We will never address gun violence if we don’t address the root of the problem: masculinity

If we don’t talk about how masculinity creates and enables violent men, we will never be able to truly address gun violence.

Violent and troubled people tend to idolize other violent and troubled people. After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed one teacher and 12 fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado, their fans, calling themselves “Columbiners,” developed a presence on Tumblr. Many of them expressed a desire to “outdo Harris and Klebold” — indeed, violent and troubled people also tend to emulate the behaviors of other violent and troubled people. Only a couple of years after Columbine, Charles Williams, the Santana High School shooter, announced he was going to “pull a Columbine,” before shooting two of his fellow students and injuring 13 others.

While social media may not be responsible for violence, it does allow violent and troubled people to connect more easily with others like them, and makes it easier for them to find content relating to guns, knives, and gore. Nikolas Cruz, who murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day, certainly benefited from his ability to both share and access such content. His Instagram was filled with pictures of guns, pictures of himself posing with guns, and targets with bullet holes in them.

But because social conditioning goes beyond social media, it is necessary to also analyze societal and cultural expectations in order to determine how and why people become violent. We have already begun to try to address the role guns and gun culture play in these mass shootings. In the wake of the Nicholas Cruz shooting, many corporations are ending their partnerships with the NRA; marches and school walk-outs are taking place across America; members of the electorate are forcing conversations on gun control, using the power of their votes; and discussions surrounding mental health and the ability of law enforcement to recognize potential warning signs of violent behavior are taking place. But while cutting a weed may stifle its parasitic behavior temporarily, its elimination can only be ensured by pulling it out at its roots. While ensuring that violent, troubled people cannot access guns, and educating the public on how to spot indicators of violence may hack away at the gargantuan weed that is gun violence,  in order to attack the true root of that violence, our focus must shift from violent and troubled people to men.

Approximately 98 per cent of all mass shootings in the United States are committed by men. According to the Department of Justice, 82.6 per cent of all gun homicides between 1980 and 2008 were committed by men. James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, was correct when he told CNN that “murder is a man’s crime.” Unfortunately, men hardly limit themselves to murder. The FBI reported that, in 2014, approximately 80 per cent of individuals who were arrested for a violent crime were male.

Indeed, violent behavior is a predominantly male characteristic. Why is it that men commit such a disproportionately large share of violent crimes? It is possible that the answer to this question lies within another: why do people commit acts of violence at all?

Psychologist Clark McCauley sorts aggression and violence into two categories: impulsive aggression and instrumental aggression. Impulsive aggression is characterized by strong emotions, while instrumental aggression is typically used as a means to an end. Impulsive aggression is certainly more common, and is especially associated with anger. Anger typically arises as a result of a perceived moral violation, especially in instances of “perceived infringements of authority or independence, or other threats to positive self-image.” It can also be present when a sort of physical danger is perceived. Essentially, anger is used in an effort to supplant (however ineffectively) other emotions, like fear and sadness. Indeed, it can be a very confusing emotion, and the inability to think one’s way through feelings of anger can be extremely destructive. As animals, though, when we perceive a threat to our safety, we are not inclined to think. Rather, we are inclined to act on our emotional impulses, and, if we are unable or unwilling to control our anger, we lash out in violent ways.

While much of men’s violence is premeditated, society lets men off the hook for their behaviour most-often because we have taught one another that they can’t control themselves. If we assume that people commit acts of violence because they are unable to control their impulses and emotions, it is easy to excuse men’s violence, as they are rarely expected to control themselves. Gender roles, which are forced on children from the moment their sex is known, require women to maintain an intense, even artificial control over themselves while simultaneously relieving men of any such duties. If a woman does not wear makeup or shave her legs or perfectly maintain her hair, she is seen as deviating from the ideal image of her sex. If she doesn’t restrict her diet in order to stay thin, she is seen as lazy, sloppy, and inadequate — as having “let herself go” (i.e. lost control over herself — a decidedly unfeminine quality). All a man must do to meet basic expectations of his gender, however, is bathe regularly, cut his hair, and trim his nails.

Studies show that, though girls are given more household chores than boys, those who receive an allowance get less than boys. Girls are expected to be “ladylike,” which is generally defined as being “polite” and “having good manners,” yet there is no corresponding expectation for men. Indeed, the phrase “boys will be boys” implies that the exact opposite set of behaviors is expected of males.

These gendered behavioral boundaries extend beyond childhood and adolescence. In heterosexual relationships, men are frequently permitted to treat women as though they exist for men. This idea is so normalized, in fact, that many do not even recognize it as out of the ordinary. Male treatment of women in relationships is seen as a result of their evolutionary and biological programming; their supposed lack of impulse control and egocentric behaviour excused as innate. This is all strengthened by the lax social expectations which shapes their behavior as children, perpetuating the same culture that taught them to act on their impulses without forethought. Similarly, the expectation that women be “ladylike” — or, rather, quiet and submissive — teaches women to stifle the uncomfortable emotions that arise because of a negative social, romantic, or sexual encounter with a man. Men act on their impulses because they are not expected to control them, and women suppress their discomfort and anger because they are.

This mindset has dark implications for women who are partnered with men. One out of every four women will experience severe violence at the hands of a partner in her life, and one out of every six women will be the victim of an attempted (or successful) rape in her life. Approximately 98 per cent of individuals arrested for rape are male. Unfortunately, many women who are abused by their (typically male) partners stay with them, and the vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. Of course, men are let off the hook in much more simple ways than this. Men frequently make sexually inappropriate comments towards women that go unpunished, are not subject to the same standards of dress in school and at work that women are, and are hardly expected to participate in child-rearing or domestic labour whatsoever. The often joked about “useless husband/father” trope is unfortunately representative of how many men actually behave, and how many women accept this infantile behavior. Our standards for males are incredibly low, and that is incredibly dangerous.

As long as our current expectations remain the same, as long as we render boys and men exempt from the concept of self-control, nothing will change. Male violence will continue because its roots remain firmly in place. If we do not change our expectations, there will always be another Nikolas Cruz. There will always be another male who commits an act of extreme violence because he was neither expected nor taught to control himself. It is necessary to talk about gun control and mental health reform, and it is necessary to talk about violent and troubled people. If the problem of gun violence is one we would like to solve, however, then we must first discuss how masculinity creates violent and troubled men.

Morgan Amonett is a student living in Ohio.

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  • Simone Firestone

    Insightful, timely, and relevant, thank you for this article, Morgan.

  • Abby Amonett

    wow! this is a really good and super interesting take,,,, its cool that youre examining the root of the issue

  • Sabine Ehrenfeld

    I completely agree! Thank you for this powerful analysis

  • lk

    “Our focus must shift from violent and troubled people to men.”

    Preach!!!!

    I’m sooo over all this talk about violent “people”..the unwillingness of many mainstream commentators to speak on the common thread in most violent acts is incredibly frustrating.

    After any violent act (whether it be a school shooting, bombing, or terrorist attack, you’ll see articles discussing:
    -angry white men (usually with a sympathetic tone)
    -men who don’t get laid/were picked on (also with a sympathetic tone)
    -Muslim/black/Hispanic/immigrant (usually not so sympathetic tone)
    ..but I feel like many writers won’t talk about men as a class….

    Every time I hear about a male killing someone or multiple people with guns, I always wonder what would happen if every gun that belonged to a male in the US belonged to a woman? Imagine if for one year we could make this a reality….how many mass shootings would we see in the US? how many women would we see shot by a former/current partner? I’m willing to bet very few.

    From what I’ve read about research on female gun ownership in the US, females tend to treat guns far differently than men (ie., women look/use at guns as tools for self-defense/protection not as a way to prove their masculinity or whatever, women are more likely to keep their guns locked up).

    (Side note, this is the 2nd article that Ive seen by a new writer (correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember seeing Morgan Amonett’s name on here before) at FC and I love seeing the new writers on here!)

  • Polly MacDavid

    Fabulous article! Sharing!

  • Elizabeth

    This statement really stood out to me, “In heterosexual relationships, men are frequently permitted to treat women as though they exist for men.” My husband has stated on more than one occasion that he would feel really bad for me if I had to do all of the housework or was expected to cook for him every night. Some of his more chauvinistic friends expect this from their wives. The thing is it’s so much a part of our culture even in 2018.

  • Bleeps3

    Thank you so much(!) for pointing out that women and girls have emotions they don’t express, or that they repress, or don’t know how to handle in healthy ways. I’ve seen a lot of analysis of men and boys’ anger issues that assumes women are all innately able to understand and handle emotions and men aren’t. Or that it’s completely socially acceptable for girls and women to cry and express whatever they’re feeling. As if most girls grow up with emotionally available parents, school counselors, teachers, therapists or supportive friends, all willing to listen and help them understand and deal with their every thought and emotion. NOPE! Some of us don’t even know what we’re feeling or how to identify it as adults, let alone talk about it, most of the time, in fact. Girls and women are constantly invalidated about what they feel, constantly negatively reinforced for having emotions — the supposed female innate emotional genius is a pernicious stereotype and helps no one, including violent boys and men.

    • FierceMild

      Exactly. The social penalty for a boy crying is to be called a girl. The social penalty for a girl crying is that she’s confirmed the she – and all other girls – is weak, stupid, emotional, and inadequate.

  • Wren

    This is a great comment.
    I understand what you’re saying about male violence in general, but I’m curious about your thoughts on intimate partner violence and sexual violence. What do you think (as a man who has been socialized in a patriarchy but who has developed perspective) are the specific messages that men receive that enable them to commit acts of intimate violence? I believe that the solutions are found in the causes, but in many ways I can only theorize.

    • Danny

      “What do you think are the specific messages that men
      receive that enable them to commit acts of intimate violence?”

      1. Power/Control. Males are socialized that they should desire to have power over others and control those over whom they “rule.” The dominant masculine, capitalist culture conveys this messaging so effectively that many boys and men take it to sociopathic levels. Boys see this message very young from being disciplined by spanking, in sports, skewed/biased history lessons in school, religion, an abusive father, as just a few examples. And the message carries on in popular culture, movies, and on into the business world. One reason men are violent with their partners is to express their power and domination, and to control the behavior and thoughts of their partner to their liking.
      2. Entitlement. Males, especially white males, are brought up with various entitlements, and this is especially applicable to intimate relationships and marriage. From a young age, when boys are physically/emotionally/mentally hurt, they are socialized to seek comfort and care from females (mothers, sisters, teachers, etc.), taught that females are there to meet their needs and care for them. Sometimes their own family structure and division of labor teaches them gender roles that they expect of all women. Sometimes their religious beliefs reinforce this. I think that porn culture is a huge factor in socializing boys and men that they are entitled to sexual pleasure from intimate partners. With all that messaging over our lives, some males exert their demands for these entitlements or express grievance at being denied them through physical, emotional, and/or psychological violence.
      3. No Consequences. When men commit intimate partner violence, and reap the benefits they seek for themselves that I described, and there are no negative consequences or very little threat of negative consequences, it encourages them to do it again. I don’t really have specific messages to list here, but I think it’s a major factor in why men do it, and why they repeatedly do it.

      Those cover the major categories of messaging I can think of. I hope that satisfactorily answers your question, but if not, I apologize, please clarify and I would be happy to respond further. Thank you!

      • FierceMild

        Agree. I would also add that boys are taught to revile girls and to deny identifying with them at all until they actually don’t identify with girls at all.

        My daughter, who likes to keep her hair very short and dresses in the eclectic way 6 year olds will, observed to me yesterday that when people think she’s a boy (which happens a lot; any child not hosed down in pepto-bismal pink and wrapped in tulle is read as male) “they use their voices in a boy way and call me ‘bud'” and when they get the idea she’s a girl “they have a different voice, and angry eyes and they call me ‘princess’.” She was expressing that her behavior, which is highly energetic but not destructive, is seen as charming when people think she’s a boy and obnoxious when they know she’s a girl.

  • Po21

    Really interesting article. I think we never address men violence in society because we never question them. We just find excuses for them or blame it on something else. I worked with kids and I was shocked to see how much shit people, whether parents or teachers, could excuse with “boys will be boys”. Some 6 years old already told girls they were weak and stupid, he even treated women with disdain but was excused because he was smart at school. 2 brothers were always scaring younger kids. They were extremely mean but they were never punished. Yet when their cousin was with them, she was reprimended for being a trouble maker.
    “but he has a lot of energy”, he has difficulties expressing his emotions were also used a lot. Yet when a little girl started running in class or moved too much on her chair like the boys they get told to sit down. Apparently little girls dont have a lot of energy.

    The problem is it does not stop at childhood. Its the same as they grow older. I have seen lot of parents saying they will raise their daughter to be strong and independent. After Me too lots of people say they will teach their daughters to be careful. But i dont think I have seen one parent say they will raise their sons differently. Like you know, teach them not to rape, put stuff in girls drink, send dick pick, watch porn, post revenge porn, and i could go on. Apparently this is normal, because I havent seen one person say they will raise their sons to see women as human beings. Seems this shitty comportment is the norm. Like the article says, the bar is damn low for men.

    • shy virago

      what an important point: “I don’t think I have seen one parent say they will raise their sons differently”. This might actually change something. We continually blame the victim – the woman- and wonder why things don’t change.

  • Esther

    masculinity creates violent, troubled and MISOGYNIST men!

  • shy virago

    Absolutely! A group of women from my spiritual center started talking about this Sunday, but as soon things got lively (or heated), two of the women left. And the others changed the subject.

  • Kelan Fox

    Violence isn’t just taught as a means to resolve grievances. It’s taught as the answer to everything. When boys have too much energy, we’re taught to “wrestle” one another. When boys feel threatened we’re taught to stand up for ourselves using violence first etc. We don’t learn how to resolve conflict with other boys non-violently and since most boys only have male friends, by the time men reach a point where we begin to date women, many men continue to resolve conflicts with violence.

  • FierceMild

    This line of argument is exactly how I broke through to one of my brothers. He was saying that some men can’t control themselves when they see a beautiful woman blahblahblah, so I pointed out that if that were true then rape would happen in public in broad daylight all the time and abusive husbands would beat the hell out of their wives in the grocery store and molest their children during church services in front of the whole congregation. It doesn’t work like that because these men are exhibiting self control and wait until they’re in favorable circumstances before attacking. This observation changed his whole life, which I find utterly depressing.

  • Kelan Fox

    Yes. So true. I’m gay and all through middle school and high school (while in the closet) I had many crushes on straight guys. None of them realized I was gay until I came out. I had to exhibit self control because I would face consequences (physical beatings) for acting on my feelings. Straight men face no consequences for aggressively pursuing women and so they continue to do it. It isn’t about a lack of control, it’s about a lack of accountability.

  • Nan

    Actually, every killer has never killed anyone before his first crime. But statistically, an armed man is much more likely to kill someday. I don’t see any good reason for someone to “own large amounts of semi-automatic rifles” (even hunting).

    International comparisons show that easy access to guns is the number one explanation for the disproportionate number of mass shootings in the US. Don’t all countries have roughly 50% men ? (or more as in China).

    Male violence is a core issue but so is gun culture. They reinforce each other to make the death toll rise.

  • Amy

    Samantha bee just did a great piece on the violent male problem last night. She blamed it mostly on internet extremism and I do think that’s only one small piece of problem, but still glad to see a liberal fem platform bringing this up

  • Tobysgirl

    I would never mock a small child though I will be sharp and to-the-point with teenagers. If someone is whining, it is one thing (“enough is enough”), but genuine tears due to pain is another. And children are different. Is your son a particularly sensitive child? Some children, female and male, are more rough-and-tumble, and some take everything seriously, too seriously. Do you ask yourself, Would I be doing this if he was a girl?
    It seems to me that it is important to raise male children not to be fearful. Males in general are incredibly fearful — of women, of other men, of dogs, of being different — and fear is a component of violence.
    I live with a man who was not corrected as a child in any meaningful, consistent way, and who was given a HUGE sense of entitlement. This has deeply affected his functioning his entire adult life and he is still learning how to function healthily. We need to teach our children skills — all children should know how to cook, sew on a button, do basic repairs, care for a vehicle — and help them master their world. And they need to be corrected if we want them to function socially in a meaningful way.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Spoiled boy children are awful. I also have dated men who were doted on and spoiled as children who naturally grew up to be incredibly entitled, self centered men, who believed women exist to compliment them, dote on them, nurture them, spoil them, etc. They just aren’t balanced out by socialization in the way girls are, so they become nightmares.

  • FierceMild

    This is going to be a long response, so bear with me:

    Responding to those observations is really tough at this age because I don’t want to make her sad or spoil her ability to have faith in humanity, but she needs truth so I give her truth. When she made the observation about people treating her differently when they think she’s a boy I told her that people do that because it’s what they were taught to think. They think boys are allowed to be rowdy and girls should be quiet and still. Because she’s been raised in a context, even in a school, where this is ridiculous on its face she classifies it as either “grownup nonsense” or “more of that god stuff.” Those are her categories that translate roughly as ‘inexplicable bullshit’ and ‘completely made-up and bossy bullshit’.

    She observed that this kind of thinking was like when one of the boys in her class wore a rainbow dress to school for the first time and people made fun of him and wouldn’t play with him. I asked her was mean to him and she said “some of the other boys.” There was no need for me to point out anything about that, just to draw her attention to her own observations.

    I always make sure to answer exactly the literal question she asks. This has lead to some really interesting conversational pathways. For example, the asked about how to prevent pregnancy before she asked about how babies get into mommy’s tummies in the first place.

    I think the most important thing to do raising kids is to equip them for the challenges they’re going to face, but to do so in a way that fosters resiliency and kindness instead of rage and bitterness. I’ve approached this in a few practical ways which I think would be equally applicable for boys. Boys need to be given representations of girls they can identify with. Identifying with princesses is a hard stretch for girls I think it would be even harder for boys as well as coming with some serious social consequences.

    Almost all of the movies she watches at home feature girls who are not princesses (we don’t have tv) like Kiki’s Delivery Service, When Marnie Was Here, Wild Thornberrys, Totoro, Arrietty, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, Spirited Away, Magic School Bus, Nim’s Island, Whisper of the Heart, The Secret of Roan Inish. It’s a highly curated collection. I don’t forbid her to watch tv or movies with her friends so she’s seen most of the Disney Princess movies, but they really suck in comparison to those listed above. Girls like the princess movies because they feature girls not because they feature princesses. If they have another choice, they’ll take it. We also really don’t see a need to present her with violence, so that weeds out a shocking number of cartoons and kid movies. Books are easier and she is an audible junky, so if you have a little one an audible subscription is a very nice thing to have, but if that’s out of the question (about $100/year) then the overdrive app will let you download audiobooks from your library(ies) and most libraries have a pretty great selection of children’s audiobooks on CD (which I absolutely have not rented and ripped to my iTunes).

    In our house the default pronoun is ‘she.’ You wouldn’t believe how difficult and profound a change that is. If you’re drawing attention to a squirrel/doggy/whatever call it ‘she’ if you’re discussing a doctor, lawyer, construction worker, or stuffed animal of unknown sex, use ‘she’. At every other time in every other place ‘he’ will be used. Using ‘she’ at home provides a tiny (but hopefully powerful) drop of balance and in itself provokes thought from both child and parents. I think boys could really benefit from this as well; it would teach them some balance in how they interpret the world around them. As things are, the world’s inhabitants are presented to children as always male unless specifically stated otherwise. Having a single context in which that paradigm is shifted would really help illuminate the ludicrousness of the status quo.

    Basically what I’m trying to express is that we’ve raised her in a thoughtful and different way that gives her more tools of observation and expression than she would otherwise have without making her sad or overwhelmed. We never pointed out sexism to her we just refuse to allow it in our home and she sees it for herself elsewhere. This lets her ask questions on her own observation level, but it does lead to some very sad moments.

    As a little girl when I heard people console my parents for my sex it didn’t stick out against a background of support, it felt normal. When my daughter heard one of her friend’s dads say to another dad that he was glad he had a son because he could do fun stuff with a boy like teach him how to play sports and use tools my daughter wasn’t angry (as I would have been) she was confused. She asked her dad about it she was able to do this because he has treated her as valuable and capable her whole life and he explained that people used to think girls couldn’t do things like play sports and use tools, but that’s silly because they can. Now she thinks her friend’s dad is a simpleton and ignorant. She pities him. She’s right.

    • ptittle

      Bravo to you and her father!!!

  • Elise

    Interesting article and I mostly agree with it but I would rather have said “we will never address male violence if we don’t address the root of the problem: masculinity”.
    As for gun violence specifically, gun control is an immediate and effective method as proven by examples of other countries.

  • Hudsonite2

    Great article! A few years ago there was a movement to support women and give men the freedom to express their full spectrum of emotions. Emma Watson spoke eloquently of the need to liberate men from society’s restrictions as well. Thank you for expressing the need to address what it going on with men in our culture. We must support them while holding them accountable for their bad behavior.

  • marv

    Yes white male supremacy is a real cause of gun violence towards PoC. However, women of all races and ethnic groups are far more likely to be shot or threatened to be shot by an intimate partner than the police. I leave it up to women to decide if they want to arm themselves to defend against male violence in general.

    • Matthew Steenburg

      I’m glad that you can agree that women should have the option to defend themselves.

  • marv

    Lots of girls are bullied at school but they don’t become shooters. Masculine gendering of males is the foundational cause. Men in armies may or may not have been bullied in their lives. Whatever their upbringing conditions they shoot people in wars.

    • Matthew Steenburg

      Are you really disagreeing with me though? I never stated that women or girls were “just as violent as boys”, nor would I. I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that testosterone is linked with aggression. Whether or not there is a natural component, I still think that aggression should be regulated.

      The only thing we might disagree on is the whole “masculine gendering of males”, and even that I’m not entirely sure. Neither of us has even spoken with eachother on what we think. I’m no endocrinologist, so I don’t claim expertise.

      Here is where we do agree, we have a worldwide problem of violence. We also do agree that most violent crimes are done by men, and most wars are fought and started by men. I still think that the problem is solveable.

  • Mexican American Lesbian

    Nope. I think violent males are the problem. Whether or not they have guns is irrelevant.