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.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Sam L-L

    Excellent post, full of good insights compellingly expressed.

  • Cade DeBois

    The idea that the role of gender isn’t a factor in violence because some women commit violent acts is a rationalization and a denial of why most women who commit violence do so. It can be argued they commit violence because they live in a male-dominant society where violence committed by men is common and often regarded as a means of control and an expression of dominance. In other words, women commit violence because violence is powerful currency for our society’s most privileged gender–men. And for some desperate women, violence may seem like the only path out of terrible situations that are too often caused by male privilege (if not male violence specifically, like domestic abuse). They may see committing violence as the only way in this male-dominant society that will let them claim any power over their lives, and of course, usually leads to them being disproportionately punished for doing what only men are suppose do (compare prison sentences of women guilty of killing men [~15 yrs] vs men killing women [5 yrs or less]).

    So the idea of that masculinity and male privilege doesn’t factor into violence committed by women is a non-starter.

    The disparity of prison sentences between women who kill vs men who kill says so much: for men, such violence is seen as natural, while for women, it’s abnormal and therefore more threatening. It doesn’t matter that men kill at a much higher rate. It’s natural, therefore not an issue. The woman who is battered by a violent partner until she is driven to despair and rage–that’s what we as a society should fear. Not the man who thinks because he lost his job, he can go to his former workplace and shoot his coworkers. Not the man who thinks the government has too much power, so he parks a truck full of timed explosives in front of the government building and then walks away. Not the man who fears he’s losing his mind, so he shoots his mother and then goes to a tower on a college campus and begins shooting complete strangers. Not the man who is angry at how his college classmates are richer and more privileged than him, so he loads himself up with assault weapons one day and goes on a campus killing spree. Not the teenage boys who resent being bullied and marginalized from the kinds of roles popular boys have in school cliques, so they go shoot their classmates and teachers and try to detonate homemade bombs they also brought to increase the casualties.

    I think anyone can understand a women who kills an abuser after a prolonged period of abuse. Or the desperately mentally ill women who, after society and the mental health system has failed her, kills her children in a psychotic state. We may not approve of it, we may be horrified by it, but at least there’s a comprehensible cause and effect there. But what we see in these mass shootings over and over again as a distorted sense of privilege–a privilege that says, “I’m hurting, I’m being treated unfairly, so others need to pay with their lives.”

    Show me the list of women who commit violence like that. Show me. Please. Show me how women can possess that distorted sense of privilege on the scale and the number that men apparently have, that distorted sense of privilege that says, if I’m treated wrongly somehow, if I’m not happy with my life, if I don’t like the government, if I lose my job, if other people are richer than me, I get to think society owes me and that killing others as payback is an option for me.

  • ELot

    Well said.

    For an in-depth and life changing look into how the ubiquitousness of male violence around the world has shaped female psychology, read Loving to Survive by Dee Graham.

  • zara

    I am so tired of journalists writing that we are all culpable for what happened at Sandy Hook, that it is some how all our faults, that we have to “own” what happened somehow. Whatever happened to personal responsibility? The young man gunned down 20 children. No one else did it for him. Let’s blame him, and not shift the blame onto “society,” as if complaining about society’s evils hasn’t been the refrain of every generation since the dawn of mankind.

    • Sam L-L

      I think framing the issue in terms of personal responsibility and assigning blame is satisfying, but is unlikely to solve the problem. Systematic problems require systematic solutions.

  • honeybee

    I disagree. The people doing these acts are clearly mentally ill and deranged. It isn’t as-if all men are doing this or are capable of it. Only a select few.

    Also in the newspaper today – this very day – is a story of a 16 year old female who planned to do a similar mass shooting at her school (again she was mentally ill). Only difference is the police stopped her before she could do it. So to me mental illness is the common element not the sex of the individual.

  • honeybee

    Another relevant factor is that men’s biology is different then women. They have much more testosterone which causes aggression. Throughout human history they were the fighters and hunters and warriors – it’s ingrained in male DNA is a way that far exceeds women. It isn’t just social conditions – biology has ALOT to do with it.

    • Marlene

      So, as someone who has experienced life with hormone balances in the “normal male” range and the “normal female” range, I can posit authoritatively: Nuh Uh!

    • Sam L-L

      If your hypothesis is that the cause of mass shootings is fundamentally biological, we would predict to see roughly equal rates (on a per-population basis) between different societies. I don’t think that is the case, is it? I don’t have data on hand but my understanding is that the mass shooting rate is considerably higher in the United States than other highly developed countries?

      If anything this also stands in contradiction to your other good point, which is that these acts are committed by only a few – surely these shooters and I have very similar biologies, but our aggressive tendencies are worlds apart.

  • smash

    “male violence is the water we swim in.”


  • Brüno

    Men are too large of a group to tackle that problem. Too vague. You might as well talk of humanism. Talking about gender makes sense when a large portion of the population might be affected by gendering, like when all the girls are told from a young age to wear pink and are given dolls to play with regardless of what they want.

    But mass shooters are such a tiny fraction of the population, talking about gender and gendering does nothing. Its like talking about female murders and say we need to talk about femininity.

  • somali

    I think the main problem with discussing male privilege and masculinity is the backlash with which we are faced once we speak it. The denial, the attacks, the false data, the woman hating. All of it stops women in their daily lives from really exploring violence, from expressing their views on it and discussing the implications of it. I see women who do not want to upset their sons or husbands. I see women who do not want to be labelled a man hating feminazi. I see women who do not want to be put down and called out with bull shit “facts” from guys on their life. The ultra defensive attitude that permeates regular every day life is what stops the conversation from going as far as it should to prevent some devastation in our nation. Show me a group of “regular guys” working in “regular life” not super progressives and ill show you a group of men who will get so defensive about masculinity and violence, it will make you want to shut up too. (although I never have, never do and never will)