The specific connection of men  and violence

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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83en_vio ... Violence


"Men and Violence" By Robert Connell (University of Sydney)

The specific connection of men and violence

There is a clear connection between men and violence. In all contemporary societies for which evidence is available, men are the main agents of personal violence. In the United States, for instance, men are 90% of those charged with aggravated assault, murder and manslaughter. Men are much more likely than women to bear weapons: US researchers have found rates of gun ownership among men running four times the rates for women, even after a campaign by the arms manufacturers to get women to buy guns. Though both genders can be involved in domestic violence, men are far more likely than women to be the perpetrators of serious injury against their partners.


Men are also far more likely than women to be involved in organized violence. In many parts of the world men are the only people recruited into the military. Even where women can enter, men are the great majority of soldiers, police, private security agents, and prison officers. Military technology and strategy are mainly designed by men.


Men are also more likely than women to be the targets of certain kinds of violence. They are more likely to be casualties in combat. They are more likely to be the victims of assault in "public violence" such as brawls, and victims of what we might call "business violence", such as the intimidation and murder associated with the illicit drug trade. Men are also more likely to be arrested and imprisoned. In Australia, for instance, 94% of prisoners in jails are men.


How can we understand this connection?

There is a widespread view that men are "naturally" prone to violence because of their genetic inheritance. Some people claim that men are made more aggressive by their hormones, especially by testosterone. Some think it is a matter of the "male brain" working in different ways than the female brain.


If that is true, little can be done about it, short of mass gene therapy. Perhaps if we spliced in some cauliflower DNA, men would become more peaceful! That is absurd, of course. The biological-determinist arguments, when examined closely, are not good science. Further, ideas of "natural masculinity" become a way of excusing men's violence, as similar arguments about "natural" difference between human groups have excused racial inequality and colonialist violence in the past.


This is not to say that men's bodies are irrelevant. Violence is a bodily fact, fear and hatred have a bodily dimension, and the vulnerability of bodies is important. Similarly, the capacities of women's bodies are at stake in some patterns of violence (e.g. domestic violence involving jealousy, and rape in war). My argument is simply that the reproductive differences between women and men do not cause violence. Social process, and personal conduct, are always involved.


The facts of men's specific involvement in violence remain. To understand them we have to look at the different social situations in which men and women are placed by their societies. The following comments are based on contemporary Australian society. Seminar participants might reflect on how far this is true of the rest of the world.


        Learning violence


Boys growing up are inducted into many rituals of violence. They are told stories about legendary heroes who kill many opponents. They are given toy soldiers, toy guns, toy tanks and warplanes, and battle games. Boys are invited to play games of ritual combat such as football, in which the physical ability to overcome an opponent's body in a contest of strength, skill and aggression is the point of the game. Huge publicity, and a lot of money, is given to the young men


who do this most successfully.


Boys and young men are invited to engage in virtual combat, through the marketing of video games and their on-line derivatives. Many of these games are extremely violent, symbolically. Boys and young men are the main group to whom Hollywood "action" movies are marketed ("action" is now a euphemism for violence). The world of work is presented to them through an idealization of the "aggressive" business executive whose ruthless drive and capacity to outsmart and defeat his competitors are the marks of success.


By the time they are adults, young men have been presented with many models of conduct where the way to solve a problem is to smash the opposition - and where this is presented as admired masculine conduct. It is not surprising that many young men incorporate this conduct into their repertoire. A common scenario of public violence between men is a situation where a challenge has arisen (e.g. between bouncer and patron at a drinking venue) and one or both reach for the smash-the-opposition response.


The culture of masculine violence becomes a problem of family violence because of two other conditions. First, the underlying inequality of men and women in a society that remains - for all the attempts to reform it - patriarchal. Men control most of the major institutions of our society, from churches to political parties to corporations, governments and mass media. Women as a group have between 50% and 60% of the income of men as a group - worldwide, including countries like Australia. Men therefore have material privileges to defend.


From a long history of gender relations, many men have a sense of entitlement to respect, deference and service from women. If the women fail to give it, some men will see this as bad conduct which ought to be punished. Some will see it as a challenge to their dignity or authority, to which the appropriate response is smashing the opposition.


The second condition is the absence of enough other learning about human relationships and ways of solving problems. Here there is an educational problem. Boys and young men are seriously underrepresented in those areas of learning which deal in various ways with relationship problems - humanities, social sciences, psychology, performing arts, and professional training programs for the human services.


Research on men and masculinities


Over the past two decades a useful body of research on masculinities (meaning patterns of conduct linked to men's place in a given gender order) has built up internationally. A recent summary, with references, will be found in my book The Men and the Boys.


One of the main conclusions is the diversity of masculinities. There is not just one pattern of masculinity good in all times and places. Different cultures vary (some are much more peaceable than others), and patterns of masculinity change over time. Within a single society there are likely to be different patterns of masculinity, different recognizable ways of "being a man". There may be different masculinities in different social class settings, different ethnic communities, and different regions. Masculinities vary with sexuality - gay masculinities and straight - and may vary with generation. The making of masculinity for men with disabilities may follow distinctive paths.


There are definite relationships between different masculinities, most importantly relationships of hierarchy and exclusion. In contemporary Western society there is one pattern of masculinity (authoritative, aggressive, heterosexual, able-bodied, physically brave) which is more respected than other patterns. This hegemonic pattern is celebrated symbolically and usually presented as an ideal to boys.


Not all men actually embody this model, but the hierarchy around it is an important source of conflict and violence. Homophobic attacks are a serious problem. The challenges among straight young men that escalate to violence also often involve homophobic or misogynist taunts. Racist violence is often mixed up with claims to superior manhood, and with perceived threats to masculine dignity arising from economic dislocation, unemployment, and growing social complexity.


Masculinities also exist impersonally. Organizations such as armies and corporations embed particular gender patterns in their "organizational culture", may deliberately produce them in training programs. Mass media circulate particular icons of masculinity, celebrate particular patterns of conduct, and jeer at others. Media do not fix individual behaviour, but do shape self-understandings and repertoires of conduct.


There is now convincing evidence that masculinities change historically. Men's patterns of conduct, and beliefs about gender issues, do not change with dramatic speed. But research has shown significant generational shifts, for instance in sexual behaviour, and in beliefs about men's and women's roles in society. This gives hope that we may consciously change the social patterns that lead to violence.


Changing masculinities


Because gender patterns are woven through so many areas of men's lives, they are not lightly changed. But for the same reason, there are many points where change can start, many arenas for action.


Education is one. Schools and colleges often reproduce old-fashioned models of masculinity. But education necessarily involves some kind of thinking, some kind of reflection; so questions about masculinities, and about violence, can be raised in almost any kind of educational setting. Schools are increasingly willing to ask questions about how to educate boys. We have to be careful not to come in heavy-handed, with a dogma all must accept. But if we raise questions relevant to boys' lives, in ways that are respectful of their needs, almost any question can be opened and fresh thinking can be stimulated.


Families are another key arena. It is inside families that much of boys' learning about human relationships starts. It is here that many boys first see men's violence against women. The ethics that families convey, and their ways of handling conflict and problems, are important in shaping young people's own courses of conduct.


The public arena is also important. Laws against violence matter, though they are often difficult to enforce (this is especially true for laws against rape). It is not only a question of influencing men by threatening penalties. It is also a question of the norms, the ideas of human conduct, which are set out and modeled in the gaze of all. So mass communications and art, which create and circulate images of what men and women are and how they can relate, are also important arenas of action.


These are not the only arenas of action, of course. These comments are just the beginnings of a discussion, which can continue through the rest of this seminar series.


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