Violence and Masculinity

Originally published on 20 February 2014 by Aphra.

Alcohol-fuelled violence has received much media attention of late in the wake of the tragic death of NSW teenager Daniel Christie after he was punched in the head on New Year’s Eve last year. This high profile case sparked vociferous outcry over the rise of king-hitting and incensed debate surrounding Australia’s drinking culture.

In light of the vocal chorus emanating from mainstream media it would be easy to believe that king-hitting and alcohol-fuelled violence have reached epidemic proportions. In fact, in NSW, where much of the debate has occurred, crime related violence has steadily dropped over the past ten years. The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data demonstrates that alcohol related violence has decreased since 2008, with 184.8 assaults per 100,000 people per year occurring.

 Editor’s Note *For more information about these reforms, read Eden Caceda’s opinion piece on ‘Why O’Farrells reforms wont work’*

 Many commentators are pointing the finger at Australia’s drinking culture and claim that curfews and lockouts will curb alcohol related violence. New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas told Leigh Sales on ABC’s 7.30 Report

“You can have a look at closing times; you can have a look at licensing laws, but the single biggest issue is the underlying culture, that people drink so much that they’re out of control.”

Is alcohol really the crux of the matter or is it rather, a convenient scapegoat? Toughening sentencing laws and restricting trading hours are unlikely to stymie violence without addressing the true underlying cause of aggressive behaviour. There is something unique about the nature of drunken violence that we are currently witnessing; king-hitting and more broadly speaking, violence, is predominantly perpetuated by men. Attributing blame to Australia’s drinking culture for acts of violence only touches on the surface of a larger, more deeply entrenched societal problem; masculinity and the way gendered behaviour is performed by men today.

Interestingly, the media and politicians have conveniently overlooked the steady rise in male perpetuated violence against women. The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data shows that the current number of domestic violence assaults in NSW doubles that of alcohol related incidents. Throughout Australia as a whole it is difficult to find comprehensive figures relating to domestic violence. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) most recent collection of data reveals that 3,106,500 women have experienced violence committed by a known person since the age of 15. On the other hand, men are more likely to experience violence inflicted by an unknown person, with 3,018,700 men identified in this category. A similar ABS survey in 2005 found that of the men who reported they had experienced physical violence in the 12 months prior to the survey, 73.7% said the perpetrator was male.

It appears that male-perpetuated, alcohol-related violence and domestic violence directed towards women are not discrete events but are in fact connected by the same underlying behavioural patterns. Perhaps a more pertinent question should be asked: is there something inherently wrong with the way we are teaching boys how to be men?

From the moment a child is born they are assigned a gender based on their biological sex. For many years society upheld the belief that sex and gender were one in the same; that is, one’s sex – male or female – predetermines specific behaviours. Over the past few decades however, this belief has been questioned and it is now widely accepted that much of what was believed to be innate in males and females is in fact, learned behaviour.

Those who influence a child’s development carefully weave an intricate and complex web of gender rituals. Children are taught to become girls and boys by performing distinct behaviours. In Western society, masculinity and femininity are dichotomised and are in polar opposition to each other. Masculinity is the dominant gender and is characterised by assertiveness and strength. Femininity on the other hand is the submissive gender and is associated with passivity and softness. While women are thought to naturally be gentle caregivers, men are believed to be more aggressive and fulfil the role of provider.

These notions are reinforced throughout childhood through the division of gendered toys: boys are encouraged to play with ‘masculine toys’ such as trucks, action men and Lego, whereas girls are given dolls, barbies and emulate the domestic rituals performed by their mothers, such as cooking and cleaning.

While such toys may appear to be seemingly innocent, there are inherent dangers in programming children to believe that boys grow up to be physically active, strategic thinkers while women are resigned to a lifetime of domestic servitude.

In this same vein, boys learn to suppress their emotions as they are continually told to ‘be a man’ and to ‘stop being a girl’ as ‘boys don’t cry.’ Emotion is considered to be a feminine trait and is a sign of weakness in a man.

Throughout a child’s development, into adolescence and eventually adulthood, in order to be perceived as an authentic man in our society, one must not only adopt ostensible masculine traits but also continue to prove their masculinity to one another.

Many believe that masculine behaviour and violent acts are biologically predetermined and are due to the presence of the ‘male’ hormone testosterone. This explanation however overlooks several factors: firstly, testosterone is also present in females; secondly, females too can commit acts of violence; and thirdly, not all men engage in aggressive behaviour.

Professor Kerry Carrington specialises in criminology and sociology at the Queensland University of Technology and recently told The Age that ”young men who commit these acts of totally irrational, unprovoked violence know no other way to express their masculinity when they feel contested.”

Tristan Higginbottom, a youth worker with a major Australian NGO agrees. He works for a youth and family outreach program and his clients are 16-25 year old young people who are currently homeless or are at risk of experiencing homelessness.

Of the young men he works with, Tristan says most “lack patience, have poor regard for authority and an inability to articulate their feelings.” Many clients “feel as though they are not being heard and that they have no voice or influence with peers, adults or authority figures.”

One of the major differences Tristan sees between men and women is that for women, when these feelings result in violent, dangerous or risk taking behaviour, it is often directed at themselves as opposed to others.

Young men who lack strong male role models on the other hand, tend to find themselves more easily led by their peers. He observes that:

When these young men get together in groups and lack focus with regard to how they spend their time (i.e. lacking a hobby) they tend to become more susceptible to unsafe alcohol and drug use, more easily frustrated, they feel more ‘hard done by’ by society and these feelings are often released through violent and anti-social behaviour.

From his experience as a youth worker Tristan believes that “the real problem is the way young people are socialised” and their “inherent attitudes towards others” and their understanding of “what is/is not acceptable” behaviour.

Professor Carrington believes that the glorification of violence in many films and video games contributes to the normalisation of these kinds of behaviours. The media too, has a role to play in shaping societal notions of gendered behaviour. This is particularly evident in an Australian context in relation to the inordinate attention awarded to the culture surrounding sports such as AFL, where players are lauded for their hyper-masculinity. The saturation of mainstream media with AFL related coverage means that players (whether they like it or not) ultimately become role models, portraying the prototype for masculinity in our society.

Why is it then that some men engage in violent acts while others do not? Could it be that those men who do not engage in violence are better at expressing themselves emotionally? Perhaps these are the men that were brought up being told that it is OK to cry and show vulnerability? That women are not weak and gendered roles and behaviours are not fixed? That the litmus test for ‘being a man’ is not proving to other men how strong you are but rather admitting that you are vulnerable and knowing when to ask for help?

Australian men are currently entrapped by a model of masculinity that prevents them from acknowledging and articulating their emotions. This is increasingly resulting in devastating consequences including drug and alcohol use, violence and mental health issues. According to the ABS, men are almost four times more likely to commit suicide than women.

When the rate of male suicide is viewed alongside alcohol-related and domestic violence, it is clear that there is something amiss with the performance of masculinity at present. What is required is a seismic shift in the way gender is constructed, taught and performed in our society. It is time for a conversation to commence in order to address the underling causes of violence and death in Australia.



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