We should be talking about masculinity and violence after the Sandy Hook shooting and every day

Most violence is committed by men and there is nothing inevitable about that.

Let’s talk about violence and masculinity. In a post earlier this week, Amy argued that since women are sometimes perpetrators, focusing on masculinity can only take us so far in understanding violence, gun violence, and mass shootings in particular. But, in my opinion, a deeper analysis of masculinity would take us farther than basically anything else–and it’s a conversation that’s not happening.

The fact that “women are perpetrators of gun violence, too” is undeniably true. And certainly, “masculinity”–as a loosely defined and incredibly broad concept–can’t adequately “explain” mass shootings, or violence more generally, any more than anything else can.

Which is really what the entire country is desperately hoping to do in the aftermath of a tragedy like this—to collectively find some framework to understand, and so be able to “fix,” the problem. While that search for answers is not only natural but hugely important—we should be grappling with these big questions—the factors we identify probably say as much about our own fears and desires. Focusing on gun control is nice because it fulfills our need for a concrete solution. Calling for better access to mental health care lets us distance ourselves from the violence—convincing ourselves that if we could just help those “crazy people,” all would be well again.

To be clear: Stricter gun control and a better mental health care system are absolutely critical and would undeniable help prevent some cases of gun violence. This is just to say that every framework we turn to in order to understand the problem is inadequate. Because what we are talking about is a young man gunning down twenty 6-year-olds in their classroom. Really sitting with that fact–really staying in your heart–is nearly impossible. And recognizing that we collectively have to own this tragedy–that we are a nation that lets this happen over and over and over again–means admitting how profoundly we have failed ourselves and each other. It means admitting that there is a sickness in this culture that we don’t really know how to cure because it is so big, and the variables are so complex, and the horror is unimaginable.

In other words, nothing can “explain” this and yet talking about gun culture and mental health and masculinity is important, because these are all clearly part of the picture—and also what else can we do but start somewhere?

Except we’re not really talking about masculinity in a meaningful way. While there have certainly been some valuable contributions–mostly from folks who have been pushing for a conversation about mass shootings and gender for years–in the mainstream media, gender is only rarely mentioned alongside gun culture and mental illness as one of the many factors we should be analyzing. And when the gender disparity amongst mass murderers is addressed, it is usually in a shallow or counterproductive way. We may talk about the shooters being “men,” even “young white men,” but we do not offer an analysis of masculinity.

This is, of course, how privilege works. As the dominant group, men’s gender is rendered invisible. And in the case of the white men who compose the majority of mass shooters–particularly school shootings–their race is invisible as well. As Jackson Katz writes, “Men are every bit as gendered as women.” But we have a really hard time seeing men as gendered beings.

But it’s not just that: I think another reason we seem incapable of understanding the role of gender when it comes male violence is that violence and masculinity are so intimately intertwined it’s nearly impossible to separate them enough to actually see the connections. And because male violence is the water we swim in. The fact that 61 out of 62 mass murders which happened over the past 30 years were committed by men is not considered particularly noteworthy because, in a country where 95 percent of violent crime is committed by men, it’s not noteworthy. It is expected. We’ll assume the shooter is a man unless told otherwise and then we’ll be surprised.

Can we talk about how fucked up that is for a just a second, please? Because we don’t talk about it–or if we do, we talk as if it’s somehow inevitable. We accept essentialist beliefs about the genders and consider it “natural” that men are aggressive and women are nurturing, and so–while we hope that community norms and social conditioning will keep men’s “natural tendencies” towards violence in check–we are in no way surprised that when those checks fail, those who turn violent are overwhelmingly men.

That is exactly backwards. The social conditioning that happens is in the reverse. We teach men to be aggressive. We teach them that is the very essence of “being a man.” We say that women are supposed to be caring and compassionate and we tell men not to be like women–to be anything but a “girl.” We teach men that anger is the only acceptable emotion for them to express–and violence is an appropriate way of expressing it. We police their masculinity in a million small ways every day from the time they are even younger than the children who died in Sandy Hook. In Katz’s words: “We socialize empathy out of boys all the time.”

And then we act as though this state of affairs is natural–as though the rules of masculinity are ordained and not systematically enforced. It’s not. There is nothing inevitable about the fact that 95 percent of violent crime in this country is committed by men.

But we have a hard time seeing that, because male aggression is naturalized. Yes, if it goes too far, it will be considered deviant, crazy, inhuman, evil. But to a point, it’s expected. As Michael Kimmel notes, in a sense, the young men who’ve committed mass murder aren’t “deviants, but over-conformists to norms of masculinity that prescribe violence as a solution.”

So, sure, some women commit violence. But I’d argue that, to some extent, all violence is “about” masculinity in our culture. Male violence is so pervasive–and violence so closely connected to our definition of “manhood”–that I don’t think it’s possible to separate them. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and so female violence necessarily happens vis a vis male violence–as a reflection or a reaction or an exception that proves the rule.

This much is clear from the way we respond to female violence: It’s why when two women fight, it’s a “cat fight” instead of just a fight. It’s why aggression in women is considered pathological–the most unfeminine thing one can do. It’s why we are somehow more horrified when mothers–who are supposed to be perfect embodiments of loving womanhood–become murderers. The stories of female violence can’t be told without talking about masculinity, either.

We’re not talking about masculinity nearly enough. Not in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting. Not on every other day of the year when 34 people on average are killed by gun violence. And we’re not talking about it in the way that we should be. As Eesha wrote in the aftermath of the Aurora shooting, “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.”

Talking about masculinity doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that violence doesn’t always have a male face. It means recognizing that there’s nothing natural or inevitable about the fact that the vast majority of the time it does.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation