The Trouble With Men

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In all the analysis of the recent massacre at Virginia Tech, one essential ingredient has been ignored: the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, was male.

In fact, more than 90 per cent of mass murderers, serial killers, rapists, child molesters and domestic violence perpetrators are male. This violence is not natural or inherent, and can be stopped. However, neither these kinds of massacres nor the alarming level of men’s violence towards women and children will stop until men accept that it is their responsibility to prevent it.

Cho’s personality, mental health, academic writing, ethnicity, school background and access to weapons have all been analysed some would say overanalysed. But I have yet to see one politician, criminologist, law officer or media commentator discuss his gender.

This is despite the fact that more than 95 per cent of massacres in schools and universities have been committed by men, from Andrew Kehoe killing 44 people in a 1927 school bombing to the massacres at Montreal, Dunblane, Sanaa, Columbine, Osaka and Erfurt.

If it had been a woman who gunned down 32 people and then herself, her gender would be a central part of the narrative how a woman ended up a killer, betraying the sex that ‘gives life, not takes it away’ and other such clichés. Female violence attracts attention because it is an anomaly and is therefore more shocking. Male violence (other than when it involves massacres or serial killings) attracts comparatively less attention because it has been normalised; and on most occasions, fails to shock.

Imagine if our society was divided into two equally represented ethnicities and one committed more than 90 per cent of the violent crime. Judging by the reaction to the over-representation of Indigenous men in violent crime statistics, ethnicity would be front and centre and the subject of much debate.

In December 1989, Marc Lépine roamed through the buildings at the University of Montreal, calling out, ‘Bring me the women! I want the women!’ In each room, he separated the women from the men and shot them. He slaughtered 14 young women in total before killing himself. Australian singer/songwriter Judy Small wrote a song about it which asks essential but mostly ignored questions:

And don’t you wonder why, as you try to make sense of this,
Why is it always men who resort to the gun, the sword and the fist?
Why does ‘gunman’ sound so familiar while ‘gunwoman’ doesn’t quite ring true?
What is it about men that makes them do the things they do?

What is it about men? Why are we so much more likely to murder, to rape women, children and other men, and to assault partners we are meant to love?

These questions lead to the age-old ‘nature-versus-nurture debate.’ Is masculinity and its associated behaviours socially constructed and changeable over time? Or biologically innate and historically constant? Or do we have multiple masculinities due to variations in upbringing or biology?

The ‘nature’ argument is a cop out. Men are not genetically or hormonally more likely to be violent than women. We have the physical size and strength to be able to use violence more successfully, but we individually choose to use violence.

There is nothing more pathetic than a man saying he ‘couldn’t help it,’ as though he somehow slipped on a banana peel when he murdered, raped or assaulted someone. Or that his committing rape had something to do with an uncontrollable sexual urge. Rape, like murder, is an active choice, an expression of power, control and hate. No one ‘makes’ you do it.

Like many violent men, Cho Seung-Hui blamed others for his impending massacre. ‘You forced me into a corner,’ he said, in a widely-quoted video message he mailed to NBC News. His ‘manifesto’ tried to justify his actions through the behaviour of others:

You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.

One of the idealised traits of manhood, as constructed in our society, is the ability to be objective, logical, unswayed by emotional considerations. This includes the ability to be objective about other people that is, to treat them as objects rather than confuse oneself by viewing them as people with their own thoughts and feelings.

It is hard to shoot someone even for a ‘worthy cause’ if you spare too much thought for their families and loved ones. Again, Cho followed the pattern of many violent men by objectifying and dehumanising his victims.

Thanks to Inkcinct

Other consequences of objectification have been commented on in relation to pornography. It is argued that the demeaning and objectifying portrayal of women and children in pornography assists men in committing the horrific level of violence towards women and children.

The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that, every year, 10 per cent of Australian women will experience at least one incident of physical and/or sexual violence by a man. More than half (57 per cent) report experiencing at least one incident of physical or sexual violence by a man over their lifetime. Just less than half (48 per cent) have experienced physical violence, and one-third (34 per cent) have experienced sexual violence.

Add male violence towards children and we have a social epidemic.

And yet, male violence will not be an election issue this year. There will be little mainstream (or alternative) media coverage focusing on violence as a gendered issue. There will continue to be insufficient funding for academic analysis, provision of counseling services and violence prevention programs. This is despite an Access Economics study estimating that domestic violence alone costs the Australian economy $8 billion each year.  

It has been women, particularly women involved in feminist movements, who have done the most to draw attention to male violence against women and children highlighting the issues, forcing legal changes and demanding services. And they have been fought every step of the way. Recently, so-called men’s rights and ‘family values’ advocates have even attempted to wind back the clock by challenging some of these hard-won gains.

Male violence against women will never be prevented until it is reframed as an issue that affects men as much as it does women. Male violence is a men’s issue: some men do it, most men allow it and men as a whole have the power in our society to eliminate it. La Trobe University’s Michael Flood writes:

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Violence against women is a ‘men’s issue’ because it is men’s wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends whose lives are limited by violence and abuse. It’s a men’s issue because, as community leaders and decision-makers, men can play a key role in helping stop violence against women. It’s a men’s issue because men can speak out and step in when male friends and relatives insult or attack women And of course, violence is men’s problem because sometimes we have used violence ourselves.

Flood has been central in establishing White Ribbon Day in Australia, which encourages men to wear white ribbons on November 25, the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Wearing a white ribbon signifies the wearer does not support or condone the use of violence against women or children.

T he last thing we need is hordes of self-congratulatory men saying ‘of course I don’t support violence against women and kids’ or, in the words of the Painters and Dockers song, ‘All men are bastards except me.’ Wearing a white ribbon should mean taking responsibility for the attitudes, actions and inactions that contribute to sexism and male violence.

White Ribbon Day aims to reposition male violence as men’s responsibility through a media-based educational campaign. In 2006, the campaign focused on fathers, encouraging them to get involved for the sake of their daughters.

A US organisation called Dads and Daughters works similarly, helping men build better relationships with their daughters while involving them in creating a less sexist and violent society for their daughters to grow up in. It is this mixture of personal and political, self-interest and altruism, which will minimise and prevent male violence in the longer term.

The good news is that most men do not fit the constructed and often idealised archetype of competitive, aggressive and objectifying masculinity. It is a minority of men who are violent and treat women and children with contempt. It is up to the majority of men to help create a culture in which this is unacceptable.

Until then, we can expect more men to follow in the bloody footsteps of Cho Seung-Hui.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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