According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1980 and 2008, 89.5% of all homicides in the United states were perpetrated by men. This number is staggering; it establishes that America doesn’t just have a problem with violence. America faces a terrible epidemic of male violence.
Even accounting for our society’s tendency towards leniency for crimes perpetrated by women, this is still troubling figure. It calls into question our ideas about why violence exists in our society. Perhaps it isn’t drugs, or violent movies, or even guns that account for this violence. What if the real problem was men, or more specifically toxic ideas of masculinity?
What follows this conclusion is a greater question: are men genetically, neurologically, pathologically more violent? Or have we as a society rewarded violent behavior in men?
The Biological Factors
There is always a great deal of scrutiny whenever studies are released claiming to understand how brain chemistry impacts behaviors, especially antisocial behaviors such as violence. But if we are to determine how biological sex differences impact male violence, a good place to start is neuroscience. Neurobiologist Jan Volavka analyzed a series of experiments that may suggest that brain chemistry might explain the sex differences in violent behavior.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that help brain cells communicate with each other in a number of ways. For instance, you might know the neurotransmitter epinephrine by its colloquial name, adrenaline, which causes neurons to fire quickly and encourages a fight-or-flight response. This plays a major role in violent outbursts and so-called “crimes of passion.” This is supported by norepinephrine, a similar chemical.
The gene that produces the enzyme, monoamine oxidase (MOA) is meant to break up norepinephrine. This gene is located on the X chromosome and as such it is much more likely for men to have missing or mutated MOA genes. Women have two X chromosomes producing MOA while men only have one.
In mice, scientists suppressed or “knocked out” MOA genes, and males exhibited more aggressive behavior while females did not.
Another neurotransmitter called serotonin helps the brain regulate impulsive behavior. It is formed by an amino acid called tryptophan through the enzyme, tryptophan hydroxylase (TPH). In a preliminary study by the American Journal of Medical Genetics (1998) showed that a genotype with limited TPH “was associated with impulsive-aggressive behavior in male (but not female) patients” with personality disorders as well as increased suicide rates.
The issue of suicide is significant in that while men are more likely to commit violent acts on others, they are more than 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women. These behaviors could be linked by a lack of regulatory function in the brain.
However, it is important to note that these studies were mainly conducted on people with mental illness. That is to say, of men with personality disorders, those who could not produce enough serotonin also could not control impulses to commit violent acts. That doesn’t mean that low serotonin levels cause violence, only that it may allow for violent behaviors that might otherwise be suppressed.
The lesson might be that neurological differences in violent behavior will mainly deal with impulsive violence rather than premeditated. This is reflected in the criminal data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For instance, men were responsible for 90% of gun homicides, but only 60% of poison homicides.
While these associations may seem conclusive, it is still a point of debate whether differences in brain chemistry imply anything about the cause of antisocial behavior at all. Feminist Neuroscientist Cordelia Fine calls the implication that sex differences in the brain account for all societal differences between men and women “Neurosexism.”
In her book “Testosterone Rex,” she explains, “To be very clear, the point is not that the brain is asexual, or that we shouldn’t study sex effects in the brain...he point is rather that, potentially, even quite marked sex differences in the brain may have little consequence for behaviour.” She debunks several studies that were meant to show that testosterone is the source of all masculine behavior (as a matter of fact, all women have testosterone as well). Fine believes that being recognized as male has a greater impact on us developmentally than actually having a Y chromosome.
It is sociology and not biology that determines male violence.
If we could view men in a total vacuum, it would be easier to say whether violence is or isn’t biologically driven. Men instead exist in a culture that promotes violence as a solution to all of men’s problems.
One sociological factor that comes immediately to mind is that gun ownership is a traditionally masculine behavior. Men used to hunt with guns and fought in wars with guns while women were excluded, which affects the social perception of guns as a man’s weapon. According to the Pew Research center, men are three times as likely to own a gun as women. Naturally, this means more men see guns as useful tools. The media reinforces this with constant messages of gun-toting male heroes protecting their families both in the news and in our fiction. That isn’t to say that movies like “Taken” (wherein star Liam Neeson uses violence to save his daughter) are inherently harmful, but taken in turn with other expectations of masculinity, it contributes to a culture of male violence.
Also significant is gang-related homicide, an almost exclusively male type of violence that accounted for more than 6% of all homicides in 2008, up from 1% in 1980. This type of violence has been increasing where others have fallen and men commit upwards of 98% of gang-related homicides.
One particular type of male violence is sexual violence, such as sexual assault, stalking, or molestation. In these categories, men commit the vast majority of offenses. Aaron George is a housefellow at Carnegie Mellon University, and he must constantly confront people brought up on charges for sexual assault on campus. He explains that for most students sexual assault isn’t caused by malicious intent, but by ignorance and adherence to social scripts.
Social scripts are how we assume certain events are supposed to be. One social script that is hard to break is that men in this society are expected to be the instigators of sex, and another is that men are supposed to want to have sex with women in college. These are the narratives present in college movies and they affect our own assumptions about the world. According to George, this can lead to men “trying risky sex behaviors,” such as going to parties with heavy drinking to find vulnerable women.
Social scripts can also come into play in instigating fights (real men stand up for themselves), domestic abuse (real men are dominant), or even violence related to robberies (real men need to provide for their families). In George’s view, it is these social scripts more than biology, neurology, or psychology that really determine behavior. Social scripts are the rules we follow without thinking because they are what we are shown by older generations, by fiction, and by the news media.
Perhaps, as some psychologists suggest, it is a combination of biological and sociological influences in a never-ending feedback loop that create male violence. This is the idea of “precarious manhood” as defined by Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello from the University of South Florida.
According to this theory, our society’s conceptions of manhood is seen as something to be “earned” or “proven” and that it is something that can easily be taken away if others see a man as not exhibiting traditionally masculine traits. If then we define violence as a masculine trait, it is clear to some individuals that they must commit violence to secure their own masculinity.
Women do not have this same pressure to to secure their womanhood. Bosson and Vandello compare losing a sense of manhood to a woman becoming infertile. Our conceptions of what makes a woman a woman are less to do with behavior and more to do with biology.
In one study conducted by Dennis Reidy and three University of Georgia psychologists, they interviewed men on what they called “masculine discrepancy stress.” Similar to “precarious manhood,” the discrepancy is between how masculine a man feels and how masculine they feel society expects them to be. According to the study, “men who perceived themselves as less macho than most, and who felt anxiety or tension as a result, reported rates of assaults causing injury 348 percent higher than men low on discrepancy stress.”
Aaron George has also had experience with this discrepancy stress as he works with male survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence. In many cases, the survivors feel their masculinity is damaged and they end up trying to “reassert their masculine identities,” through things they can control. Sometimes this means focusing on sports and external validation, but other times it means getting into fistfights or trying to dominate others with sex.
When confronted with ideas about toxic masculinity and violence they’ve committed they will perform a kind of “mental martial arts” to deflect blame onto others. This is a self-defense mechanism for perpetrators of violence, because backing down and admitting guilt also goes against masculine social scripts.
Some psychologists trust the science of evolutionary psychology, saying that violent behaviors in men were more advantageous for survival and procreation. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly of McMaster University in Canada discuss in their book “Homicide,” how polygynous species (species wherein males seek multiple partners) competition for sex encourages violent and aggressive behavior. Their studies look at everything from fruit flies to chimpanzees and many exhibit more aggressive behavior within their own species over competition for sex than they do over competition for food.
This view of psychology is more than a little problematic to most people who study gender. It implies that any behavior men exhibit that might be damaging is not their own fault, but a “biotruth,” a fact of nature that can’t be argued against. This can lead to a “boys will be boys” mentality where we do nothing to teach men how to assert masculinity without violence. Dr. Fine states in “Testosterone Rex,” that unless you are “Ghengis Khan,” men have never been likely to impregnate dozens of women in a lifetime and that competition would not explain the violence against women that men exert. When one spouse murders the other, wives are the victims six times as often as husbands, and this cannot possibly be explained by mating competition.
Certainly, if any topic resisted a simple conclusions section, it would be this one. Our questions about sex alone defy any satisfying answer. Our questions about violence even more so. We may never know or agree on exactly why men kill so much more than women.
What we can say though, is that dealing with problems of male violence should be prioritized and we should resist those who say we can solve it with just cultural changes or just policy. The problems with male violence are embedded in our culture, our DNA, our very being. We have to be better at educating our sons about toxic masculinity. We have to be better at treating neurological issues that result in violence. We have to be better than simply allowing male violence to dominate.