This opinion piece was written by Brian Heilman, senior research officer at Promundo-US, a non-profit engaging men and boys in promoting gender equality and preventing violence. This piece also appears in our violence prevention newsfeed.
How can we explain the violence of men? A complete answer to this question — whose importance amplifies with every mass homicide, every unwanted sexual advance, every strike of an intimate partner, every virulent misogynist tweet, every suicide, and every moment when a man seeks to wield power and control through violence, so often against women and girls — has eluded the best of our sociologists, biologists, psychologists and criminologists down through the decades.
While some research shows that biology may play a role in shaping a tendency toward certain forms of violence among some men, the “nature” of men and boys cannot be the sole predictor of their violent acts.
Still, piles of evidence demonstrate that men and boys are vastly more likely than other gender identities to perpetrate nearly all violent crimes — including intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child sexual abuse and homicide — and are also disproportionately likely to die by homicide and suicide. If men and boys aren’t born violent, then these phenomena surely implicate the way that our societies raise them.
To understand how ideas about manhood get turned into violence, we at Promundo combined extensive literature and program evidence with input from violence prevention experts. The resulting product, prepared with support from the Oak Foundation, is the report, Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections, launched last month.
Synthesising decades of gender theory and research, the report defines some of the central processes by which masculine norms — the messages, stereotypes and social instructions related to manhood that supersede and interact with being born male or identifying as a man — work.
For example, many messages passed to men about how they should act reinforce patriarchal power. They generate power structures in society that generally advantage men over women, as well as particular men over other men. Masculine norms often encourage acts of violence by men in order to uphold these structures.
Many messages about manhood also tend to gender the heart. Men around the world are taught to refrain from showing any emotional vulnerability or weakness and are expected to show only a limited range of emotions. This process of limiting the range of men’s allowable emotional expression helps set the path toward anger and aggression.
Like it or not, these messages are part of our social fabric. And our report finds abiding links between these types of messages and the various forms of violence — eight in total — that it investigates in detail.
A great many men and boys — the majority, in most cases — are able to refrain from and even actively resist these forms of violence. But our evidence shows that they often do so in spite of mainstream social and political messages and structures. If we are to take these links seriously, we — as researchers, programmers, policymakers, donors, and others responding to and preventing violence around the world — must more effectively dismantle patriarchal power and harmful masculine norms in our work.
As a start, this entails:
-Moving beyond the notion that violence is natural and normal for men.
-Retiring any model of violence prevention that ignores the roles of patriarchy, power, structural inequalities and harmful masculine norms in driving the perpetration of violence, and instead actively examining and deconstructing the structural and political factors underlying men’s violence.
-Talking directly about the gendered underpinnings of sexual coercion, dominance and control, and insisting on women’s — and all people’s — sexual and reproductive rights and agency.
-Prioritising the voices, preferences and experiences of survivors of men’s violence, especially women and girls, in all research, programs and policy development towards violence prevention and response.
-Rejecting essentialist or siloed thinking, and instead investing in violence prevention research, programs and policies that take seriously the intersections between masculine norms, the many other risk factors of men’s violence and consequences of this violence.
-Engaging the great many men, boys, women, girls and non-binary folks who already abhor and resist violence as integral parts of efforts to challenge masculine norms directly.
-Messages about what it means to “be a man” cannot fully explain the violence of men. But evidence shows that they are far less innocuous than they may seem. Understanding the links between masculine norms and violence — and building ongoing research and programming to disrupt these links — is imperative to creating a world free of violence.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Nicholas Erwin)