would we want to maintain it at all?
Why does male violence happen?
Naming the problem of male violence is one thing. Understanding why it happens is another. Growing up as children, we’re often told, “boys will be boys”. What would otherwise be interpreted as abusive and inappropriate when a boy harasses a girl is passed off as a simple crush. Time and again we see that girls must be ladylike while boys are allowed to exhibit all kinds of obnoxiousness. They can’t help it, apparently. They’re wired that way.
If males are programmed to destroy, wreak havoc, harm, rape and kill, what’s the rationale for having laws against these actions if we believe men aren’t responsible for their actions? What would be the point of telling boys to be considerate and respectful? Either they’re slaves to biology or they’re not. If we believe that they have an innate propensity for violence and selfishness, then we need to start having a very different conversation about what to do about the male sex. If they’re not, then we need to stop making excuses for unacceptable behaviour and critically examine why women don’t seem to be interested in doing these things while men do. And why despite that, do we talk about these two groups the way we do?
Is some degree of male violence influenced by biological factors? What would this mean? Is it true that testosterone really does predetermine aggression and violence and that males are born with a gene that makes it harder for them to respond calmly to stressful situations? If that’s the case, then we’re left to conclude once again that violence is inevitable and that men – but more so women and children – must accept that they’re the unfortunate sacrifices of male biology.
Biological determinism raises other unsettling questions: if male biology is so flawed, so prone to irrational, violent behaviour, why are men allowed to occupy positions of power? Why are they allowed to be police officers? Teachers? Spiritual leaders? Politicians? Judges? Doctors? Fathers? If we believe that men can be trusted with these roles, then we can’t logically claim that male violence is a defect of male biology. And if male violence is inevitable, then we’re certainly not doing much to mitigate it.
It’s impossible to observe male behaviour in a non-socialized environment, so there’s no way we can cleanly parse out dispositions as either biologically or socially-driven. But we do know that our current social environment ascribes particular roles and attributes to males which are labeled masculine. If males aren’t all born with the same personality template, is it so far fetched to attribute behavioural patterns to social programming? Could it be that the persistence of male entitlement that boys and men display towards females is learned and excused?
A man who expects his wife to cook for him and clean up after him shares an attitude of entitlement with a man who sexually assaults a woman as she’s jogging in a public park. Though such conduct may be expressed at different intensities and in different ways, it bears the hallmark of masculinity and coexists on the same spectrum: enough men feel they have the right to violate women’s boundaries that it creates a climate of fear among women and girls. It’s why females have separate spaces set aside for them for intimate purposes outside of the home, they’re wary of being in isolated or dark places alone, have their own crisis shelters, and make so many unconscious decisions every day in order to avoid male violence.
We’re supposed to accept this as normal? Even if brain scans showed a significant difference between the brains of females and males – and they don’t – that still wouldn’t explain the difference. In the feminist theory of gender (gender being masculinity and femininity), we have an explanatory model that demonstrates a clear link between male socialization and violence.
Some people will say that men who are violent and abusive toward women are outliers; they conjure the image a monster, a rogue archetype. When men do these things to women but don’t fit this profile, the media and courts feign ignorance about whether the guy can possibly have done it on purpose. Contrary to popular discourse, these activities aren’t being spearheaded by exceptionally idiotic, socially maladjusted men.
Many people who admit there’s a problem do this funny thing that makes you wonder if they really mean it when they say they care about women. They revert to biological determinism when particular aspects of male behaviour are inconveniently questioned – especially when it’s of a sexual nature. Male batterers and mass shooters are exhibiting some sort of extreme masculinity, something gone terribly wrong or taken too far, whereas men who engage in all manner of predatory and exploitative activities are just guys being guys. Some people will go so far as to say that men need a release valve; if you don’t allow them to get their aggression out or indulge in their sexual fantasies – no matter how depraved or harmful – they’ll become so frustrated they’ll have no choice but to take it out on those who are vulnerable or just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We hear the tired old arguments that men are just naturally more visual and have greater sexual interest. Few people question whether this is actually true. The moment you evoke biology as a reason for a man’s choices, male violence and privilege are protected and reinforced.
Is it enough to just tweak masculinity?
Change is not necessarily improvement and not everyone who says they want to change masculinity for the better means the same thing. Pro-rape men’s rights activist Roosh V has coined the term neomasculinity in the hopes of ‘rescuing’ masculinity and ‘restoring’ men to their rightful place. His vision is a gendered version of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric: just the title of his Return of Kings website makes it clear who he thinks should rule in this new masculine landscape.
What about calls to reform ‘toxic masculinity’, then? Tom Hardy, for example, urges men to “be masculine, not macho”. In this article, The Red Bulletin anoints Hardy as a Real Man, which insofar as the piece is concerned appears to just mean being a good person while having a penis. Hardy says that men can and should be caring, considerate, patient, and respectful. This is encouraging. Here’s a male celebrity who’s a great actor and role model for young men saying that masculinity as it’s been practiced for a very long time isn’t so great after all. Maybe this does represent a shift in societal attitudes about gender. And why wouldn’t we want to encourage males to be more of these things we’ve traditionally associated with femininity?
Why do we need gender anyway?
The concepts of masculinity and femininity aren’t accidental or neutral. They define appropriate behaviour for males and females which orders them into a hierarchy, such that whatever characteristics make men dominant are deemed masculine and therefore encouraged in males, and whatever characteristics make females submissive are deemed feminine and therefore encouraged in females. To ensure this social hierarchy is well understood by all, supposedly masculine characteristics are valued as superior to supposedly feminine characteristics. Many people recognize the existence of sex-based inequality but are unable to explain its origin or dynamics. The sexual and reproductive exploitation of female bodies is enabled and sanctioned through this social engineering – an entrenched and seemingly natural and inevitable ideology of misogyny.
The problem isn’t that traits are bad in and of themselves. Aggression or violence might be required in survival situations or where personal safety is threatened, for example. But why aren’t particular behaviours expected from people on the basis of need or context rather than because they’re assumed to be inherent or natural to, or appropriate for, males or females only? Why would we associate the traits ‘caring, considerate, patient, and respectful’ with either masculinity or femininity if we want both sexes to exhibit them? If we believe everyone should do the things that good people do, then there’s no need for the categories of masculine and feminine where mannerisms are concerned.
It only makes sense to speak of masculinity and femininity in terms of the biological attributes specific to male and female sexed bodies, for instance, as they relate to the different healthcare needs of males and females. No matter what biological differences exist between the sexes, sex should not determine how people are expected to think, feel and act, and the only way to challenge these expectations is by doing away with gender – the social categories of masculinity and femininity – altogether.