“I’m a guy. I’m supposed to have sex. I’m supposed to be like every other guy. And so I’m like them, but [when I did this to the girls, I thought] I’m even better than them [dominant popular boys], because I can manipulate. They don’t get the power and the excitement. They have a sexual relationship with a girl. She can say what she wants and she has the choice. But the girls I babysat didn’t have the choice.”
This was Sam* explaining why he abused two girls, aged six and eight.
Sam, 18, was a foster child, abandoned by his biological parents and adopted when he was five by what he says was a loving, affectionate family. His adoptive parents both worked, but his mother did all the cooking, cleaning and caring for the children. His father “mowed the lawn, loafed around and worked with his tools”; he was in control of the family.
Sam was never the victim of physical or sexual violence at home, and he never committed any violence against his family.
School was a very different experience for him. He was short and heavy, and was subjected to constant bullying by the “popular dominant boys”. They told him he was “fat” and a “wimp”, that he would never fit in. He couldn’t play sport nor fight back when he was beaten up at school; the boys he perceived as popular and dominant shamed him by feminising him.
Sam understood this as his failure to be a “real man”. He wasn’t masculine enough for the “cool” boys to accept him. His body “served as an antagonist in his construction of masculinity”.
In his early years at high school when Sam started learning about sexuality, most of his understanding came from listening to the boys’ conversations there.
“Kids were talking at school about blow jobs and getting laid, telling dirty jokes and about having sex and stuff like that,” he said.
His understanding of sex and his own sexuality was that he had to have sex to be a proper man.
“Well, I’m a guy, so this is something that every guy does, that I want to be part of. I want to be like the other guys. I want to know what it feels like. I want to know what goes on.”
He didn’t think he could have relationships with girls his own age because he believed what the popular boys had told him for years – that his body and personality were not acceptably masculine, and therefore no girls would like him.
So at 15 he started babysitting for local families, and sexually abused the little girls in his care. He deliberately chose girls he saw as quiet and vulnerable. He didn’t use physical force, he used coercion, fear and control to manipulate his victims into submitting to the abuse.
“I felt that I was No.1. I didn’t feel like I was small any more, because in my own grade, my own school, with people my own age, I felt like I was a wimp, the person that wasn’t worth anything. But when I did this to the girls, I felt like I was big, I was in control of everything.”
This terrible and tragic story comes from a paper written by James Messerschmidt, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine. It’s a summary of several books and papers he’s written about the relationship between violence and masculinity, or at least the twisted version of masculinity too often imposed on boys and young men.
Zack*, the other boy in Messerschmidt’s paper, had very similar experiences. He was bullied for being short, overweight, bad at sport and wimpy. Zack, like Sam, decided that sex was a way to prove to himself and others that he was a “real man”, and he started sexually abusing a vulnerable young girl.
“It made me feel real good. I just felt like finally I was in control over somebody. I forgot about being fat and ugly. She was someone looking up to me, you know. If I needed sexual contact, then I had it. I wasn’t a virgin any more. I wanted control over something in my life, and this gave it to me. I finally felt like one of the guys.”
It would be comforting to think of Sam and Zack as aberrations: tragic, but unusual in their experiences.
Sadly, the truth is that they are likely to be typical of the boys and young men who turn to violence to confirm their male identity and align with what they think is a desirable masculinity.
Study after study after study after study after study has found that domestic and sexual violence is usually based on a need for control, based on toxic misunderstanding of what gender roles should be.
These studies include wide-ranging research, surveys and interviews with both victims and offenders. They all show that violence is most likely to occur in cultures that strongly enforce gender roles and unequal power relationships between men and women.
The notion that “real men” are sexually powerful, dominant, strong and never to be rejected does enormous damage to boys and men, which in turn leads to them doing enormous damage to girls and women.
Boys who fail the masculinity test suffer excruciating rejection, and this doesn’t just reinforce toxic masculinity in the boys seen to fail, but also confirms it for the boys who pass.
Anna Krien’s 2013 book Night Games was a searing insight into the world of “successful” masculinity in Australia, where the young men who achieved all the “real man” targets of being tall, strong, powerful and excelling at sport lived in a culture of sexual entitlement and an expectation that everyone would see women as objects, not people.
Sam and Zack’s stories are the ones we need to tell people who think anti-bullying and respectful relationship education in schools is a waste of time, or worse, a means of diminishing men.
Our schools are littered with potential Sams and Zacks, and with the boys they thought of as popular and dominant. All of them are damaged by the ideas they teach each other about being a real man.
And all of them damage women when they carry those ideas into adulthood.
* Not his real name