Naming the obvious

Thursday, December 13, 2012. It was the last day of my Psychology of Women class. The topic of the day was “Men and Masculinity,” and the movie of the day was a documentary called Tough Guise.  Narrated by anti-violence educator Jackson Katz and directed by Sut Jhally, Tough Guise links the increase of male violence, misogyny, and homophobia to the way we define manhood and masculinity in American culture. Over the course of the film, Katz examines violence in professional sports, sexualized violence in the media, homophobia-driven violence towards men who violate gender norms – and the role of masculinity in school shootings, including the tragedies in Littleton, Colorado and Jonesboro, Arkansas. It’s a powerful film, never failing to spark thoughtful discussion among my students.

Friday, December 14, 2012. I got to my office, turned on the computer, and did what I always do – scan the headlines from the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the Sacramento Bee. And what was the first headline I saw?


Twenty-seven deaths – twenty of them children. How on earth do you wrap your head around something like this? My first reaction was disbelief, followed by an intense desire to protect my own child. And the fact that I’d just the day before shown a film that, in part, examined the reasons behind school shootings was more than a little chilling to me.

Here’s what else was unnerving to me. After the shootings at Columbine High School, the New York Times published a number of front-page articles that attempted to unpack the reasons why Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would open gunfire on their classmates and teachers. Among the reasons cited included the usual suspects: video game violence, social ostracism, lack of mental health prevention and services, overly permissive gun laws. And yet, as Jackson Katz pointed out in the film, the one obvious factor was completely overlooked. “It’s not just ‘kids killing kids,'” says Katz. “It’s boys who are shooting boys, and boys who are shooting girls.” Naming the obvious – the fact that boys are almost always the shooters – opens the door for a discussion about masculinity, power, and violence.

Within hours after the news broke about the shooting, the media began to speculate about the underlying causes of this most recent tragedy. And guess what they focused on? Gun control. Mental health. Media violence. School security. And yet again, the fact that a man was the shooter isn’t even a part of the discussion.

I want to make very clear that I’m not trying to be a male-basher. The vast majority of men do not engage in violence. However, it’s important to note that the men who do engage in violence are responsible for most of the violent crimes in the United States. Check out these facts:

  • Over 85% of people who commit murder are men (and the women who commit murder often do so as a defense against their male batterers);
  • In 90% of homicides, both the victim and the perpetrator are men;
  • Men commit 95% of serious domestic violence;
  • 99.8% of those in prison convicted of rape are men;
  • 84% of hate crime perpetrators are men.

These statistics are staggering. And yet, it’s important to clarify that merely being a man isn’t the primary factor associated with violence. The “X” factor, according to the research, is masculinity in men – and the threat of losing it. For many men, getting your “man card” taken away is the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you – and some men will do whatever it takes to salvage whatever shred of their “man card” they can hold onto. According to sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel, in a 2010 article published in Health Sociology Review, this is exactly what motivates boys to engage in school shootings:

These perpetrators were not just misguided ‘kids’, or ‘youth’ or ‘troubled teens’ – they’re boys. They are a group of boys, deeply aggrieved by a system that they may feel is cruel or demeaning. . . . What transforms the aggrieved into mass murders is also a sense of entitlement, a sense of using violence against others, making others hurt as you, yourself, might hurt. Aggrieved entitlement inspires revenge against those who have wronged you; it is the compensation for humiliation. Humiliation is emasculation: humiliate someone and you take away his manhood. For many men, humiliation must be avenged, or you cease to be a man (Kalish & Kimmel, 2010). 

“Aggrieved entitlement” – now there’s a whole different lens through which to consider violent crimes. Numerous studies indicate that, among men who perpetrate violence, masculine identity (or the threat of losing it) is a primary motivating factor behind rape, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, and hate crimes – particularly those crimes targeting the LGBTQ community. It makes perfect sense, if you think about it.  Expressing violence towards the feminine (or, more appropriately, the “not-masculine”), is a powerful way of reinforcing one’s manhood. No wonder women are far more likely than men to be victims of rape. No wonder the highest rates of LGBTQ-related hate crimes are perpetrated against gay men and transwomen – two groups that fly in the face of a traditional masculine identity.

Many people (New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg being one of them) are hoping that the Connecticut shootings will be a call to action to implement stricter gun regulations. This is my hope as well – the number of gun-related deaths in the United States far outnumber those in other highly industrialized countries around the world. However, I also hope we can engage in conversation about what it means to be a man in our culture – and how, by definition, being a man means acting violently towards anyone who might threaten that masculinity. What if a new definition of manhood didn’t center around strength, power, and violence, but rather on having the courage to show love, compassion, fear, sadness, vulnerability? What if we considered a “real man” to be someone who has the courage to stand up for the rights of all people, and who won’t tolerate any form of oppression, discrimination, or violence?


1 Comment

Filed under anti-gay bullying, children, gender nonconformity, hate crimes, homophobia, human rights, LGBTQ, media, mental health, overt homophobia, psychological research, transgender, transphobia, violence

One response to “Naming the obvious

  1. Pingback: From boys to men | The Active Voice

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