Glancing at data surrounding interpersonal violence reveals males are more violent than females. Still, the reasons for this relationship remain unsolidified. Without a mainstream consensus, how should men understand this dynamic?
As a child, I had a temper: a non-public, un-rare mood that sometimes led me to physically hurting people. Between ages 4 and 12, I remember instant surges of warmness turning into these displays of anger: a yell, a punch, a kick, profanity, or all of these and more in different orders. Although my temper never warranted professional help, I recall one defining spurt of anger with haunting clarity.
And the moment happened when I was seven years old.
My two older brothers and I had taken off our winter clothes after a snowy walk home from school, sprawling our Burlington coats and Timberland boots across the wooden doorway. Our parents always requested that we don’t fight or wrestle. Still, when we were home alone in these moments, we fought with soft punches and grapples as soon as we were unbounded by our winter gear.
That day wasn’t any different, except my anger was persistent throughout the day. Ordinary teasing moments from my brothers and an inability to establish equal intellectual and physical footing between us always frustrated me. But I didn’t have the language to convey that.
Minutes into our fighting, I started grunting and frowning, leaving the carpeted living room searching for an item to leverage the fight with. In my grooming kit near our green couch, I found a greasy sapphire comb made of opaque plastic and teeth, and each spread apart by a centimeter. My 7-year-old mind believed the comb’s teeth were sharp enough to pierce the skin but blunt enough to be a docile weapon. That would suffice.
I ran back into the living room and pinned my brother David onto the short-carpeted floor, punching him in the chest and hoping to hit him in the face.
Things become blurry here; I’m not sure if I choked David first or if I tried thrusting the comb’s teeth towards his chest.
But my oldest brother subdued me in a semi-chokehold, restricting my arm movement and securing the comb with his opposite hand. I squirmed and bit his arm, neglecting the possibility of him bleeding, maneuvered again, arms flailing in swift punches and kicks. Then I cried.
I felt like I was powerless. I and many of the boys I grew up with subconsciously yearned for control of our circumstances: control of what other boys had to say about us and power of how we felt about ourselves. When I played football in the cracked greyness of Diehl Elementary School’s back parking lot, I didn’t throw the ball to have fun. However, fun was undoubtedly a part of why. I played so the other boys wouldn’t consider me weak. I played to gain control of my social narrative about being a boy. I played to control my narrative about being a young man. I played so I could live up to my ideas of manhood. That was the dynamic and rationale for me and many of the boys I knew during our moments of harmful aggression.
Yet, to the extent of my brothers’ fighting, this wasn’t an atypical scenario, given the amount of ‘violence’ we partook in daily. We chased each other with belts, beckoning the will of our parents from the times they would whip us for misbehaving, flung Legos and other solid toys at our muscle-less backs, and threw charged jabs at our sponge cake elbows. And in the enormous scope of our neighborhood, we were nonviolent boys. We only fought at our house, while other boys organized to fight on the streets and parking lots after school. Besides, we only intended to imitate the male action heroes we saw on TV.
As I grew older, my parents and older brothers tossed reasons for my anger around like nurses speculating a patient’s diagnosis. As they understood, I was the one among my dad and mom’s children that was most easily angered. And I followed their casual speculation, pondering my fits of violence with a nonsurgical lens, curious but never wanting to dissect the specific reasons.
My anger dissipated within a few years. By the time I was in the 7th grade, my family had characterized me as a level-headed kid. Now, I’m 21 years old with a much calmer disposition and a multitude of questions about that day: why did I choose violence? What angered me in the first place? Why was that a forgettable incident?
This instance isn’t specific to my childhood. According to Dr. Michael C. Reichert in his New York Times opinion piece, “It’s Dangerous to Be a Boy,” “high school boys are more likely than girls to have been in a physical fight in the past year, and male children are more likely to have been victims of violence.” Since studies also indicate childhood behavior affects adulthood behaviors, violence in boyhood likely translates into a form of violence in manhood.
If that’s true, then what should men do? How do men prevent other men from harmful violence? How do men deter men from being victims of harmful violence? How do men fight like men in the 21st century?
What is Violence, and Who Chooses It?
To understand the issue of harmful interpersonal male violence, knowing what counts as violence is necessary. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one definition is “strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force.” A broader definition describes it as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” Noting the difference between anger and violence is a necessary distinction as well, as anger counts as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.” Of course, anger can lead to violence, but anger in itself is a natural, human feeling.
But the first definition of violence suggests violence is an applied concept, meaning that humans define the “destructive natural force” case by case. If an ocean’s wave destroys a sandcastle, that isn’t violent, but if someone punches a nonviolent person in the face, that is violent. In this case, the two definitions work in conjunction, linked by a person’s intent.
If violence is distinguishable by intentions, another question arises: who chooses violence, and why do they choose it? The simple answer is that anyone can choose violence. Still, the reality of interpersonal violence is that people often select violent actions to gain power rather than a goal. Males choose violence more often than females.
These two facts apply to sexual assault, a haunting truth I had learned by voluntarily attending a sexual assault workshop at my university. Before the workshop, the furthest I understood about counteracting ‘male’ violence was through the sentiment “call out your boys,” a phrase used to hold other men accountable in a male-dominated America. Although this saying was a great catalyst for other men I knew, it didn’t encompass the broader, more layered male violence context that I needed. I had a feeling that males were more violent, but I believed that the problem came from ‘bad’ or toxic men. In other words, I believed men were the problem by nature.
But the problem is more nuanced.
Why Are Men More Violent?
My university’s English program familiarizes undergraduate students with research methods through introductory and lower-level courses. In one of these courses, I remember watching a final presentation that had changed my views on masculinity.
The presentation argued that Steven King geared one of his story collections to an all-male audience through harmful, male violence, therefore distancing women as readers. The presenter clicked through her laptop slides as the projector displayed her PowerPoint. She explained different examples of the cold-hearted, distant, and stoic male protagonist that displays physical violence in his collection.
During the presentation, I recalled my favorite movie from the 2nd grade, Hancock, starring Will Smith as the apathetic alcoholic/superhero. These fragmented recollections swarmed in my head with a syncopated rhythm, like stop lights signaling to cars at a four-way intersection. The brutal superhuman punches to the main characters’ cheeks, the blood spilling between Will Smith’s teeth. I loved Hancock, and as I believed, rightfully so. My adoration for the film wasn’t related to my male identity. How could it be?
I sat at the highschool-style desk wanting to speak, but I didn’t know if that was an appropriate time. My peers gave their final presentations, and my professor intended for questions to further academic conversation, not spark debate.
I didn’t question the presenter when the time arrived, but the presentation was still significant. I was already intrigued by the relationship between men and power, so I meditated on her words despite disagreeing. I didn’t learn to agree with her stance over time, but I found this truth in what she had said: violence is a common marketing tool to attract men.
Considering my childhood temper and its un-public moments of violence, this makes sense. Whenever male family friends or other boys in my neighborhood wanted to connect with me, they mentioned sports, fighting, or guns. And as I recall, these were the kinds of advertisements that crowded my TV, alongside cold-hearted, distant, and stoic male protagonists that I believed were undeniably cool. Batman, Robin, Wolverine, Anakin Skywalker: these were the kinds of bad-ass male characters that I adored in my childhood, leading me to mimic their language and actions as a child. Although many exceptions found room in this hyper-aggressive, masculine space, I remember other boys, and even the men I grew up with, defaulting to media that portrayed violence as cool.
My frustration with the presenter’s argument was that I believed she was implying men inherently like this violence. Perhaps men are biologically more aggressive than women, but biology is not the sole or even major determinant for male violence. Harmful male violence mostly comes from harmful male training. This nurturing form understands men as invincible beings, incapable of emotional or even physical pain. This kind of training appears from parenting, public media, public education, and social interactions that reinforce those false narratives about males.
Harmful male training catalyzes harmful male violence, allowing men to justify, either aware or unaware, our choices for violence. As the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, violence is made with intention; combating harmful male training reduces the chances that men will choose violence against others, and even ourselves.
But again, men aren’t the problem by nature. We must understand the factors that contribute to poor male behavior:
- False male narratives
- Verbal reinforcements of limited male emotions
- Targeting males with violent content
And since these harmful masculine norms are the main contributors to male violence, starting with this issue is how we learn to fight male violence like men.
How Do Men Prevent Harmful Male Violence?
When I was in the 6th grade, many of the boys at my middle school insulted me for having my first “girlfriend.” I was a quiescent and timid kid at the time, new to adolescent life in Cincinnati, Ohio. A dim radar hovered above my head– I was a common choice for casual gossip and ridicule, considered a ‘lame’ with little potential for social success.
The dynamic reached a climax when a 7th grader who lived seconds from my house called me out in the hallway for my relationship. I was walking with her in front of his friends, a group of 10 other boys all larger than me, and he shouted, “Come on, Joe, you can do better than that!” along with other insults about her and me. I felt like he was making me look like a bitch.
My instincts were dual-sided; on the one hand, I wanted to defend us by physically fighting the boys, but at the same time, my family raised me not to fight. I was confused, but I was afraid and angry more than that. I was scared of them thinking I was weak, so I felt that I had to fight, and I was mad from being insulted, so I thought that I had to get rid of that emotion. Every physical sensation seemed to be telling me to fight; I wasn’t equipped with the other options.
I considered saying a smart remark to them, but that wouldn’t work because his insults were abrupt and felt confrontational. I thought being stern and insisting that he not continue with the insults, but that wouldn’t work because morality and respect are too difficult to explain when you feel like you’re going to get jumped for doing what makes you happy.
So I said nothing.
When dismissal arrived, my girlfriend complained to me about not defending her as she expected, but I reassured her that we were dating, and their taunting didn’t change that fact. I acted secure in our relationship, but I felt terrified and impotent in reality. I know I was a boy then, but I felt like I wasn’t the man I needed because I didn’t feel like I was in control. Batman always had situations under control. Why couldn’t I?
Although I no longer question what I should have done in that situation, I think about that moment with a critical focus. What my first girlfriend and the by-standing boys in the hallway did was an antithesis to how people should fight against harmful male violence. In Masculine Norms and Violence, the Oak Foundation and Promundo recommend seven ways to combat harmful male violence, the first of which implores that humans consider patriarchal power and its implications. Men can combat harmful male violence in countless ways, and these preventative measures are within a limited scope, but one of the easiest ways is through language and nurturing.
Since power is more often than not the goal for those who choose violence, and men, have dominant power in the United States (power through finances, leadership, ownership, etc.), considering male violence through a patriarchal lens is necessary. That means, although male biology isn’t the dominant reason men are more violent, men have a responsibility to understand and combat it because we have the power to do so.
The next step is to consider how harmful masculine norms inform this power dynamic and then combat them through direct opposition. For men, this means calling out moments where we are misrepresented, targeted, or misunderstood as violent beings. Instead of shrugging when others strip masculinity from nonviolent men, we must verbally assert that manhood does not equal violent behavior. These conversations are tough, but they save lives.
This also means adjusting the language men use to describe men. Verbally praising ourselves when we use our inherent privilege for violence is the opposite of what men must do. Power is an applied concept, just as violence is, but that doesn’t mean male power has to be destructive or dominant. Men must oppose other men when we use domination to define manhood, especially when that domination is nonconsensual and/or destructive.
These oppositions look like conversations where men establish a common language, demonstrate mutual respect, and address destructive fallacies about manhood. And a brief correction or question (“Are you sure about that?” or “That’s okay with you?”) also helps to adjust the language we have about ourselves.
Violence survivors’ perspective is also necessary to tackle this issue, as their insight explains where men are most needed. If we know anyone who has been a survivor of male violence, we must ask what they would have needed or will need, if they are willing. At this point, we are changing our language, but that isn’t sufficient if people affected by harmful male violence go unheard—these stories matter.
And finally, boys need more effective training from the public and ourselves. That means frequent discussions of emotions with young men, boys, and sons, instead of “gendering the heart” and limiting our range of feelings from stoic to violent. We cannot continue saying we are for gender equality when media outlets target boys with fights and guns. The same language that men must adopt is the same language that young males must learn early, continually expressing their emotions and thoughts in nondestructive behaviors. Again, this is difficult work, but in the end, changing language saves lives.
The Future For Nonviolent Men
I have realized that male violence is reoccurring in my current media consumption, although not frequent. I recently watched the UFC with my brother and cousin, intrigued but not supporting the violence. That pacifist perspective hasn’t changed since the 6th grade.
As I watched the two men fight in 4k resolution, sweat dripping down their foreheads and onto the grey octagon mat, I focused on their foot movements and subtle jabs. And then my intrigue switched into fright when blood spilled from a fighter’s nose, forcing me to leave the room. I told my brother and cousin how I felt, and they understood.
And that was that.
Like male aggression, I still understood the UFC because of the beauty in its art forms. Mixed martial arts isn’t anything to shrug away; it’s an incredible talent from some very dedicated fighters who commit their lives to the craft. It’s aggressive, for sure, but it isn’t destructive. It’s consensual and has mutual respect. It wasn’t made to kill people.
Neither are men.
We have the power to fight like men and combat harmful male violence one step at a time. The only question left to ask is when we’ll take our first steps. Perhaps one day, fighting like a man will have nothing to do with harmful violence but instead with language. And to start that fight, we must enter the verbal arena and oppose harmful violence with a bull-headed focus and an incomparable level of grace. The problem is complicated, but so are men; this isn’t a battle that we can’t handle. So, let’s start fighting like men now.