Masculinity & Violence, and the Violence of Masculinity

Mass shootings have become a regular part of our news cycle. Research shows that there are more of them and that they have become more deadly over time. They’re horrifically senseless tragedies, and the aftermath follows what has become a well-worn path. We come together to mourn the loss of life, we collectively grieve for the victims, families, and communities, we get the generic “thoughts and prayers” statement from political leaders, and we all try to make sense of why it happened. We learn a lot about the killers, less about the killed, and the most clicked stories are those that attempt to make an argument about motive.

This month, the most recent mass shooting (as of November 15th, 2017) was committed in Northern California by Kevin Neal. He killed his wife before going on a multi-site shooting spree, killing people seemingly at random. Less than a week prior, Devin Kelley walked into a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas wearing black tactical clothing. He had on a ballistic vest, and armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle he opened fire. He killed 26 people, among them an 18-month old child. And he did it with a gun that he’d used as his Facebook profile image. Just one month prior, in October of 2017, Stephen Paddock blew out the window of his high-rise hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip and opened—fire with a collection of similar weapons—on thousands of people attending a music concert, killing 59 people and injuring over 500 others.

In the meantime, we learned of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults that span generations of women in Hollywood. We learned about the great lengths he went to keep his victims silent and of the collusion necessary to pull this off. The Weinstein scandal fell on the heels of news of the serial sexual assaults committed by Bill Cosby. And as survivors came forward to tell their stories, other high-power men across all manner of political, economic, and cultural life have been identified as serially and criminally abusive. And all of this is happening in the United States, a society who elected as president a man with a long history of sexual harassment and assault.

All of these events transpired when the full story of Tim Piazza’s death during a fraternity hazing ritual at Penn State in February of 2017 was reported. Footage shows Tim’s desperate battle for life, surrounded by a collection of young men—his new “brothers”—who either ignored or further injured Tim while he was dying. Had they simply taken Tim to a hospital, doctors testified, he very well could have lived. A grand jury report recommended over 1,000 separate criminal charges against the 18 fraternity brothers and the social organization itself.

The sheer number of moral crises that men are producing is tough to keep up with. If you care about these issues, you have to continually shift your focus from sexual assault, to fraternity hazing, to mass shootings, and on and on and on. Lately, it feels as if we have to consider a new moral outrage almost daily. And in the tumult, it can appear as though these crimes are unrelated. But they’re not.

In 2016, sociologist Lisa Wade drew a connection between the high profile sexual assault by Brock Turner and Omar Mateen’s mass shooting at Pulse night club, and she came to a similar conclusion. These are disparate events and we’re not suggesting they are the same crime or have had equivalent impacts or consequences. But sociologists identify patterns; it’s what we do. And the pattern here is the same as Wade suggested last year. The people committing these acts exist across our society, but they share something in common—they’re men heavily invested in a really toxic idea: masculinity. “The problem,” as Wade put it, “is men’s investment in masculinity itself.”

Masculinity, as it is currently constructed, relies on a sense of superiority and enactments of dominance. Political scientist Cynthia Enloe argues that men continue to abuse power and people (women in particular) because of what she calls the “sustainability of patriarchy.” And as Tristan and C.J. Pascoe argue, systems of inequality as durable and adaptive as gender inequality are so pernicious precisely because of this quality—this “sustainability.” Men’s collective investment in masculinity, that is, is a social problem.

Men heavily invested in demonstrating masculinity commit the gross majority of violence across our society and around the world. In Wade’s more recent essay on masculinity in the era of Donald Trump, she suggests that part of how we ended up with a president wreaking havoc across the globe is that “we have been too delicate in our treatment of dangerous ideas.” “The problem,” Wade argues, “is not toxic masculinity; it’s that masculinity is toxic… It’s simply not compatible with liberty and justice for all.”

Perhaps we should consider being a bit more indelicate. We need to stop trying to redefine what men turn to when they feel the need to “man up.” There’s something deeply male-supremacist about the whole discourse surrounding “real men,” “manning up,” and the like no matter how it’s deployed. There’s a divide among scholars studying masculinity as to whether there are elements worth salvaging or not. How we can help men achieve “healthy masculinities” is the focus of a great deal of social scientific research, social work, and social justice activism. It’s time now to find ways of asking men to “man down.”

Donald Trump, Stephen Paddock, Devin Kelley, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, the fraternity brothers of Tim Piazza, Omar Mateen, Louis C.K., Brock Turner, Mike Oreskes, Dylann Roof, Clarence Thomas, Elliot Rodger, Seung-Hui Cho, Roy Moore… The list goes on and on and on. It’s not that we are failing to identify these men as part the worst humanity has to offer. It’s that we seem to continue to collectively fail to identify them as part of something larger than any of these men individually. Each of these perpetrators is most often framed as a bad individual, rather than identifying them as the worst parts of a toxic system. But masculinity isn’t just a part of this system; it is this system.

Sociologists studying gender don’t need reminding that the horrific enactments of violence discussed here are the work of men. Whether masculinity is something we should consider salvageable or bankrupt ought to inform our scholarship and our politics. And on these issues, we’re with Wade. Masculinity is the malignant tissue connecting these seemingly disparate events. It’s time to man down.


*A version of this essay originally appeared in the ASA Sex and Gender Section (November 2017) newsletter.