Gender and Violence through a Hegemonic Masculinity Lens: A Reflection from South Africa

I have often asked myself: “Why do boys/men fight and why are they so violent -when compared to women?” , “Why do boys/men have to rape women?” and “How does society reinforce and maintain notions of boy/manhood”.

Critical Men’s Studies fundamentally argues that there is no essence of masculinity and femininity which makes men and women behave in very different ways, rather it assumes that masculinities and femininities are constructed in relation to each other, even when there are no gendered ‘Others’ around. This position further challenges the tendency in patriarchal cultures that take males for granted as universal subjects and construct woman as the gendered others. Instead it focus on men as gendered beings and explore gendered power dynamics, addressing masculinities and femininities as relational opposites, enacted and performed through every forms of interaction imbued with power. Masculinities are complex and multifaceted.  In attempting to understand Gender – and in particular, masculinities – and how it relates to Violence and Crime, I have come across a variety of theories, and found Raewyn Connell’s notion of various forms of masculinities – particularly ‘Hegemonic Masculiniies’ most useful for this purpose.

Raewyn Connell work on Hegemonic Masculinities and how it plays out in society, albeit western centric, argues that masculinities are socialised, dynamic (ie: it changes over time) and influenced by social groups and friendship circles . Masculinity (and masculinities) are shaped by various social institutions such as: the Family; Religion, Communities; Education institutions (ie: Schools and Universities); The Work place.  Hegemonic masculinity is believed to be the emphasis on dominance/ leadership/control rooted in power and authority. Hegemonic masculinity brings to the fore the flaunting of sexual prowess, homophobia (misogyny and gender policing), compulsory heterosexuality, anti-authoritarian (and testing out) behaviour, emphasising physical strength (ie: muscles) and assertiveness. It is argued that hegemonic masculinities is what is evident and promoted in society, contending that ‘softer’ masculinities marginalised and condemned – even leading to social exclusion.

At the heart of this argument is the fact that in a typical patriarchal society, men do not only exercise power, control and dominance ‘over’ woman, but [weaker] men can also be subjected to this form of subordination. Control and/or authority status may be linked to age, size, class, and affiliation with social clubs/gangs, etc. Hegemonic males may victimise and stigmatise (or and even exclude) those males perceived to be weak[er]. Perceived weakness may include ones inability to have and control a girl-friend/partner, to smoke cigarettes and consume alcohol, or in other contexts not engaging in antisocial and deviant behaviour such as fighting and swearing.

When looking at [Gender Based] Violence through this lens, it becomes evident that men – in typical patriarchal societies – are of the view that they own women, and that sexual intimacy with their partners are owed to them. In many instances this leads to domestic violence and even rape. This ‘authority over’ could also manifest itself through men-to-men interaction, in the form of subordinating other men who are [perceived] weaker -usually leading to violence and at times murder.

Interestingly, Violence has become synonymous with Men and Boys. It is obviously not without reason that this has become the order the of day. So much so that female offenders [and generally woman who commit crime] were believed to be (until recently) a strange phenomenon. This could most possibly be due to how patriarchal societies have constructed woman – as pure and clean, the mother of our [men's] children, and ‘God-fearing’. I would go as far as to suggest that woman’s sexuality has been politicised, to the extant that, if woman were known to behave other than what I have just described, such would threatened their [good] reputation and possibly fertility.

Men on the other hand plays by a different set of rules. It is constructed as being manly to consume alcohol, go to bars, to curse and to fight -if the need arose. In fact men were praised when they fought, and if they won, would received a standing ovation – or a drink ‘on the house’. This behaviour, however, should not be viewed in isolation. Men are groomed from when they are children to ‘fight [back]‘ when they are bullied, and when they face opposition. Of concern to me is when this behaviour becomes destructive, and when it becomes a pandemic. In many countries the alpha male’s -the hegemonic masculinity – desire to dominate and fight has led to war, following famine and societies in political crisis.

South Africa, for example, is regarded as one of the world most violent countries. Im of the opinion that our history of colonisation and apartheid which lasted for more than 400 years permeates our new dispensation. Even though the first democratically elected president, of the black majority party, the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela preached reconciliation and forgiveness after spending a combined 27 years in prison, South African continues to be unsafe, particularly in poorer urban (such as townships) and rural communities.

Of particular concern has been the nature of violent and interpersonal crimes, which includes: homicide and rape. Woman and children remain at high risk of becoming victims of either sexual violence and/or abuse. A South Police Service (SAPS) report leased in September 2011, suggested that in South Africa, on average, 7 woman were murdered a day between March 2010 and March 2011, further suggesting that at least half of those reported, could be have perpetrated by intimate partners.The rates of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and the general abuse and sexual harassment of woman in the domestic space by their partners, are particularly alarming. It is widely established that Rape is mostly perpetrated  by people known to the victims. In South Africa, for example, between 2008 and 2011 there has been a steady increase of reported rape cases- from just over 54 000 to just over 56 000 rape cases reported respectively.

Why then, I ask, Is rape (and violent crime in general) this high?

Well, many have attempted to answer this question, and no simple answer exist. I would propose that we look at how men are constructed and how [patriarchal] society reinforces violent forms of masculinities. Only then, i believe, would we be able to understand WHY Men abuse, rape and subordinate others (both men and women). What we should also consider is that Men do not only subordinate woman – as popular feminism has it – but they also subordinate other men constructed as lesser men [weaker] through misogynic and homophobic tendencies.

This debate is in no way concluded. This post merely opens the discussion.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work, majoring in Industrial Sociology at the University of Cape Town in 2010. I Then went on to study towards a Master of Philosophy – specializing in Criminal Justice at the Centre for Criminology, housed in the Law Faculty– with a thesis titled: “Exploring the victimization of Homeless Street Youth: A Muizenberg case study”, graduating in June 2012. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology from Stellenbosch University, exploring intersections between Race, Gender and Education. I am particularly passionate about exploring constructions of “Blackness and Colouredness” in South Africa. My PhD topic is titled “Working Class Coloured Masculinities and Schooling: an Ethnographic study on how Coloured boys construct their identities and negotiate relationships in a working class public school in Cape Town”. My research interests includes: The Sociology Youth and Education, Social and Community development, Causes of Crime and Deviance, Gender Based Violence, The Socio-Political Economy of Southern Africa, HIV/AIDS Education, Applied Leadership theories, and lastly, exploring the construction(s) Gender with particular reference to Masculinities and Femininities.

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