men, masculinities and gender politics

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Booze, bravado and male honour make for a culture of violence

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Australians this week have grieved over the death of cricketer David Hookes, assaulted outside a Melbourne pub. This tragedy should bring into relief the fact that violent assaults occur outside pubs and clubs around Australia every weekend.

Hookes allegedly was assaulted by a young bouncer. But it would be a mistake to understand the kind of violence David Hookes suffered only in terms of thuggish bouncers. Nor should it be reduced to the targeting of famous sportsmen. His death is also one, senseless, example of a wider pattern of male-on-male violence which plagues licensed premises and other public places.

Violent confrontations, brawls and even deaths are a feature of pub life. According to a study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, more than 1100 assaults at licensed premises in Sydney were reported to police between 1998 and 2000. Many occurred in or near pubs and clubs, and many were alcohol-related.

Male-on-male violence is the most common form of public violence. In the assaults at licensed premises reported in the Sydney study, 80 per cent of victims were male and 88 per cent of incidents involved an alleged offender who was male.

Men make up 61 per cent of all homicide victims and 56 per cent of all assault victims. And they are most at risk from other men.

Homicides involving a male victim and perpetrator are nearly five times as likely as other homicides to involve an alcohol-related altercation, the Australian Institute of Criminology says.

A minority of young male bouncers are responsible for some of the violence. But most is perpetrated by males with no formal connection to the venue.

Minor incidents can set off lethal violence. One man may spill another man’s drink or look for too long at his girlfriend. Men may swap insults, argue, or challenge each other’s strength or manhood. Homicides outside pubs and in the street are often the result of contests over male honour, according to a study of homicides in Victoria. Having an audience also contributes, with some men defending their honour in front of their mates.

A study of public violence in Sydney pubs, clubs and nightclubs found that violence is more likely in venues where there is a high proportion of males, and especially groups of males who are strangers; the venue is crowded, uncomfortable, or boring; more people are drunk; and the bouncers are edgy and aggressive.

Group drinking, being rowdy, breaking the rules, arguing and fighting are pleasurable forms of entertainment for some men. Most are not violent but some enjoy watching and engaging in disorderly behaviour and violence, and having power struggles with bouncers, staff and the police.

Women, too, are vulnerable. Young women surveyed in South Australian pubs said that they were subject to frequent sexual harassment and verbal abuse. Women also report that they’re often blamed for these because they are drinking.

There are obvious steps that licensed premises and state governments can take. Licensed premises should enforce liquorlaws, especially to do with serving intoxicated people; require responsible behaviour among staff and clientele; have physical environments which limit frustration and stress, and work with community groups to promote public safety. Governments should encourage accountable codes of practice among pubs and clubs, tighten the regulation and training of security staff, and enforce codes of practice where self-regulation fails.

Yet these steps will not be enough. As long as a culture of aggression and male honour persists, violence will continue to happen, and men (and women) will be injured and killed. Violence experienced by women has received widespread public attention, and rightly so. But the routine violence between men is rarely the subject of public debate. The good news is that traditional definitions of manhood, based on bravado and aggression, seem to be declining. With the rise of “sensitive new age guys”, involved fathers and even “metrosexuals”, we’re seeing a shift to a more peaceful and respectful male role. But too many men are still caught up in the fiction that you have to be “10 feet tall and bulletproof” to be a real man.

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald, January 23, 2004.