Are men more violent?

The gruesome and violent tragedy in Colorado last week put some noticeable strains on the national psyche. Interestingly, many facts were clear early on: a young, white man planned and perpetrated a shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, CO during the screening of a summer blockbuster. The violence appears to have been both premeditated and random (in that no specific people were targeted, as far as we know) and it has captured our imaginations.

The questions that the media asked were immediately about motive: who is James Holmes and why would he do this? The obsession with the particulars of Holmes’ life is understandable as we aim to understand and rationalize violence of a seemingly random nature. But others, concerned with the broader questions of violence in our society and with our gun control policy, have attempted to pivot this conversation into a socio-structural one. That, to my mind, is the best use of our collective energy. It’s productive and it might actually help us prevent such terrifying incidents in the future.

Over at Time.com, Erika Christakis argues that what we are missing in our collective understanding is the gendered nature of mass homicide.

We’ve been down this path so many times, yet we keep missing the elephant in the room: How many of the worst mass murderers in American history were women? None. This is not to suggest that women are never violent, and there are even the rare cases of female serial killers. But why aren’t we talking about the glaring reality that acts of mass murder (and, indeed, every single kind of violence) are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men?

On one hand, I find this question really illuminating. I work at an organization called Men Stopping Violence that addresses violence in exactly that context — as a gendered phenomenon. The acknowledgement of “male violence” without conflating it with all different kinds of violence is particularly useful, because it helps us contextualize the violence in our society as a function of patriarchy and sexism. Christakis’ analysis goes some distance in helping to make that case, which is under-acknowledged, to be sure.

There a few points I’d like to raise here that complicate Christakis’ analysis of the “maleness of mass homicide.”

1. The analysis relies on some essentialist framing of the problem of violence while trying to address it as a social phenomenon. This is a confusing trajectory. Christakis pathologizes male violence via analogy by likening it to “a deadly disease that disproportionately affects men” while charging us to think about gendered violence explicitly. In fact, she goes so far as to say that the silence is inexplicable on this matter:

The silence around the gendering of violence is as inexplicable as it is indefensible. Sex differences in other medical and social conditions — such as anorexia nervosa, lupus, migraines, depression and learning disabilities — are routinely analyzed along these lines.

Actually, the silence is not inexplicable at all. It is the means by which we make social justifications, it is functional.

Note here the conflation of sex and gender. These are two different identities, and they cannot be used interchangeably when we are trying to understand social phenomena.

This is precisely where essentialist framings do us wrong, we cannot parse these identities in this way without resorting to biological definitions or alternatively, to shallow socio-cultural definitions. Those definitions serve us very narrowly when we discuss social and political phenomena. Male violence, against women and male violence more broadly is a socially enforced imperative.  While we might be able to make public health claims about its prevalence, we certainly can’t make those claims without a deeper analysis of male identity, inclusive of sex and gender analyses, alongside an analysis of race and class. Which leads into my second point.

2. Christakis’ argument for public health interventions is interesting, but insufficiently presented. She obscures race and class in her assessment of the problem and also in her call for a public health centered solution. For example,  Chirstakis gives us these numbers:

…Men are nine to 10 times more likely to commit homicide and more likely to be its victims. The numbers are sobering when we look at young men. In the U.S., for example, young white males (between ages 14 and 24) represent only 6% of the population, yet commit almost 17% of the murders. For young black males, the numbers are even more alarming (1.2% of the population accounting for 27% of all homicides). Together, these two groups of young men make up just 7% of the population and 45% of the homicides. And, overall, 90% of all violent offenders are male, as are nearly 80% of the victims.

This data is not public health data, it comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It is highly problematic to point out the racial differences in rates of violent crime without offering any social context about why the numbers might be different in communities of color. Further, this data conflates the numbers on homicide with the numbers on mass murders and serial killers. These are all different phenomena, and have different nuances when looked at through a race/class/gender lens. In fact, in this argument, there’s no analysis of structural economic inequality and poverty at all. To really grasp the complexity here, we have to be clear and honest about how male violence functions across all social strata. Jumping from homicide numbers (without contextualizing race or class difference in those numbers) to an argument about mass murder is insufficient if our goal is to understand male violence as an inherently socio-cultural phenomenon.

3. And to put an even finer point on the limits of this analysis of male violence, Christakis completely ignores police violence, colonial violence, and questions of war. All these social phenomena have a lot to do with mass murder and male violence, all in the context of race and class, and we can’t ignore their prevalence in our society when we address male violence.

4. Finally, there’s a level of nuance missing in the argument. It’s illustrated by the way that Christakis locates male violence and it’s origins:

For millennia, human society has struggled with what to do with young men’s violent tendencies. Many cultures stage elaborate initiation ceremonies, presided over by older men, which help channel youthful aggression into productive social roles. But in contemporary society, we have trouble talking about the obvious: the transition from boy to man is a risky endeavor, and there can be a lot of collateral damage.

Here at Men Stopping Violence we work with men of different ages to understand how violent behavior becomes normalized and reinforced throughout their lives. To locate that in the transition from boyhood to manhood is to elide how the use of violence to maintain systems of patriarchy is an everlasting and ongoing experience for most men.

And that is why I find the kernel contained in Christakis’ article most valuable: we have to name male violence as a socio-cultural phenomenon – one that occurs in the context of race, class, gender, citizenship, ability, sexuality and so on. To name it without interrogating the intersections won’t take us as far as it seems Christakis would like us to go.

A special thanks to my colleagues at MSV for their input on this piece: Ulester Douglas, Bernard Ellis, Lee Giordano, ramesh kathanadhi, Sulaiman Nurridin, and Shelley Serdahely.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted July 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Love the analysis, Eesha.

    I think that Christakis’ points are, for the most part, valid. But, in a drawn out, convoluted way, she keeps demanding to know why society doesn’t talk more about men being violent. I think this question is a little bit off the mark. Society certainly recognizes men as being violent savages (take a stroll down the ‘boys’ aisle at Toys R Us). We don’t hide form this notion. It’s not a secret. It’s accepted. That’s why her statistics don’t do much good. We all already know them.

    The better question, which Christakis barely touches upon, is why society is so accepting of this reality. That is, why aren’t more people willing to seriously question why men, on average, commit so many more violent acts than women?

    I’m sure there are several good answers to that question. In my mind, the most obvious is that examination of men’s issues is still generally taboo. I think it’s generally safe to say that, at least in America, masculinity is more well defined, and well policed, than femininity. To a large degree, this stands in the way of serious attempts at introspection.

    Like you, I was also confused by her attempts to compare male violence with ‘other’ gender-specific medical conditions. Really, lupus? However, I think her comparison to anorexia might actually be somewhat illustrative. Over the past 50 years, the women’s movement did an excellent job of examining anorexia, studying it, and fighting to make the world understand that most young women are raised in an environment full of unrealistic body images. There’s obviously still work to do in this department. However, progress was made because women did some serious self-examination.

    We can be hopeful that, someday soon, men will examine themselves in the same way. That said, I think that we have a very long way to go in this area.

  2. Posted July 26, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    Smart and analytical article, but holy cow what a mess of a headline. Not only is it a sterling example of Betteridge’s Law, it plays right into all the essentialism and lack of nuance that you so rightly try to avoid in the article body.

    I am not an expert on this topic – I wonder if self-sustaining cycles of violence play a part in this clear phenomenon, given that men are also considerably more frequently the victims of violence in our society? What should we think about the also well-documented fact that murder rates are now on a clear decline over time?

  3. Posted July 27, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    It’s a very good point.

    Whenever a mass murder occurs, the cry is “banish the guns” rather than “take a look at the perps!”

    It’s one reason I think stronger gun control laws are sexist: women tend not to commit gun violence so stronger restrictions on guns would punish the 51 percent of the population who, when they have guns, DO NOT use them for violence. It would be far better to look at the perps and their motivations, entitlement, etc.

  4. Posted July 28, 2012 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Young men are violent and hyper-aggressive. Who makes up the World’s Armies?

    But lets get real about the massacre. Some say the Democrats lost West Virginia over guns in the 2000 election, and as a result things have been silent on Gun Control.

    The NRA whines about the militia clause to the Second Amendment all day, and they expect us to be dull: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state (it isn’t) “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. -Arms-, not guns. Arms… Stinger Missiles, land mines, c4. Motors.. arms. Every criminal has his girlfriend or his friend legally buy that “semi-automatic” assault rifle (that he can bump-fire: google it). Military issue 5.56x45mm rifles go to drug dealers, home invaders, and crazies. Google “hood 2 Hood”, or ” Snow on the Bluff” or, the most recent tragedy. It is time to do something about the accessibility of military grade weapons! There are scum criminals and nutjobs out there.

    Also, Lazy city governments and under equipped cops don’t’ help things. If sectors of a city are seriously scary, The Gun crowd actually does have a point, sadly.

  5. Posted July 28, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I have to say that I don’t know what to make of the original article, the analysis here or the comments.

    I can’t help but feel like the tone these sorts of things are trying to tell me that I’m programed to be a violent monster and theres nothing I can do about it, even though I have never hurt anyone in my life, or at least thats what you expect of me. That just feels regressive, it would be like having an article about the grieving relatives of this tragedy titled “Are women more emotional?”. I thought we were past labeling and blaming?

    Second, you come so close to it in the article but never quite get there, why can’t we just say its a legitimate mens issue? Why does it have to be framed as a women’s issue? Even at the “Men Stopping Violence” web page they only focus on preventing mens violence in the light of being a women’s issue. As a commenter above said, is it still taboo to say that men have legitimate issues?

    Im not here to say the premise of any of this is wrong or anything, most violence is probably perpetrated by men, but when I read thing like this it just makes me a bit disappointed.

    Its like when hillary famously said “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.”. And here I was thinking the primary victims of war were the husbands, father and sons killed and maimed in the senseless violence, you know, the ones who are lucky if they died in the field. Not to mention the patronizing tone towards poor helpless women. Why cant we just say it? War and violence are mens issues that ruin the lives of men as well as women? Why does every effort have to be framed in the light of how its good for women? Why can’t we talk about positive change that might primarily positively effect men?

    I understand that feminists are not necessarily under any obligation to work towards equality for men or gendered issues that primarily effect men, but you brought it up. Here was your big chance to say some thing like “Why can’t we as a society approach this mens issue with compassion and understanding and work towards bettering the lives of all people regardless of gender?”.

    • Posted July 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

      You’re not here to learn, you’re here to recite the clever little quotes you heard some MRA invent, that are supposed to convert feminists to mens rights activists. That’s probably why you mentioned Hilary when she was in no way relevant.

      You don’t really fit in here. You should try manboobz.com, noseriouslywhatabouttehmenz, i dont know, somewhere else where men can hug each other and say “I personally didn’t shoot women, can I get hugs and a cookie and some praise and maybe a blowjob and an apology, and please stop talking about shootings as if they’re gendered?”

  6. Posted July 28, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the idea that we and society should be analyzing the sources of male violence and its prevalence. I wish for the day to come soon rather than defaulting to stricter gun laws.

    As a young woman who is very familiar with the numbers, especially the violence on women, I own and enjoy knowing how to operate a firearm. Until the violence is addressed properly and I feel it my best option at self protection. Taking that away from me will only perpetuate the problem allowing patriarchy to thrive.

  7. Posted July 28, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    For millennia, human society has struggled with what to do with young men’s violent tendencies.

    I don’t know about “human society.” There have been a lot of human societies during the existence of the species.

    But I do know about Western societies, and I know that men are trained from birth to be violent. Violence is presented as a socially approved way to assert one’s masculinity, and in many subcultures it is seen as a required response to certain situations.

    That is, the kind of violence we’re talking about is mostly done by males because it is males who are trained to do it and who are trained to believe that being violent is an essential part of their identity.

    What’s more, the idea of mass violence as a “solution”, or at least an appropriate and satisfying (and glorious!) response to sufficient provocation, is a common trope in movies and the like. (But they don’t show the depressing and decidedly unsatisfying aftermath.) You don’t have to ask where the guy got the idea from. Again, exclusively done by males (and in entertainment targeted at males.)

    One thing I didn’t see mentioned: I’m told that (in the USA) mass murderers and serial murderers are not only almost exclusively male, they are also almost exclusively white.

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