Men and Violence and VAWA

A couple weeks ago on March 16, exactly one year to the day after the Atlanta shooting of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta, president Joe Biden signed into law the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Of course, the Biden-Harris administration should be praised for this bipartisan legislation. It strengthens and extends until 2027 many of the grant-funded programs geared toward eliminating violence against women. It supports programs that put an end to the backlog of rape kits. It supports the establishment for a national center on cybercrimes. It increases culturally-specific services for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ survivors of sexual assault and violence. It supports training for sexual assault forensic examiners to improve the healthcare system’s response to domestic abuse and sexual violence. 

It’s a necessary and powerful piece of legislation that supports survivors of violence and sexual assault. 

However, sooner or later, we are going to have to address men who are often the perpetrators of the violence against women. 

Each semester in my college composition course, when we get to the point in the class where we discuss gender roles and expectations, I provide students with some eye-opening statistics. We look at data showing that 90% of all murderers in the United States are men, and almost 99% of all rapists are men. In the U.S., men also account for almost 82% of all vandalism, 83% of all arson, and 80% of all general violent crime.

During this class session, I ask a simple question: Why? Why are so many crimes of violence committed by men rather than women?

The students usually have a variety of guesses, and they are generally what most would expect to hear. Their reasons primarily fall into two broad groups: physiology (men are bigger and have more testosterone), and culture (our world socializes people into gendered roles and expectations through pop culture, family upbringing, educational settings, and other societal institutions.)

What Do the Experts Say?

Cultural messaging is all around us. By the time we enter kindergarten, we believe that girls play with dolls while boys play with trucks, and we have a sense that “pink is for girls while blue is for boys.” By the time we graduate high school, almost all of our traditional gender roles and expectations are set, and we have a pretty good idea of what gendered behavior is “supposed” to look like. 

In our society, we have also established the idea that violence is the domain of men. Very little of this message is told to us directly. Instead, we absorb this idea through all kinds of cultural messaging from conversations, from our entertainment, from our advertising, and from paying attention to our friends and families. 

But violence is a complex problem, and the relationship between masculinity and violence is a complex relationship with many inextricably linked factors.

So what are those factors? (Most of what you see below has been adapted from research presented by the American Psychological Association as well as a report from the World Health Organization.)

  • Expression of anger. The experts believe that the most prominent factor in male violence has to do with many men not really knowing what to do when they feel anger or frustration. This is a part of what sociologists call strain theory. The idea is that life throws difficult situations our way, and when we feel the strain of these difficulties, we respond to the stress in different ways. Most women have been socialized to either talk out their anger and frustration, or internalize the anger. On the other hand, many men are more likely to react violently to life’s strains because men are not really encouraged or socialized to practice other strategies.
  • Gender identity pressure. Our world is a male-dominated world, and has been so throughout history. For this reason, many men feel more pressure to acquire and maintain power and status in this male-dominated hierarchy. It’s almost like seeing oneself move up or down in some imaginary masculinity ranking. Imagine a boy’s reaction to being called a “sissy” or being told he “throws like a girl.” Most boys see those comments as attacks on their identity. Additionally, it is still more acceptable, for example, for a woman to wear a three-piece suit, necktie, and top hat than it is for a man to wear a dress or evening gown. Research shows that men are more likely than women to feel threatened when their gender identity is being challenged. 
  • Encouragement of the emotionless man. In our society, we have a tendency to encourage and support a superficial type of stoicism in men, but a sense of empathy in women. We socialize boys to push their emotions down, while we encourage and provide spaces for girls to express their feelings. This socialization of boys leads to a society of men who lack the strategies of properly managing their emotions in healthy ways. The vast majority of men are not violent, but those who are violent usually lack strategies for dealing with their emotions.
  • Risky behaviors. Picture this true story. Twenty-one years ago, I began teaching high school in a private school in North Hollywood. One day after school, as students were exiting the student parking lot, I saw a group of students car surfing. One person drove the car quickly over the speed bumps in the parking lot, while another student stood on the car’s roof trying not to fall off. So my question to you now, dear reader, is this: do you think the car surfing students were boys or girls? Here’s the answer: most definitely, these were boys. How did you know? Why do we know these were boys car surfing on top of the car? The reason is that we have made it more socially-acceptable for boys than girls to engage in these risky behaviors. Boys are more likely than girls to stick their tongues to frozen light poles in winter. Boys are more likely than girls to jump off the garage roof. Boys are more likely than girls to wrestle alligators. Boys are more likely than girls to use their bodies to solve problems. Likewise, boys are more likely than girls to engage in the risky behavior of fistfights to resolve arguments.
  • Overexposure to violence. As stated earlier, almost all violent crime is committed by men. The other startling statistic is that approximately 78% of the victims of non-sexual violence are also men. (Women are more likely to be the victim of sexual crimes and domestic violence. Men are more likely to be the victim of non-sexual violent crimes.) Men are more exposed to violence in film, men are more exposed to violent language in music, and men are more exposed to violence in peer groups. This all means that men are teaching other men that violence is a viable solution to their problems. 

So What Do We Do About It?

On an individual level, the very first thing we can do is to be more effective bystanders. One of the things I tell my men friends is that there is no “bro code” to sexual assault, and I will drive them to the police station myself. We need to be more vigilant when we see our friends talking or acting in troublesome ways with women (and other men) BEFORE situations become violent. 

On a systematic level, we need to establish more programs that teach boys and young men exactly what healthy masculinity should look like. These could be in the form of structured mentor programs, or curricular pieces in the classroom (like I have in my college courses).

We need men to ask themselves the following questions:

  • Was your childhood spent in a violent environment or one of safety? 
  • When were you at your angriest? What things generally make you angry today?
  • How do you typically deal with your anger?
  • Do you consider your anger management strategies healthy or unhealthy?
  • Have you been on the receiving end of violent behavior? Have you been on the giving end of violent behavior?
  • Have you done a basic internet search on the relationship between masculinity and violence? Do you educate yourself when it comes to healthy emotional management?

Violence against women is a true epidemic, but talking with women is not the solution (or at least, not the only solution). We need to address the men. We need those men to heal themselves, and then we need those men to start mentoring younger men toward a healthier masculinity.

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