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Opinion_

Does pressure to be a 'real man' lead to violence against women?

25 November 2016
Confronting the source of violence against women at its roots

There is growing evidence that violence against women may be the result of society’s traditional beliefs about what it means to be a “real man”.

PhD candidates Stefano Verrelli and Eileen Chu in the School of Psychology look at the root causes of this devastating issue.

Across most cultures, there is a consistent belief that a “real man” is powerful, dominant, assertive, and in control.

In Australia, one in three women has been the victim of violence at the hands of a male perpetrator. This alarming statistic resembles the global lifetime prevalence of physical and sexual assault among women worldwide.

Beyond the devastating health and psychological effects, violence against women is a matter of life and death. On average, one Australian woman is killed every week as the result of domestic violence.

These findings send a compelling message: violence against women needs our urgent attention. But in addition to providing the necessary help to victims and ensuring the appropriate discipline for perpetrators, society needs to confront the source of this complex problem at its roots.

In this regard, there is growing evidence indicating that violence against women may be the consequence of society’s traditional and stereotyped beliefs about what it means to be a “real man”.

Masculinity is hard won but easily lost

It should be acknowledged that not all men condone violence – and there is never an excuse for acting violently.

From an early age, boys are socialised to regard manhood as a revered and desired social status. This is because, across most cultures, there is a consistent belief that a “real man” is powerful, dominant, assertive, and in control.

However, manhood is not merely a biological milestone. Instead, research findings indicate that it requires constant social validation. Put simply, real men are made – not born.

For instance, men can prove themselves worthy of manhood by pursuing high-status careers, being competitive in sports, having multiple sexual partners, and engaging in risky, adrenaline-fuelled activities like skydiving or motocross racing. For some men, however, the need to validate their masculinity also warrants physical force and public displays of aggression.

But even if manhood is successfully attained, it can be easily lost. Threats to masculinity come in all forms: losing a job and being unable to be the breadwinner or simply missing the final shot and losing the sporting match. But not all threats are so explicit.

The recent Twitter movement #MasculinitySoFragile exposed how delicate manhood can be. It seems that everyday household products – such a stationery, deodorant, and even yoghurt – need to have a masculine equivalent. Evidently, some men need to actively distance themselves from anything remotely “girly” in order to feel like a “real man”.

There is growing evidence indicating that violence against women may be the consequence of society’s traditional and stereotyped beliefs

Not all men condone violence nor resort to physical force to attain masculinity – and there is never an excuse for doing so.

Changing the man in the mirror

In the current social climate, men are more likely to perpetrate violence and women are more likely to become victims. As young boys grow up into men, stereotyped beliefs about gender are relentlessly reinforced at home, through peer groups, and the mass media.

Research has found that violence is more likely to ensue for those men who see current ideas about manhood as central to their identity. Change therefore begins with adopting a less traditional and more fluid definition of what it means to be a “real man”.

Although this is not a new idea, society needs to start having a serious and open discussion about gender. Further ignoring the problem has potentially lethal consequences.

While some have taken to social media to initiate this dialogue, it is without doubt that such an undertaking will not be easy. Many men, for example, have misinterpreted the trending #MasculinitySoFragile to be an attack on their manhood.

Critically, this highlights that real change starts with men recognising – within themselves – how current ideas of what it means to be a “real man” are potentially toxic and self-limiting.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation.