We know violence, crime and masculinity are linked. It’s time to look at why, and how to stop it

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From the moment they

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The gender divide in sexual violence has been made stark in the thunderous roar of #MeToo. All those stories, and the less emotive but wider-ranging data on the topic, show that while anyone can be a victim of violence, among women especially it is ubiquitous.

That said, people of all genders, ages, religions, ethnicities, sizes and abilities can and have been subjected to sexual predation. The defining characteristic that unites them is vulnerability – which is why straight, white, adult men are so rarely victimised. Vulnerability, and the concurrent lack of power, is also the reason that women with disabilities, Aboriginal women, the LGBTI community, young women and immigrant women are at such a disproportionately high risk of violence.


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There is also one characteristic common to almost all offenders. Again, it crosses all boundaries of race, age, religion and sexuality. The only consistent factor among perpetrators is gender.

This tragic and frightening fact is proven and repeated in all the available data. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, the American Centre for Disease Control, the UK Office for National Statistics and Statistics Canada all show that the overwhelming majority of sexual offenders are male.

This is not only true of violent offences. The most recent crimes statistics from Victoria show that about 80 per cent of all crimes, including so called non-violent crimes like theft and drug trafficking, are committed by men. Again, these statistics are repeated almost everywhere in the western world.

While it’s possible that social bias may play some part in this – men are less likely to report being the victim of crime and police may be less likely to accept reports of female crimes – it cannot explain all of it. Property crime is unlikely to suffer a great deal of under-reporting because insurance claims require police reports.

So, the question is not “are men committing more crime?” – it’s why are men so much more likely to commit crimes?

The answer is complex and cannot be explained by hormones or inherent gender-linked characteristics. It is both sexist and simplistic to assume that men are just naturally more violent and criminal than women.

The notion that psychological differences between men and women are hardwired into our brains by hormones or evolutionary imperatives has been debunked by science.

“Even quite marked sex differences in the brain may have little consequence for behaviour,” Dr Cordelia Fine writes in her most recent book, Testosterone Rex, which won the prestigious Royal Society prize for science book of the year. “Beyond the genitals, sex is surprisingly dynamic, and not just open to influence from gender constructions, but reliant on them.”

Torrey Orton, a psychologist with more than 20 years’ experience, is familiar with Dr Fine’s work and agrees with her conclusions. “These are social systemic things not attributes of any sub-groups or individuals,” he says.

The underlying driver in violence and crime is not male hormones or “wiring”, but power – and the need to find some recognised level of power in how we see ourselves and our place in the world. “We are also at the losing edge of a historical downturn in our power, the rage gets extra urging, often outside of consciousness,” Orton says. 

His views support the dynamic playing out so clearly in the #MeToo stories of the powerful preying on the vulnerable.

“People in powerful positions are anxious about their power. This is expressed in attacks on anyone deemed critical of the powerful.”

The acquisition of power is also a never-ending process. Men who achieve any level of power quickly become accustomed to it. It becomes the status quo, and the need for power can be fulfilled only by acquiring more. As Orton says, “their need is unfulfillable”.

And the dual threat of seeing more powerful men ahead of them and the potential loss of power to people coming up behind creates a constant uncertainty and fear.

The roots of violence lie in that uncertainty. From the moment they’re born, men are taught they have an inherent right to power – all the small and large lessons of gender: that boys are tough and strong and aggressive and have a right to anger, that girls are gentle and pretty and compliant; that emotional and domestic labour are women’s roles and men are violent, protective, providers and dominant.

Even in the most progressive and balanced of families, little boys see these lessons play out in the books they read and the movies they watch and the media constantly feeding into their subconscious.

The combination of having a natural assumption of power and the fear of losing it means men need to constantly prove to themselves and the world that the power they have still exists. Violence committed against a less powerful person is one sure way to test and prove that power.

Not just in the act itself, but in their victim’s inability to fight back or find redress.

The rate of violence and crime committed by men “reflects very longstanding dominant traits of masculinity that come from how we socialise men and boys to dominate, take risks and refrain from empathy,” says Michael Flood,  Associate Professor at the Law faculty of QUT. “These traits play themselves out in both violent and non-violent crimes.”

Flood also says this issue must be considered in the context of class and ethnicity as well as gender. “Men who are socially disadvantaged can feel they have little status or access to socially legitimate forms of power,” he says.

Men who lack power may look for other ways to show the power men are expected to have to prove their manhood, which also explains men’s participation in non-violent crimes. “Research tells us that crimes like joy riding, public violence and dealing drugs is a way to display manhood, particularly in front of other men,” he says.

While many individual men may feel powerless, the facts of male power are undeniable. They are proven in the huge economic disparity between men and women, and the male domination over parliament, the judiciary, the corporate sector, science, entertainment, the arts and sport.

If having power is the problem, removing power could be the solution.

Perhaps if power is no longer perceived as the natural province of men, we may equally see that violence is not natural to them either.

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